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Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Bulletin: News for Members

Ballots Against Bulldozers

by Nancy Shepherdson

When Michael Talbett won his primary race for the Lake County, Illinois, County Board, he knew whom to thank. "Our environmental supporters helped get the vote out," he told the Chicago Tribune in March. "When they make a recommendation, people respond."

Talbett asked voters what they'd like to see in five years: more concrete or more wildlife? Voters delivered their verdict against Talbett's opponent, incumbent Robert Grever, a former construction-company president known for his pro-development stances. Talbett, a Republican who is running unopposed in the fall, will bring the pro-environment faction on the 23-member county board to 13, a clear majority.

Just 30 miles north of Chicago, Lake County and its rolling, leafy beauty have attracted more than 150,000 new residents in the past ten years. The terrain is difficult to build on, however, because it was originally more than 40 percent wetland and has clay-based soils. "It's too thin to farm and too thick to navigate," jokes Evan Craig, chair of the Sierra Club's Woods & Wetlands Group.

In an attempt to preserve what's left of the fragile ecosystem, the group launched a campaign in 1994 to oust an enthusiastic pro-development majority on the county board and elect reformers like Talbett. Each election cycle, the group asks candidates to respond to a questionnaire; this year it is requesting opinions on sprawl, threatened and endangered species, flooding and development, forest preservation, roadbuilding, and power plants. The political committee then interviews selected candidates and evaluates their voting records in any previously held elective offices.

After deciding which candidates to endorse, the group promotes them on its Web site and in correspondence with members. Activists ring doorbells and telephone voters in critical districts, urging supporters to get out the vote. This year, endorsed candidates also appeared at a press conference held at a nature center and on the group's own cable-TV program.

Most candidates mention the Sierra Club's endorsement prominently in their campaign literature. "It's a big help to be endorsed," says county board member Martha Marks, who in 1992 was one of the first pro-environment candidates to be elected. (Marks is also founder and president of the 3,000-member Republicans for Environmental Protection.) "Once the environment starts being important, everybody starts painting themselves green. An endorsement helps cut through the clutter."

Last year, the group's efforts in support of a green slate of candidates for Hawthorn Woods Village Board helped stop a million-square-foot mega-mall from being built on open space.

The same year, Marks helped pass a development law that streamlined the approval process while also requiring stronger protection of woods and wetlands, including the preservation of single significant trees. "Developers howled," she says, but the board majority didn't flinch: "We've made it not only safe, but necessary, to be green."

From Grassroots to Government

Club leaders reflect on their dual lives as activists and politicians

Are environmental activists more effective as outside agitators or inside advocates? Dozens of Sierra Club chapter chairs, representatives, and other leaders have weighed this question and leapt headfirst into the political arena-and more are campaigning for elective office each year. Here, just a few of these protesters-turned-politicians talk about their biggest battles, their greatest successes, and how they've managed to stay green while working within the system.

Willian George Witt
Former Iowa Chapter Chair
Iowa State Representative, 1993 to present

After a dozen years organizing, lobbying, and helping other good people get elected, one day I said to myself, "I can do this job, and I can do it well."

One of the pleasures of my legislative service is applying the skills I gained with the Sierra Club to help citizen advocates be more effective; I can be an "inside agitator" for my environmental allies.

I'm not interested in running for higher office because I believe that the best way to restore citizens' faith in democracy is to bring their government to them, up and down the sidewalks, face to face. While I serve, I want to stay close to the citizens I represent.

Steve Holmes
Hawaii Chapter Conservation Chair
Honolulu City Councilmember, 1991 to present

The greatest difficulty has been the power of development interests over the council; this influence has forced me to pick and choose my battles. For example, when we enacted energy-efficiency standards for new buildings, we had to exempt residential construction in order to get the bill approved.

The most satisfying part of my job is being able to turn my environmental activism into public policy. Since I took office, over 3,000 acres of land have been saved as parks in my district. We have improved our wastewater infrastructure and passed tough energy and water-conservation standards through bills I introduced.

Brett Hulsey
Senior Midwest Representative
Dane County (Wisconsin) Supervisor, 1998 to present

I ran for office because sprawl was polluting our lakes, clogging our streets with traffic, and gobbling up farmland and open spaces. It's hard to see all the zoning changes come up and realize you can only fight the really bad ones. But sprawl is now topic number one. We passed a lot of our smart growth agenda and other officials are picking up the banner.

The biggest drawback for me has always been that elective office keeps me away from my family on too many evenings. I will certainly consider running again when my kids are older.

Spenser Black
Former John Muir Chapter Chair
Wisconsin State Representative, 1985 to present

In my grassroots campaign, I walked to the homes of over 10,000 voters. (Being a backpacker proved to be useful preparation!) I won my first re-election despite being outspent six to one by a challenger whose money was mostly raised by a mining-industry lobbyist.

As a legislator, you are in a position to make a difference, both by passing laws that protect our outdoors and by stopping proposals that threaten our environment. I authored bills to create the strongest recycling law in the nation, use matching grants to protect endangered species, and clean up toxic-waste sites that threatened safe drinking water. Public office also provides a "bully pulpit" to educate the public on environmental issues.

Anne Woiwode
Program Director, Mackinac Chapter (Michigan) Forest Biodiversity Program
Candidate, Meridian Township Board of Trustees

In many respects, it is easier being an advocate than a decision-maker. When I served on the planning commission, my obligation was to the law and the community, so sometimes I had to make decisions I didn't want to make because they were required by law.

However, the skills I've learned as an environmental advocate with the Sierra Club-presenting issues in a cogent, simple way, doing press outreach, making presentations-have also made me more effective in my bid for office as part of a bipartisan group of six candidates. The current board majority was elected with a large influx of money from local developers and has drastically undermined the community's zoning and planning laws. So one of the biggest challenges will be rebuilding a sense of community in our township.

Jennifer Hattam

These are just a few of the Sierra Club leaders who have been elected to public office. A longer list appears online at

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