Meet the GOP Mayor From Indiana Who Served on Obama’s Climate Task Force
James Brainard, the Republican six-term mayor of Carmel, Indiana, is a rare breed. Unlike many of his fellow GOP members who deny the science of man-made climate change (there are 182 climate deniers in the 114th Congress in 2016; 144 in the House and 38 in the Senate), Brainard is a staunch supporter of efforts to control climate change.
As the mayor of Carmel, a position he has held for two decades, Brainard has overseen the growth of the Indianapolis suburb from a population of 29,000 in 1996 to just under 100,000, and also its greening. His work has paid off: In 2012, the state’s fifth largest city was selected one of the "Best Places to Live in United States" by CNN, which said that “despite the recession, this formerly sleepy burb has since transformed itself into the ideal place to work and play,” noting the city’s “excellent schools, a big sports and recreation center, a performing arts center, and wide bike lanes.”
His climate credentials go way beyond making Carmel more inviting for two-wheeled transportation. In addition to cutting the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, Brainard is one of only four Republicans (and two GOP mayors) to serve on President Obama’s 26-member climate task force.
Mayor Brainard sat down with AlterNet to discuss his views on the environment, why cities should design around people (not cars), and of course, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
BW: Tell us a little bit about your uniquely green vision for Carmel.
JB: We’ve chosen to do things differently here. We've done wild things here—switched out our fleets to hybrids, tested hydrogen trucks for snowplows and used LED to light our streetlights. All these things reduce the amount of carbon to help clean up our air. What we're trying to do is to design a city where less carbon is needed.
If you design a city where people have to drive from place to place, they can't walk anywhere they need to go, they can't bike anywhere they need to go because it's not safe on the sidewalks or bike paths, you've created a city that's very unsustainable. On the other hand, if you've created a city that's mixed use, that's fairly dense and doesn't sprawl out as much, your car trips are shorter. It becomes more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. You pay attention to alternate modes of transportation.
BW: How do you reconcile your views on the environment with those of your party, which isn’t exactly known for being green?
JB: I think it's important to point out the history of the Republican Party. President Teddy Roosevelt set aside a lot of national park land. President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act. President Ford established the Safe Water Drinking Act. The entire federal regulatory scheme for the environment was done under a Republican administration.
I like to point out to people that if you consider yourself conservative, the root of that word would be to “conserve” our natural resources for generations yet to come. I think it's very much in line with traditional Republican or conservative principles.
BW: Do you feel like an outsider in your party because of your views?
JB: No, I don't. I think there are a lot of people like me in the party. The leadership right now has been very noisy about not believing the science. But I think many Republicans are very uncomfortable with it. The Republican Party that I grew up with in the '70s was certainly a party of limited government, believing that overregulation creates burden on the economy and keeps people from getting good jobs—but also that government should stay out of people's personal lives for the same reason.
Limited government is a good thing: Focus on a few important things and do them well—and one of them is making sure that we have clean air and clean water. It was a party that focused a lot on public education; everybody needs to have an equal opportunity. It was a party that believed in entrepreneurship as a way to create good jobs. All of that seems to be under attack by some of the leaders of the Republican Party right now.
BW: How has the Republican Party changed since you joined?
JB: I think there's a tendency to tell people how to live their lives. I think that's bad for government. I think that to take resources away from public education, for private education, is a bad thing. It's not all about competition—it's about making sure public schools have the resources they need so that every student has a chance to do well. It's things like environment, conservation and natural resources that are appropriate for the federal government. The rules need to be the same across the country. Varying state by state doesn't work well for major environmental issues.
BW: Should Republicans should pay more heed to what climate scientists are saying?
JB: Absolutely. I'm not a scientist, but when I go to the doctor, I tend to listen to somebody who’s got 10 years of training in the area that I'm concerned about. When I want a bridge design, I'm going to go to someone who has a professional engineering degree and experience. When I want to build a building, I'm going to go to an architect, who has specific training. Why would we throw out those people who have spent their lives studying the science of a particular subject, and just on a whim say, we don't agree with you?
BW: Tell us about your experience as one of the two GOP mayors to serve on President Obama's task force for Climate Preparedness Resilience.
JB: Great. It was totally non-partisan. The instructions the first day were, Look, we're not going to get anything through Congress. We all know that. Let's look at what we can do. One of the tasks was to look at that nation’s cities. More than 1,000 mayors around the country have signed on to the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement to voluntarily reduce their city's carbon footprint. These mayors include both Republicans and Democrats.
Mayors are connecting with constituents in the grocery store, in the barbershop and on the street everyday. They know that regardless of party, people are concerned about our air quality and concerned about the environment in their cities. Cities are out there on the front lines, making changes everyday to improve the environment and to become more resilient. We want help from the federal government to do that.
BW: What are your thoughts about your party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump?
JB: I'm watching and listening very carefully. Mr. Trump is certainly unorthodox. I think everybody wants to see an improvement in opportunities for people. It seems as if he's appealing to a lot of people whose economy was left behind. I know people who have worked with Mr. Trump and his business, and they're very competent, smart, good people. I'm optimistic, if he were to win, that he would hire good, smart, competent people to help him.
BW: Can you share some thoughts about your governor, Trump’s running-mate Mike Pence?
JB: We differ on some political issues. Mike Pence is his word. He's good for it. Never have to use a handshake. He's a very good person. We disagree a lot on the environment—probably the biggest area of disagreement we have. On the other hand, I've worked with him very closely as mayor of one of the largest cities of Indiana. He's been very helpful on a large number of issues to our community. He's been a good public servant.
BW: The election season has highlighted a lot of dissatisfaction within both parties. Do you see a viable three-party system ever emerging?
JB: I'm going to take that question one step farther. George Washington said that one of the largest dangers to our new form of government was the formation of what he referred to as factions—in other words, a synonym for parties. I think that we'd be better off in this country running as non-partisans. We do that for school boards in Indiana. I'm voting for the person and the ideas that they bring to the table. This way you suddenly start attracting candidates who appeal to the vast middle as opposed to the far left or the far right fringe.
If we got rid of the party label on those ballots, the country would be far better off. The parties have way too much power right now, especially at the federal level. They tell people in Congress how to think. There's so much money involved. They only get promoted and get good committee assignments based on how much money they've raised. That’s not a good system.