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The Planet
Growing Our Own

Unhappy with the politicians who represent you?
Why not become one?

By Tom Valtin and Brian Vanneman

  From the Sierra Club to public office. Click here for a sample of "homegrown" Sierra Club politicians, like the ones shown here. From top to bottomw: Deborah Dawkins, Randy Zurcher, Michael Merrifield, and Spencer Black.  

Deborah Dawkins, a self-described "cowgirl from Fort Worth," got involved with the Sierra Club when she moved to Mississippi and fell in love with the Gulf Coast. As a Club activist, she traveled frequently to the capitol in Jackson to lobby her state senator on issues she cared about. When the senator told her, "There’s nothing I can do," she ran for his seat—and won.

From the White House on down to county commissioner, too many of our elected officials are paying more attention to their developer and industry friends and not enough to protecting the environment. The Sierra Club is always pressuring politicians to do the right thing, but all too often these attempts fall on deaf ears. So what do we do? Throw the bums out and get someone better, right?

Right, except sometimes a good man or woman is hard to find. That’s where "growing our own" makes sense. Sometimes the best-qualified candidate for the city council might be sitting in our midst, chairing our clean air or sprawl committee.

Nationwide, the Sierra Club endorses and works for thousands of candidates, from city council members to county supervisors to U.S. senators to presidential hopefuls. Chapter and group political committees make most of the Club’s endorsements; for federal-level candidates, they make the endorsement in conjunction with the national political committee.

"One of the basic tenets of the Sierra Club’s Political Program is working with politicians to turn them into good votes for the environment," says Scott Taylor, the program’s chair. "Obviously, that job is much easier when they start with a love for the outdoors, but it is rare for a ‘friendly politician’ to become a true leader. Environmental leadership comes from a commitment to an ideal. That true believer, the politician who makes the environment the most important thing on their agenda, almost always comes from growing our own. It can be a daunting prospect—giving up hikes to sit in city council meetings, taking ‘urban hikes’ ringing doorbells—but it is vitally important."

Many who have made the jump from activism to political office experienced a crucial point of discovery through the Sierra Club. Others had been active environmentalists even before joining, but gained new confidence in their ability to participate in politics through the Club.

"If it hadn’t been for my involvement with the Sierra Club, I would never have considered running for office," says Melisssa Gardner of Omaha, Nebraska, a Club activist and staffer who now serves on the board of the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District. "The Club showed me how to turn my environmental dreams and wishes into an effective grassroots public outreach campaign. There’s no better way to learn than by doing, and that is where the Sierra Club shines—by empowering people."

In the late 1960s, an Akron lawyer named John Seiberling became active in the Ohio Sierra Club. He decided to run for Congress, primarily to protect the Cuyahoga Valley between Akron and Cleveland. He won, got the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area established a few years later, and went on to chair the House Interior Committee subcommittee responsible for Alaska lands legislation, one of the most important pieces of conservation legislation ever.

Seiberling’s rise was an environmental best-case scenario, but there is near-unanimity among environmentalists in office that getting green candidates elected to local- and state-level positions is the key to real and lasting environmental change. "Local politics is the place to be," says veteran environmentalist Richard Worthen, who spent nearly two decades as a county board member in Madison County, Illinois. "Start where you feel comfortable. Run for school board, library board, precinct committeeman. You’ll meet all the local politicians, some state politicians, and the federal ones will show up eventually. One person does make a difference."

Mississippian Dawkins, a former operating room technician, is now vice chair of the state Environment Protection, Conservation and Water Committee. During her first term she introduced several strong environmental measures that were ultimately killed by the committee chair, who Dawkins describes as cozy with industry. "But I’ll keep on introducing them," she declares. "There are some good candidates running for state office here. There’s an opportunity for a real sea change in this state."

Inspiring New Leaders

For Phillip Bimstein, a musician and former Chicagoan, a personal sea change occurred when he vacationed in southern Utah and was blown away by the red rock canyons, wild geological formations, and open vistas reaching to the horizons. He returned home a changed person and freshly-inspired composer. Shortly thereafter, he received a letter from the Sierra Club. "My first act of political advocacy was because of that mailing I received from the Club," says Bimstein. "The BLM was considering turning over an area of pristine land to development, so I wrote a letter to an elected official in protest."

