The Green Vote

Back in 1990, the year Earth Day was revived to a full-scale national celebration and a year after the Exxon Valdez disaster, environmentalism was politically correct, even in style. And with the victory of Bill Clinton, Al Gore and other Earth-friendly candidates in 1992, environmental groups fared well. But even then an undercurrent of environmental backlash was building, a current that would rise up in 1994 and fundamentally change the national political scene. During that watershed election, pro-environment positions were openly ridiculed and many of those taking the earth-friendly stands were harvested like old growth timber. Candidates like Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) were racing to victory by advocating "property rights" over environmental regulation. Few of the 1994 freshmen Congressional class went as far as Chenoweth, but any ambiguity was eliminated as the Republican agenda manifested itself in an array of attacks on environmental regulations that were the product of two decades' legislation. Voting records show many to be indifferent at best, and bent on repealing any regulation that interferes with industry at worst. During the 1995 federal legislative session, the Clean Water Act, logging restrictions and even the previously sacred Endangered Species Act all came under fire. But, when placed in the context of the 1996 election year, these actions mean different things to different people. Conservatives say 1994's elections are proof that Americans are tired of an overzealous regulatory federal government and are ready to place environmental protection in the hands of the states and private property owners. Conservationists, however, predict that dismantling environmental regulations will be the undoing of many senators and representatives who have gone too far and subverted the general population's desire for environmental protection. Environmental issues haven't yet registered on the periscope in the Republican presidential primary race, where the candidates are more troubled by, among other things, whether the Citadel should admit women. The only time you hear much on the subject from the Republican field is when it has to do with property rights. But most analysts say that environmental issues will play an important role in this year's general presidential election and congressional races. According to a late-January Time/CNN public opinion poll, 65 percent of respondents consider protecting the environment to be a very important issue compared to 69 percent back in 1990. Twenty-three percent of the respondents said it was one of the most important issues facing the United States today. While 12 percent in 1990 said that environmental regulations go too far, the number only climbed to 23 percent in the latest poll, exposing the call for weakening environmental regulation as more of a minority opinion than a mandate. "The feeling about the Republicans in Congress is that they were a bit overzealous," says Blaine Garvin, Gonzaga University's political science department chairman. "They pushed that theme a little too hard and are drawing back from extremist positions." George Hinman, chairman of Washington State University's Department of Environmental Science and Regional Planning, agrees: "The public attitude toward the environment is turning out to be more positive than many of the newly elected representatives to Congress thought it was going to be. Some of the issues that have been proposed since the last elections are not even meeting favor with some Republicans." Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA.) and other Republican leaders concede that the Republican Party may have taken things too far and are apparently ready to compromise on some issues. While conservatives in Congress won't go as far as President Clinton, who recently said that the salvage logging rider passed in 1995 was a mistake, Sens. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) are more conciliatory, saying they are prepared to make some changes to the legislation in the form of federal buyouts of the more sensitive parcels sold to logging companies. Environmentalists, however, say these are hollow gestures and that voting records tell the real story. According to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), an organization supported by environmentalists, the Republican averages on its 1995 National Environmental Scorecard were, out of a possible 100, 11 in the Senate and 15 in the House of Representatives. Democrats averaged 89 in the Senate and 76 in the House of Representatives. The LCV is a nonpartisan organization, but conservative legislators accuse it of manipulating the scorecard to favor Democrats. And although LCV officials deny endorsing the Democratic Party, it is clear that ideology on environmental issues typically splits along party lines. This is a key difference that many political analysts say Democrats must exploit in 1996, when challenging incumbent Republicans, particularly in races where the incumbent has a poor environmental track record. In 1994, George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) ousted Speaker of the House Tom Foley, largely on the issue of term limits, which Foley opposed and Nethercutt supports. In 1996, even though the environment may not be the No. 1 issue to Washington's Fifth Congressional District voters, some say it may be Nethercutt's Achilles' heel. Nethercutt says he favors a balance between environmental protection and the rights of industry and individuals. "This issue is a difficult one because it seems to me it has been a polarizing force rather than one that can reach a happy medium," the Spokane freshman legislator says. But as far as environmental issues go, Spokane League of Women Voters President Pam Behring says Nethercutt's record speaks for itself. His 1995 score from the LCV was 0, including votes that supported the salvage logging rider, takings legislation, rolling back Clean Water Act protections and limiting the Environmental Protection Agency's power to enforce environmental regulations. "There are many people who consider themselves conservatives but are also concerned about the environment," says Behring. "If a challenger hit on a nervous chord that the public focuses on, then the environment could be a key issue in this election. I think any person who ran against Nethercutt and didn't use the environmental issue would be shortsighted." On the other hand, Bill First, a former Tom Foley staffer and local political watcher, says the environment will, at most, be a secondary issue to voters in Eastern Washington, who he says are more concerned with the local economy. But the environment was an issue - many say the issue - in Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore.) recent victory over Gordon Smith in the bid to fill Bob Packwood's empty seat. Wyden, who was expected to lose the