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The Planet
January/February 1999 Volume 6, Number 1

Triumph of the 'Truth Squad'

by Bruce Hamilton, Director of Conservation

No candidate in his right mind ran against the environment in 1998.

There was a conscious attempt by every candidate to look as "green" as possible to the voters. Sen. Al D'Amato (R-N.Y.), a perennial opponent of environmental protection, attempted to spruce up his environmental credentials in the waning hours of the congressional session by testifying on his bill to combat acid rain - even though he knew it had no chance of being considered before Congress adjourned. Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) claimed he was a defender of environmental protection, concealing the fact that he had been a lead opponent of the Clean Water Act and was the owner of a giant factory farm that had contaminated the local river and caused a major fish kill.

Political advisors to both parties told their clients that the environment matters to voters, so look pro-environment, talk pro-environment, even if you never vote that way.

To get the real record before the public, the Sierra Club ran an Environmental Voter Education Campaign (EVEC) and also used more traditional tools of grassroots lobbying and direct campaigning in targeted areas. In these ways the Sierra Club could serve as an "environmental truth squad" to help the public distinguish the true environmental champions from the greenscammers.

So the Club rained on Sen. D'Amato's parade by presenting him with a "D'Amato's Hot Air" balloon bouquet at his Washington, D.C., press conference on acid rain. We poured cold water on Sen. Faircloth's attempt to scrub up his environmental image when we ran television ads in North Carolina depicting the impact of hog waste on fish, pointed out his abysmal clean-water voting record and urged him to help clean up the state's waterways. The goal of these activities was simple: lay out the facts on the candidates' environmental records so the public could urge their legislators to vote for the environment. Hundreds of volunteers worked closely with district organizers provided by the Sierra Club to carry out these programs.

The EVEC program began early in 1998 with research on the candidates' records. For incumbents or those who held state or local office, we dug up their voting record; for candidates without a voting history, we scoured the Internet, newspapers, transcripts of public speeches and candidate questionnaires.

Then we took the information public, by holding incumbents accountable. When candidates had solid proven records of accomplishment, we publicly praised them in paid advertisements, press events, and literature and urged them to continue their environmental commitment in upcoming votes. If their records were disappointing, we publicized that and urged the public to tell them to start voting right.

Each ad and statement about their record was fully documented by actual votes in the public record, so there was no denying our charges. When candidates tried to do so, they only dug themselves a deeper hole, and kept the story of their misdeeds alive in the press. Later in the year, EVEC activists sought out public venues for distributing information on congressional voting records. One creative example was carried out in the Seattle suburbs, where volunteers and staff set up a booth at fairs with a salmon fishing "game" for passersby to play. Participants picked a fish and then watched its plight as it worked its way through a series of environmental hazards. Some fish were killed by hydroelectric dams, others because their spawning beds were destroyed by erosion from logging sites. The winners spawned successfully and raised a new generation of salmon.

Then the participants received a voting chart that detailed the state's representatives' and senators' votes impacting wild salmon-habitat protection and restoration and clean water. The charts did not tell the fairgoers who to vote for. They simply made it clear who was a defender of salmon habitat and who was a pretender.

At the end of the voter education effort - most programs wrapped up in the month leading up to the election - each site held a major outreach event to distribute Sierra Club voter guides. We also mailed the voter guides to tens of thousands of households in the same communities.

Each guide had a carefully researched, fully documented side-by-side comparison of the two major-party candidates with a checkmark for a candidate who supported the Sierra Club position and a "thumbs-down" symbol for a candidate who opposed the Club's position.

Again, the voter guides did not instruct the readers who to vote for, but educated them about the candidates' records on major environmental issues.

The goal for each EVEC site was for 100 volunteers to distribute 10,000 voter guides. Volunteers in New York City met commuters as they emerged from subway escalators. In Colorado, they handed them out at grocery stores. In Southern California they printed up voter education materials in Spanish. Elsewhere, the Club ran voter guides as ads in newspapers.

By the end of October, the contrasting environmental records of the candidates were a topic of public discussion in each one of our targeted districts. While anti-environmental candidates might have desperately wanted to hide their records, by the time EVEC was completed, there was no confusion in the public's mind about where the candidates stood and how the Sierra Club judged their records. Our "truth squad" work was done; it was up to the public to decide the fate of the rivals.

Go on to the next article, "Winning isn't everything."
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