In the late ‘80s, Bimstein moved to Springdale, Utah, the gateway town to Zion National Park. He joined the Sierra Club, and five years later he became the town’s mayor. In office, he partnered with Zion’s director to create a shuttle system that brought visitors into the park from the town center, decreasing auto congestion, pollution, and noise within the park. He was one of the few elected officials to celebrate the opening of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with President Clinton in 1996, and he has made several trips to Washington to testify before House and Senate subcommittees in support of America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.

Similar epiphanies can take place right in one’s own backyard. Oregon state Representative Charlie Ringo was a lawyer who had never considered running for office until he attended a presentation about the Columbia River Gorge with some friends who were Sierra Club members. "I was shocked at how critical one state senator was of environmentalists and the very idea of protecting the gorge," he recalls. "I thought, there’s no reason I couldn’t be up there countering him with a more convincing point of view." It took several years and countless hours of walking door-to-door before he was elected to the state legislature, but that event was a turning point for Ringo.

The Sierra Club also served as a catalyst for former Fayetteville, Arkansas, city councilman Randy Zurcher. "The Club played a huge role in my political development," says Zurcher, now a Green Party organizer in Savannah, Georgia. "It gave me an association and an affiliation, and it taught me about leadership and working together."

Zurcher had been troubled by overdevelopment in Fayetteville. "There was rampant sprawl," he says, "lots of new gas stations, traffic lights, rezoning from agricultural to commercial, and there was a growing sense that Fayetteville was losing its charm."

He started showing up at city council meetings and speaking out. "The city council candidate in my district was a developer who wanted to put a strip mall in the middle of an historic district. So I ran for his seat on neighborhood integrity, the need for planning, and the need to fight sprawl."

While Zurcher was in office, a department store chain announced that it wanted to cut down more than 90 old-growth oak trees to make way for a new store. "There was a city ordinance against doing this," he says, "but the city council caved and gave them permission."

Zurcher was outraged. "I took photos, mobilized people, and the next thing you know a 53-year-old grandmother climbed up in one of the trees to protest and wouldn’t come down." The local Sierra Club excom pitched in to buy her food and drink, and when Zurcher brought her provisions he was arrested—as, ultimately, were 31 other people. "The Sierra Club and the press were all over it," he recalls. Sadly, the developer plowed ahead and cut down all the trees.

"The silver lining," Zurcher says, "is that people in Fayetteville immediately realized what had been lost. It ushered in a change in attitude about development, similar I think to the way New Yorkers started to value historic buildings in their city only after Penn Station got torn down."

Kay McGinn was a New Yorker and a nurse who says she was always aware of environmental effects on health, but she didn’t join the Sierra Club until she moved to Florida and cut back to part-time work. She started attending local Sierra Club meetings, and shortly thereafter ran for city commissioner as an environmentalist concerned about overdevelopment. She is now the mayor of Pompano Beach.

McGinn has fought back several large-scale development proposals—including an Enron diesel-burning power plant and an airport expansion that would have wiped out habitat for endangered species. "It’s so important for environmentalists to run for office," she opines. "There’s a lack of people in office who are dedicated to the common good. The environment is such a worthy cause, and it benefits everybody."

The Road to Public Office

Spencer Black became a Club member in the 1970s, mostly due to his interest in Alaska public lands. He met local activists while working at a Wisconsin state park, started leading Club outings and getting involved with the local chapter, and eventually became chapter chair. In time he was hired as a staffer in the Club’s Midwest office. "But as I tried to influence voters and policymakers," he says, "it became increasingly obvious to me that the fate of the outdoors is very much influenced by decisions made indoors."

Black ran for the state assembly, where he is now serving his tenth term. As chair of the Environmental Resources Committee, he introduced and got passed some of the nation’s strongest legislation on acid rain and recycling, and he is widely considered the leading environmentalist in the Wisconsin legislature. "Even as minority leader I’ve been able to make a difference," he says. "Legislators look to their colleagues for information, and if you’re in office you can speak to them directly. You can prioritize and introduce legislation. Your influence is greater than just one vote."

Virginia House member Albert Pollard, a former chapter director, says the Sierra Club taught him how to write a plan for transforming his environmental values into results. "The political process can be frustratingly slow," he says, "but good things can and do happen. I’m a Democrat representing the most Republican-leaning district in the state, which demonstrates to me that politics is about the issues and helping people. It shouldn’t be about a party agenda." Pollard is the only member of the General Assembly to receive a 100 percent rating from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters for four years running.