election, managed a narrow victory, and Democratic strategists around the nation have since been studying the dynamics of the race as a primer for '96. Environmental proponents and Wyden staffers say his victory may rest with the success of a joint LCV/Sierra Club independent expenditure campaign to educate voters on Smith's environmental record as a state legislator and food processor. Smith's Eastern Oregon food processing plant, Smith Frozen Food, spilled thousands of gallons of waste into a nearby creek over a 15-year span, including a July 1991 spill that remained for 15 days because of the company's failure to check the pipeline daily - a permit requirement. That spill turned Pine Creek white, killing fish along a 23-mile stretch. An LCV/Sierra Club television campaign advertisement included a neighboring property owner's home video of the spill. Lauren Moughen, Wyden's press secretary, says the independent campaign may have been what put the senator over the top. "We were surprised and pleased with the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club's campaign," she says. "They did an incredible job with advertising and grassroots mobilization." The plan stayed within the law by not donating directly to Wyden's campaign. Political Action Committees are limited by federal law to $10,000 in Congressional campaign contributions per candidate - $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election. But, as long as an organization doesn't communicate with a candidate, or that candidate's staff or party, it can conduct an independent campaign with no spending limit, thereby increasing its impact on that election. It's a strategy that was used in several Republican victories in '94. Betsy Loyless, the political director of the LCV, says the Wyden campaign was a test run for her organization and the Sierra Club on this new approach - a very successful test. "Our independent campaign elevated the environment as an issue for voters in Oregon," she says. "It was in the top one or two for 72 percent of the voters who supported Wyden." She says that the LCV and Sierra Club jointly spent $200,000 on their Wyden campaign - 20 times more than what they could have donated to the candidate. Loyless adds that spending the money themselves also ensured their environmental message would reach the public. There would have been no guarantee that their contributions would have been used for that purpose if they had donated to Wyden. The Wyden campaign success, says Loyless, was the catalyst to a radically changed campaign contribution philosophy for the two organizations. "We plan to do the same thing during this election cycle, spending upwards to $1 million against anti-environmental incumbents," she says. "We had to try something new. We spent $1 million to try to elect good candidates in 1994 by usual means with direct contributions and supporting contributions through our bundling [giving members' individual contributions to the candidate in one bunch to increase their impact] program with Earth List. But we lost many races." Loyless says the environment will be among the top three issues in Congressional campaigns across the country this year. And, she adds, her organization has plenty of fodder to use in the more competitive races, where the LCV and Sierra Club will concentrate their efforts. "We're looking at races in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, North Carolina, Michigan and New York," she says, declining to list specific races. "There is a long list of freshmen Republicans - half of whom voted against the environment every time - that we would like to see defeated this year."SIDEBAR: Putting Conserve back in ConservativeEvangelical Christians are known for their strong stances on many political issues - abortion, family values, the environment That's right, environmental protection is the latest goal a group of evangelical Christians has taken under its wing. And the first political goal for the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) is preserving and strengthening the Endangered Species Act (ESA), calling recent Congressional efforts to dismantle the legislation the moral equivalent of sinking Noah's ark. "Psalm 24:1 says 'The earth is the Lord's and everything in it,' " says Stan LeQuire, the national director of the EEN. "If we are going to follow God, we need to treat the land the way he would, protecting everything, whether it be a salamander, bald eagle or slug." A pro-environment stance may seem surprising to some, especially when evangelical Christians are perceived to line up behind conservative Republicans, who oppose abortion and promote traditional values. But conservatives are also trying to weaken the ESA, which is where they and the EEN part company. LeQuire says there is nothing strange about Christians opposing Republicans on this legislation, just as they support them on other issues - they're just following what the Bible says. "We see as far more significant what the Bible says than what the Republican Party says," he adds. "We do take some exceptions with what Republicans, Democrats and even environmentalists propose." Spokane's Susan Bratton, a communications staffer for the network and Lindaman Chair of Science, Technology and Society at Whitworth College, is also a member of Green Cross, a Christian organization that encourages churches to actively participate in conservation efforts. Bratton says that many EEN members are conservatives and Republicans, but that doesn't dilute their commitment to the world around them. "I have worked on environmental issues for quite some time," says Bratton. "I took a theology course, studying Christian theology, so I could respond to my colleagues who thought that Christians were the worst thing that ever happened to the environment." Comprised of more than 1,000 member churches nationwide, the EEN held a press conference in late January denouncing Republican efforts to weaken the ESA, pledging to spend $1 million to educate the public about the importance of protecting "creation." Reactions in Washington, D.C., says LeQuire, ranged from a supportive Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to a "less than cordial" Newt Gingrich staff, to scathing letters from Representatives Don Young (R-Alaska) and Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), authors of the legislation aimed at curtailing the power of the ESA. "They said we shouldn't be using the pulpit in this way," says LeQuire of Young and Pombo. "They were displeased to find out religious people want to protect endangered species." But LeQuire insists that protecting the environment is consistent with other stances Christian groups have taken on issues. "We are consistently pro-life - that means for everything. We are against abortion, war, poverty and the unraveling of creation."-- Amy Cannata


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