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The Planet

Making the Environment Matter

The Planet, January 1997, Volume 4, number 1

Club's Multi-Front '96 Campaign Educates, Mobilizes Voters

by John Byrne Barry

Two years ago, shortly after Newt Gingrich and his accomplices kicked off the 104th Congress with a package of anti-environmental bills, New York Times reporter Jack Cushman telephoned Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and asked him, "What are you guys going to do about the blitzkrieg that is about to hit you?"

Pope's response, which he says he only halfway believed at the time, was, "It's not a blitzkrieg. It's the invasion of Russia. Wait until next winter."

One winter later, Cushman wrote a story in the Times headlined, "GOP Backing Off From Tough Stand on Environment." The retreat had begun. By October 1996, the 104th Congress had adjourned, and, with the notable exception of the salvage logging rider (see story, page 3), there were few casualties to the environment.

But it wasn't tenacious Russian soldiers or frigid winter temperatures that stopped the War on the Environment. It was the Sierra Club's massive public outreach and education campaigns that mobilized the American people in support of environmental protection.

It was Marcia Anderson, Jonathan Poisner, Bob Frenkel, Charlie Ogle, Sandy Bahr, Bob Palzer and other volunteers in Oregon who turned the January 1996 special election in their state into a referendum on the environment and sent Rep. Ron Wyden (D) to the Senate. The Los Angeles Times headline said it all: "Oregon's New Senator Credits Environmental Vote for Victory."

In Houston, it was Marge Hanselman, Drusha Mayhew, Annette Jones and Larry Freilich organizing 35 groups and more than 340 demonstrators to protest Gingrich's appearance at a February fundraiser for Rep. Tom DeLay (R), the House majority whip. "Pessimists said it couldn't be done in conservative Houston," said Hanselman. "But after all, we all drink the same water and breathe the same air."

In North Carolina, it was Sarah Wilson and Kellie Walker of the Sierra Student Coalition papering 20 campuses with posters comparing the voting records of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) and his challenger Harvey Gantt. (Helms prevailed, alas, but in the other three SSC priority races, the Club-supported candidate won.)

It was hundreds of wilderness advocates from coast to coast -- including Jim Catlin, Vicky Hoover and Rudy Lukez -- who generated a ground-swell of support for Utah wilderness. When President Clinton made his Sept. 18 announcement of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, the Club's Southwest regional representative, Lawson Legate, said, "The national monument designation was entirely the administration's idea, but our activists and allies laid the groundwork."

And seemingly everywhere was tireless Club President Adam Werbach rallying the troops. In one three-week period in early fall, he was in Carlotta, Calif., to demonstrate support for protecting Headwaters Forest; at the Grand Canyon to join Clinton for the announcement of the new Utah national monument; at Harvard, Yale and the University of Vermont with SSC members to register young voters; in New York City to lunch with Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner; and in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., with Vice President Al Gore to announce the Club's endorsement of Bill Clinton.

Mostly it was an engaged and outraged American public that sent the message, loud and clear, that environmental protection is a priority -- and backed that message up with letters, telephone calls and votes. Over and over again -- on doorhangers, voter guides, boat flags, yard signs, bumper stickers and billboards -- the Sierra Club repeated the same message: "Protect America's Environment: For Our Families, For Our Future."

"By the fall, we were sick of that phrase," said National Field Director Bob Bingaman, "but that was the idea. Repeat it until we're all sick of it. By then the people we're trying to reach will start to get it." They got it.

On Election Day 1996, 70 percent of Club-endorsed candidates won. More importantly, the environment played a critical role in determining the outcome in dozens of races. Environmental protection, said Pope, came of age as a new "third rail of American politics" -- a tradition that public officials dare not threaten because it carries such voltage with voters.

But back in January, these results were far from assured. The new year dawned ominously. The national parks were closed. The Environmental Protection Agency sent home 2,400 Superfund workers and stopped toxic-waste cleanup work at 609 sites. The federal government ceased all but essential operations while the president and Congress locked horns over the federal budget.

The Sierra Club and its allies had managed to prevent most of the worst of Congress' attacks on the environment from becoming law during 1995. But Republican leaders were attaching pieces of their stalled agenda -- from cutting EPA spending to drilling the Arctic Refuge -- as riders to budget bills, forcing the president to choose between closing down the government or letting anti-environmental provisions sneak into law through the back door.

We knew from a multitude of polls that Americans cared about environmental protection, particularly about the impact pollution has on our health and on the health of our children. We learned from focus groups early in the year, though, that people didn't believe these protections were truly in danger. If that were the case, said pollster Celinda Lake, who conducted the focus groups, "they think they'd be hearing about in on '60 Minutes' and 'Geraldo.'"

This knowledge helped define our ambitious goals for the year: Change the politics on environmental issues in communities across the country, defeat anti-environmental bills and candidates, strengthen and reshape the Club into a more effective grassroots organization and make the environment a highly visible, winning electoral issue.

Early in the year, that translated to mobilizing citizens to tell the president to veto the rider-ridden budget bills (which he did). The Club's canvass and the SSC distributed eco-veto pens over the winter, and tens of thousands of citizens mailed them to the White House. We also continued to expose the anti-environmental exploits of congressional leaders.

GOP leaders were slow to get the news. Republican pollster Linda DiVall found that the public disagreed with the efforts to cut EPA funding by one-third. Then, late in January, 30 Republican moderates sent a letter to Speaker Gingrich saying that: "We cannot be seen as using the budget crisis as an excuse to emasculate environmental protection." The handwriting was clearly on the wall. We just had to hammer away until congressional leaders opened their eyes.