Sierra Club ExCom member Alex Forman saw himself as a protest candidate when he ran for the Municipal Water Board in Marin County, California. The local newspaper and a bevy of legislators endorsed his opponent, but her position on the county’s water policy, which would have encouraged sprawl, was exactly what he was running against. Forman won a lopsided victory. "My opponent was anointed by the establishment," he says, "but I learned from walking the neighborhoods that if you come across as honest and concerned, that goes a long way, even if you’re running against people with big-name endorsements."

"In a state rep’s race, you have to shake hands with more people than your opponent," says Brian Schatz, a two-term representative in Hawaii’s House. "It’s not complicated, but it’s difficult!"

"Start early," suggests Michael Merrifield, state representative in Colorado. "Get out to every chicken dinner and BBQ—anywhere where there are 5 or 6 people meeting together. And start raising money early."

"Go where the people are," concurs Barbara Green, a longtime Club activist and now a supervisor in Nevada County, California. "In my race, in a rural county, we found most people visited the post office, so we handed out campaign material outside the P.O."

How the Sierra Club Helped

Many green candidates are given a boost by their local Sierra Club group. Brett Hulsey, an activist and Club staffer, is also a county supervisor in Dane County, Wisconsin. (The part-time county board job, he quips, is "like working at a convenience store, but without the glamour.") Hulsey says the local Sierra Club group endorsed him, provided volunteers, and rented its phones for phonebanks. As a supervisor, he has written, co-sponsored, and promoted numerous bills to protect water quality, preserve habitat, and combat sprawl. He wrote and passed a stormwater ordinance that was the first in the nation to protect trout streams from thermal pollution.

Michigan state Representative Aldo Vagnozzi, another strong voice for the environment, says Club fundraisers and volunteer support were crucial to putting him in office. "I strongly believe I could not have been elected without the support of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups," he says.

" Even running in what looks like a ‘can’t win’ situation gives voice to policies that are important and would otherwise be ignored," says Vagnozzi’s colleague Jack Minore.

" The world of politics can appear to be an exclusive club," says Oregon Representative Charlie Ringo, "but it doesn’t require any extraordinary talents. Anyone can run for office. If you are committed, don’t be deterred or discouraged."

Not getting discouraged can sometimes take resilience. Kansas activist Steve Baru, a Republican and president of a financial services firm, has held numerous leadership positions in the Kansas Chapter. "Because of my Club background," he says, "community leaders asked me to participate in local task forces on transportation, sprawl, and economic development, and eventually a group of moderate Republicans asked me to run for the Kansas House of Representatives. Most of the money I raised came from Sierra Club activists around the country. I circulated a letter signed by four chapter chairs and I got a great internet response."

Baru says Sierra Club affiliation is a positive in his district. "There’s a level of trust on issues like clean water and transit," he says. "I knocked on every registered Republican’s door in my district, and I got no argument on my environmental views. But a lot of folks said they couldn’t vote for me because I was pro-choice. The right-to-life issue killed me." Undaunted, Baru is considering a run for the state Senate next year.

For green candidates in conservative districts, Mississippi legislator Dawkins offers this advice: "Several strong environmental candidates in Mississippi have been defeated because they looked too ‘crunchy granola.’ Try to look like a PTA member. I’ll always be an environmentalist, but when I’m campaigning I dress like a businesswoman."

Virginia representative Pollard stresses that, "whether you win or lose, running for office is a rewarding experience that creates the debate about protecting our natural resources." He cautions that green candidates should realize that voters respect the passion of environmental advocates, but care about many other issues. "People love candidates who are passionate," he says. "They do not, by and large, like zealots."

Richard Worthen, the former county board member from Illinois, says political success is a matter of working toward goals incrementally. "It’s an extremely slow process," he warns. "In some ways politics and advocacy are very different. Advocacy requires standing up with a backbone for what you believe is right. Politicians compromise; advocates don’t. I’ve been both, sometimes at the same time. I was a pariah at the start of my political career, and an insider at the end.

"Growing our own is even more important than lobbying," he asserts. "Our lobbyists don’t have money to ‘buy’ legislators the way corporations do; they only have the goodness of our issues to convince legislators to go with us. But we can utilize the power of the people if we get involved in local politics. If state and federal politicians see that people are taking strong environmental positions locally, they’ll figure they had better do it too."

"Don’t be shy about becoming a candidate," exhorts Spencer Black. "Environmentalists make great elected officials!"

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