Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Club Flexes Grassroots Muscle On Election Day

It's being called a status-quo election. The truth -- thanks to the Sierra Club and its allies -- is that American politics will never be the same.

Forget, for a moment, that Newt Gingrich is still speaker of the House. Forget that Bill Clinton, whom the Club endorsed for re-election, breezed to a second term as president.

For that matter, don't even think about the Club's role in some pivotal victories, to wit:

  • Challenger Walter Capps (D) over Rep. Andrea Seastrand (R-Calif.), in one of the Club's two independent expenditure campaigns.
  • Challenger Debbie Stabenow (D) over Rep. Dick Chrysler (R-Mich.) in the other Club IEC.
  • Incumbent Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), a leader in the fight to preserve Utah's wilderness, over his Republican challenger.
  • Incumbent Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.), a leader in the fight to repeal "logging without laws," over her GOP challenger.
  • Challenger Ellen Tauscher (D) over second-termer Bill Baker (R-Calif.), a key Gingrich ally in the 104th Congress' War on the Environment.
  • Democratic challenger Tom Allen over Rep. Jim Longley (R-Maine), another Gingrich ally.
  • Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), forced to seek re-election in a radically redrawn district, over Republican John Mitnick.
  • Challenger Tim Johnson (D) over polluter-friendly Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.).
  • Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over Gov. William Weld (R), in one of the most hotly contested races in the country.
  • Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), among Congress' most committed environmentalists, over former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, whom he defeated six years ago to win the seat.

Just for a moment, forget all that. Forget, too, that Club-backed candidates won in nearly two-thirds of our priority races -- 30 of 48 for House seats (with three races still undecided as The Planet went to press), and eight of 13 in the Senate -- or that 70 percent of the 224 green candidates endorsed by the Club for Congress were victorious.

These are remarkable accomplishments, and a credit to Club activists everywhere. But the changes we've brought to Congress pale beside the changes we've wrought in the nation itself.

"Our environmental victories in this election are a victory of citizen democracy over apathy," said Club President Adam Werbach, adding that the impact will be felt long into the future. "Thanks to the efforts of thousands of Club volunteers, only the most foolhardy of politicians will attempt the kind of attacks on the environment we've seen over the past two years."

It's worth remembering that just two years ago, after the GOP sweep of Congress, Sierra Club leaders vowed to change America's political climate from the grassroots up, to make environmental issues central to the national debate. Since then, the Club has invested $7.5 million in issue advocacy, voter education, and direct electoral activities -- a strategy intended to lay a permanent foundation of citizen awareness, upon which short-term electoral victories could be won.

Gingrich notwithstanding, the strategy has worked. Long before the lights were turned on in most 1996 election campaign headquarters, Americans had made it perfectly clear to elected officials that they wanted not just to maintain environmental protections, but to strengthen safeguards for air, water and public lands. By mid-'95, in fact, the GOP leadership's War on the Environment was limping badly, crippled by growing public outrage at Congress' pro-polluter agenda.

That outrage grew largely out of Club activists' efforts. There was our Environmental Bill of Rights, in which volunteers gathered a million signatures in support of a safe, secure environment. There were the benchmark events, in which volunteers distributed doorhangers with the Club's umbrella message -- "Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our Future" -- to 2.3 million homes in 100 cities, or in which they staged environmental rallies, or dotted their neighborhoods with yard signs.

During the past two years, the Club invested more than $1 million in TV, radio and print ads to broadcast its message in some 50 strategically targeted media markets. In the weeks before the election, the Club distributed 1.3 million guides offering voters a side-by-side comparison of the major candidates' environmental positions.

By Nov. 5, 1996, environmental issues were a significant factor in races throughout the nation, from the presidential campaign on down. "We were outspent 75-to-1 by polluter PACs," said Dan Weiss, the Club's political director. "But where we got the word out to the American people, they rallied to protect the environment in elections coast-to-coast."

That 75-to-1 spending edge was enough to keep Congress in the hands of the GOP leaders who brought us the War on the Environment only 24 months ago. But two years of activism by Club volunteers has made it clear, even to the most strident of anti-environmentalists, that it's dangerous to threaten America's air, water or wilderness.

That's an extraordinary victory for the environment, and for all of us who are fighting on its behalf. And we should never, ever forget it.

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