Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Sierra Club 3 for 3 in Independent Expenditure Campaigns

Minutes before the debate in Lansing, Mich., between Debbie Stabenow (D) and incumbent Rep. Dick Chrysler (R), Sierra Club organizer Mary Matthews deftly followed local TV news anchor and debate moderator Jane Aldrich into the restroom and engaged her in conversation about the environment while the anchorwoman was washing her hands. "Why," asked Matthews, "given Americans' support for environmental protection, isn't the media raising it as more of an election issue?" A short while later, Eldridge asked the candidates a question about environmental protection.

Matthews' move was just one of the many ways the Sierra Club injected the environment into the political debate this summer and fall. All across the country, the environment played a significant role in the 1996 congressional elections, but there were few places where it was more critical in affecting the outcome than in the 8th district of Michigan, centered in Lansing, where the Club ran an independent expenditure campaign to elect Stabenow. (She won with 55 percent of the vote.) The Club also ran a successful IEC in the 22nd district of California (San Luis Obispo), where challenger Walter Capps (D) defeated incumbent Rep. Andrea Seastrand (R), by six percentage points.

Independent expenditure campaigns impose no spending limits on behalf of or against a given candidate, but campaign participants are prohibited from any communication or coordination with the candidate. Though the Club's $148,000 expenditures on these two campaigns was relatively modest, polls commissioned by the Sierra Club demonstrated it was money well-spent.

Greenberg Research Inc. conducted a poll in both IEC districts in the days before the election. In California, Seastrand's anti-environmental votes were the most frequently mentioned reason voters planned to vote against her. And 58 percent of Capps' supporters cited Seastrand's actions against clean air and clean water as the key to their vote.

In Michigan, 39 percent of respondents cited the environment as being "very important" in their voting decision. For those who said their vote was for Stabenow, clean water and the environment ranked as one of the top three reasons for that vote; for those who said their vote was against Chrysler, his votes against the environment ranked as one of the top two reasons for that vote.

In her acceptance speech, Stabenow singled out the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, which joined forces to run the IEC. Between them, the two organizations mobilized 400 volunteers and contacted more than 10,000 voters at the door and made close to 32,000 phone calls. Stabenow personally thanked IEC organizer Matthews for the high-quality materials and the Club's overall effort. Matthews credited the victory to the campaign steering committee (Mike Keeler, Sue Kelly, Helen LeBlanc and Gwen Nystuen), Mackinac Chapter Director Alison Horton, the Club's media team and the chapter's volunteer strength.

In California, most of the information voters received about Andrea Seastrand's environmental record came from Sierra Club TV and radio ads, phone and door-to-door contact, and direct mail. Three-quarters of the voters polled recalled seeing or hearing the Club's environmental ads. The TV ad pictured pollution discharge and a voice-over that said, "let's dump Seastrand before she dumps anymore on us."

California IEC organizer Randy Levine worked with Sierra Club members in the district to expose Sea-strand's record, notably her votes against clean water and coastal protection and her $117,221 in corporate polluter PAC funding. And when Dan Quayle came to town, Levine followed Seastrand and the former vice president as they walked through Avila Beach and peppered them with questions, like why they didn't visit the beach town polluted by Unocal's leaking oil pipes. Levine got no answers, but as the Santa Barbara Independent noted, "What could he really expect from Quayle, who once told us, 'It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it?"

The Capps and Stabenow victories bring the Club's record in independent expenditure campaigns to three for three. (The Club ran a successful IEC in January to help elect Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden to the Senate.) "These three wins," said Deputy Political Director Steven Krefting, "demonstrate that when we pull together the resources and get our message across in a tight race, we make the difference between victory and defeat."

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