Billionaire Tom Steyer banks on South Carolina in 1st presidential bid stop

PHOTO: Billionaire Tom Steyer hosts a town hall meeting, Dec. 4, 2018, in Charleston, S.C. Steyer, founder of NextGen America and Need to Impeach, is testing the waters for a 2020 presidential run. PlaySean Rayford/Getty Images
WATCH 2020 'lightning round' with new Democratic candidate Tom Steyer

Just days after launching his bid for the 2020 race, Tom Steyer hit the campaign trail on Friday, making South Carolina his first stop.

He kicked off his campaign with a grassroots pitch, championing himself as an "outsider" aiming to reform democracy by taking on big corporations, a force he claims is undermining American government.

"What I'm saying in my campaign is that corporations have taken over our government," Steyer told ABC News in a one-on-one interview. "And we need to take that government back on behalf of people who have been disadvantaged."

He spent his first day on the campaign trail meeting with community members in Charleston, touring low-income neighborhoods with local activists to discuss education, housing, health care, transportation and infrastructure reform.

The liberal activist said earlier this year he would not pursue the Democratic nomination for president, but reversed course on Tuesday, announcing his campaign for president in 2020. Play
Billionaire Tom Steyer makes first presidential campaign stop

Following his education roundtable on Friday morning at Burke High School, the 2020 candidate told ABC News the predominantly African American school's threat of closure amid low performance is a "perfect example" of government failure.

"This is a perfect community, where you can see people at the mercy of corporations and developers," Steyer said.

"In South Carolina they cut the taxes for big corporations," he continued. "And that means they have to cut school bills, they have to cut education itself. they can't afford health care for everybody in the state of South Carolina. That's not because we don't have enough money. That's because corporations and the people who run and own them control our government, and want all the money, and the resources are not spread around the community. So people are suffering."

The billionaire liberal activist addressed his own wealth directly during his conversations with South Carolinians, touting his commitment to philanthropy following skepticism expressed by progressive 2020 front-runners like, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who told MSNBC that he is "tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power."

"As a private business owner running an investment for over 30 years, I quit my job, I took the giving pledge and gave to good causes and I've spent that last 10 years on coalition building," Steyer told a table of voters and activists during a black leadership lunch on Friday at Hannibal's Kitchen, a local restaurant known for fits Southern seafood specialties."

PHOTO: Billionaire Tom Steyer hosts a town hall meeting, Dec. 4, 2018, in Charleston, S.C. Steyer, founder of NextGen America and Need to Impeach, is testing the waters for a 2020 presidential run. Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Billionaire Tom Steyer hosts a town hall meeting, Dec. 4, 2018, in Charleston, S.C. Steyer, founder of NextGen America and Need to Impeach, is testing the waters for a 2020 presidential run.

"That may seem like an unusual decision, but if you knew my parents, you would realize it makes total sense to me," he said.

On Saturday, a day before the president said ICE agents would carry out raids to round up undocumented immigrants, called for an overhaul of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We have an out of control organization from the top," Steyer told ABC News in response to a series of rapid-fire questions. "It needs new leadership. It needs an entirely new mission."

He blamed President Trump for order the sweeps, saying his immigration policies are divisive.

"I think that the Trump administration is using immigration to try separate us," he said. "They are trying to terrorize undocumented people as oppose to trying to solve the problems."

The political newcomer responded to a woman who expressed concerns because Steyer comes from "corporate America" and doesn't have a "ton of political experience."

"The system needs to be dramatically reformed," Steyer answered. "I think an outsider has to do it."

"If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to do things differently," he added.

Steyer jumped into the race with a video announcement Tuesday, featuring some of the most wealthiest power players in both government and American business. His campaign quickly followed up by releasing two television ads set to run for the next two weeks in key primary states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Steyer, who has poured millions of his own money into electing Democrats throughout the years, said in January that he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, instead saying he would redouble his efforts to impeach President Donald Trump. Now he's reversed course, and will take his pitch as a Washington outsider who can "push power down to the people" -- restoring democracy and fixing the system from an independent vantage point.

The former hedge-fund investor joined the crowded field with less than a week before the qualifying deadline for the second Democratic debates in Detroit at the end of this month.

To land on a debate stage, he will need to cross the 65,000 donor mark or garner 1 percent in at least three polls, but both appear unlikely in such a short time frame. In his first national television network interview, he conceded that making it to the July debate is unlikely because "I'm just too late," but is "going to take very seriously" getting on stage in September.