In what environmentalists hope is a belwether for the 1996 electoral season,
Rep. Ron Wyden (D) defeated Oregon state Senate president Gordon Smith (R)
in a January special election for the Senate seat vacated by
Bob Packwood, the first congressional election conducted entirely by mail.
Even more important than Wyden's victory was the Club's success in
catapulting environmental issues onto center state during the campaign.
In a race decided by less than 20,000 votes, the Sierra Club's campaign, which called over 100,000 voters, helped make the difference. According to a poll in the Portland Oregonian, environmental concerns gave Wyden the edge he needed to defeat Smith.
"Never has the environment played so central a role in a U.S. Senate race," said Sierra Club Political Committee Chair Chuck McGrady.
"We had three goals," said Marcia Anderson, Oregon Chapter political chair and state coordinator of Save Our Wild Salmon. "Raise the environment as an issue, engage Gordon Smith in dialogue and elect a good pro-environment senator. We won on all three."
During the primary, environmental issues had been ignored. But the day after the primary, the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters began running a television ad exposing Smith's 96 percent anti-environmental voting record and the environmental violations of his Pendleton-based frozen foods operation.
Smith defended his record, and the environment -- clean water especially -- became a central campaign issue.
Club volunteers and staff -- including chapter steering committee members Jonathan Poisner, Bob Palzer and Charlie Ogle; Ann Riley and Roger Singer; and campaign manager Meg Ryan O'Donnell -- geared up the independent expenditure campaign for Wyden within days of the primary. (The Sierra Club cannot have contact with or endorse the candidate in an independent expenditure campaign.) They mailed 30,000 pro-Wyden postcards to undecided voters and telephoned pro-environment voters. More than 60 percent of the eligible voters mailed in ballots -- a high turnout for any election.
Palzer researched spills at Smith's food processing plant, and Club ads kept hammering his company's poor environmental record. One spill resulting from a broken pipe poisoned 25 miles of Pine Creek in the state's northeast corner. In 1991, Smith paid what was then the largest fine ever levied by the state Department of Environmental Quality.
In a strategy that the Club has tried successfully elsewhere, the paid ads generated news stories and reporters did further digging on the environmental record of Smith's company.
"We ran an aggressive visibility campaign," Anderson said. "We showed up at just about every Smith event with our mascot -- Tommy, the toxic waste drum -- a painted cardboard drum on a big stick with 'Smith frozen foods' written on it and bright green goop dripping down the side."
"This is just the beginning," said Anderson. "We have to keep the momentum going, and keep the environment an issue in the coming year."
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