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The Planet
Flushing Out Frauds

Club's voter-education campaign lauds defenders, exposes pretenders.

By John Byrne Barry

Last May, when Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham (R) sent out a press release giving himself high marks on an environmental scorecard and claiming he had been named "Great Lakes Senator of the Year," the Sierra Club's Environmental Voter Education Campaign leapt into action.

Young Activists

Activists of all ages gather at a pro-environment rally in Madison, WI.

"He did receive such an award," said Dan Farough, EVEC organizer for Michigan, "but it was from the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, a group dedicated to commerce, not environmental protection. Like so many politicians, he wanted to portray himself as an environmentalist. His voting record said otherwise."

The Club refuted the claim, and the next day, the Macomb Daily ran a story under the headline "Sierra Club Claims Abraham's Green Stance is a False Front."

That's the essence of the Club's voter-education campaign, not to elect or defeat a particular candidate but to serve as an environmental lie detector, exposing pretenders and making the environment an important factor in the campaign.

Across the nation, in 20 states, the Club invested $9 million during House, Senate and presidential elections in 2000. Almost 150,000 voter charts were distributed at nearly 20 sites, 2 million voter guides were mailed or distributed in more than two dozen locations, and at least 100 different grassroots lobbying and voter-guide ads were broadcast on television or radio, or published in newspapers. Two thousand volunteers and dozens of staff participated in EVEC activities.

The Club produced Spanish language ads that ran in five locations. In Virginia, the voter-education campaign teamed up with the NAACP to air ads exposing former Gov. George Allen (R) for his refusal to punish Smithfield Foods, one of the state's largest polluters and most generous contributors to Allen's campaign.

In Michigan, organizers even went to baseball games to spread the word. They printed 9,000 oversized "Collector's Edition Spence Abraham Baseball Cards," which 60 volunteers distributed at ballparks in Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.

The cards gave the lowdown on Abraham's environmental record: "Switch-hitter: Says he cares about the environment, but then votes against it."

The Cascade (Washington) Chapter first developed the baseball card idea in 1999, passing out cards on opening day at Seattle's Safeco Field, publicizing Sen. Slade Gorton's (R) poor record on the environment, and following that up with other creative tactics like giving Gorton a "dirty water award."

One indication of the effectiveness of the Club's truth squad: In North Carolina's 11th Congressional District, incumbent Rep. Charles Taylor (R) ran a campaign ad attacking the Sierra Club.

It claimed that challenger Sam Neill (D) and the Sierra Club supported using tax dollars to take private property, ban hunting, raise gasoline taxes and support forced abortions in China.

While the Club devoted unprecedented resources to these campaigns, actual ad buys were modest, but sometimes generated a huge bounce. For example, from November 1999 through February 2000, the Club ran television and radio ads in New Hampshire, Michigan and California highlighting George W. Bush's poor environmental record as Texas governor. One television spot, purchased and aired in Sacramento, garnered multiple news stories in the San Francisco Bay Area market.

After Bush lost the New Hampshire primary in February, his chief strategist Karl Rove said: "We were hurt by independent advertising by groups like the NARAL [National Abortion Rights Action League] and Sierra Club that came at us from the left, and it ultimately had an impact." Bush, on Meet the Press later that month, said, in his garbled syntax: "I don't like it when the Sierra Club pollutes my record like they had been doing in the states."

While Bush rarely addressed the environment in his campaign, the Club's efforts to spread the word about his record as Texas governor paid off. An election eve poll of voters in Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin - states the Club targeted - found that the majority of voters in those states knew about Bush's anti-environmental record.

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