In April, against the backdrop of another budget showdown between Congress and the president, replete with riders calling for cuts in environmental funding and enforcement, the Club kicked off its Earth Week public education program, with thousands of volunteers distributing 2.3 million doorhanger/postcards urging their neighbors to tell the president and other officials to protect the environment. For example, in Florida, the governor received 1,000 postcards telling him to block the burning of orimulsion, a dirty petroleum-based fuel, by a local utility. He and his cabinet subsequently voted 4-3 against the utility's plan.

President Clinton received tens of thousands of postcards, in addition to a barrage of letters, phone calls and e-mail appeals. Emboldened by public opinion clearly opposed to the anti-environmental riders, he stood his ground and GOP leaders, seeing that not just their legislation, but their party, was taking a beating, backed down. Over the summer, we dug up candidates' voting records and campaign contributions from polluters. We knocked on doors, made phone calls, tabled at county fairs, aired television ads, wrote letters to the editor and picketed anti-environmental candidates. In dozens of ways, we provided citizens with the information they needed to keep environmental protections intact.

In Portland, Ore., Seattle and dozens of other cities, volunteers asked residents to post yard signs with messages like "Clean Water, Wild Salmon and Forests." In Maine, banners emblazoned with the message "Protect Maine's Clean Water" flew from boats in the Great Kennebec Festival Race, while Club volunteers educated voters about Rep. Jim Longley's (R) votes to weaken clean water standards. These various campaigns demonstrated the old admonition of the late United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez that the secret of organizing is to talk to one person, then talk to another person, then talk to another person. By midsummer -- long before the leaves turned or the days shortened -- the smell of Election Day was clearly in the air and many of the anti-environmental members of Congress began trying to make themselves look green. Club staff and volunteers pounced on these greenscamming politicians.

In Massachusetts, John Andrews, Evelyn Silver, Jay McCaffrey and Dan Boulton relentlessly bird-dogged Rep. Peter Blute (R) for his votes against clean water. They used talk radio, paid advertisements, press conferences, editorials, even street theater. "Blute responded by calling us liberal extremists," said Andrews. "But we kept coming back with clearly documented facts like his voting record and he eventually lost credibility." (He also lost his seat.)

In Virginia, when Gov. George Allen (R) tried to hide his abysmal environmental record behind a river cleanup event, chapter lobbyist Albert Pollard grabbed headlines by pointing out the governor's stand on reducing toxic standards.

The desire of members of Congress to look green contributed to several significant victories over the summer -- notably the reauthorization of an improved Safe Drinking Water Act, which GOP leaders had tried to weaken earlier in the session.

Clinton got into the spirit too, using his administrative power to stop a proposed gold mine outside Yellowstone National Park in August and, a month later, to halt plans for a coal mine in southern Utah by making the national monument designation. These actions, together with his critical vetoes of anti-environmental bills, helped Clinton earn the Club's endorsement.

In the final days of the 104th Congress, Republican leaders once again tried to attach anti-environmental provisions to various legislative packages, notably appropriations bills. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Resources Committee, held the omnibus parks bill hostage by attaching to it a proposal to allow clearcutting in Tongass National Forest. But the groundswell of public opinion was too strong and Election Day too near, and the final bill was stripped of its major anti-environmental planks.

"I used to think that since we controlled the House and Senate, we could get a few things done," said a chagrined Murkowski. "That doesn't seem to be the case."

By fall, the Club had rolled out the last two elements of its campaign -- its non-partisan voter education effort to inform voters about the environmental positions and voting records of candidates, and its electoral program, in which the Club endorsed more than 200 candidates. The Club also released "Take the Money and Run," a report that showed that public officials who accepted the most money from polluter political action committees had the worst environmental voting records.

All told, the Club devoted thousands of volunteer hours and $7.5 million on issue advocacy, voter education and direct electoral activities to make environmental issues central to the national debate.

On Election Day, while the GOP maintained control of both the House and Senate, we succeeded beyond our expectations in making the environment a tide-turning issue. In the Club's priority races -- 53 in the House and 11 in the Senate -- nearly two-thirds of Club-backed candidates won. Environmental champions Reps. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Furse (D-Ore.), Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) prevailed in tight races, while anti-environmental Reps. Bill Baker (R-Calif.) and Jim Longley (R-Maine) and Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) went down to defeat. Clinton won by a sizable margin. "The most dangerous place to be in this election was on an environmental hit list," wrote Jessica Mathews six days after the election. Even where our candidates lost, the reasons for losing were encouraging. In Washington state, for example, Rep. Rick White (R), who distanced himself from Gingrich's anti-environmental agenda, won. Rep. Randy Tate (R), who didn't, lost.

Republican leaders learned a lesson: Not only do citizens care deeply about environmental protection, but the Sierra Club and its allies will expose any attempts to weaken those protections though back-door maneuvers like budget riders.

Now we can take a breath and look back on the remarkable accomplishments of the past two years. We can't rest for long. We know, sadly, that the price of environmental protection is eternal vigilance. Many of the same attacks on environmental standards will be resurrected in the 105th Congress. The polluters will be expecting a return on their millions in PAC contributions.

But the activities of this last year didn't just catapult the environment onto center stage, they also helped strengthen the Sierra Club and build a sturdy foundation of citizen awareness in hundreds of communities. We'll be ready.

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