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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Voting for the Planet | Lest We Forget | No More Spoilers | Now, Mad Deer | Bold Strokes | Updates

Voting for the Planet:
The fight against big money continues

For the first time in modern American history, voters woke up the day after the election not knowing who their next president would be. Amid the confusion, however, one heartening electoral message became clear: Americans care deeply about the environment.

No recount was necessary to show that the combined vote totals for environmental champions Al Gore and Ralph Nader form a solid green majority. Eighty percent of the 204 Sierra Club-endorsed candidates won their congressional races. And in the most crucial contests targeted by the Club, environmentally friendly candidates won, as of press time, in 9 (and possibly 10) of 13 Senate races, and in 29 (possibly 30) of 41 for the House.

"The American people want the next president and Congress to continue protecting the environment," says Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "Our elected officials ignore that mandate at their peril."

The state-by-state results validate Pope's warning. One of the tightest contests-and biggest upsets-was in Michigan, where Representative Debbie Stabenow (D) defeated incumbent Senator Spencer Abraham (R). The Sierra Club had targeted Abraham for defeat, citing his dismal voting record (the League of Conservation Voters ranked him tenth worst in the Senate) and his acceptance of almost half a million dollars from polluting industries last year alone, more than any other member of Congress.

These concerns resonated with voters in Michigan, which has five national parks and more shoreline than any state but Alaska. In contrast, Stabenow's sterling record of protecting clean air, clean water, and open spaces helped propel her to victory, despite being outspent two to one. An aide to Michigan's governor blamed Abraham's defeat on "environmental organizations like the Sierra Club."

Overall in the Senate, victories by Stabenow, Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the late Mel Carnahan (D-Mo.)-whose seat will be filled by his wife, Jean-and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) strengthen the environmental voting bloc. (As Sierra went to press, in Washington State, former Representative Maria Cantwell (D) was only a handful of absentee-ballot votes away from unseating Senator Slade Gorton (R), long the bane of Northwest environmentalists.) And while Republican control of the House promises continued dominance of key committees by anti-environmentalists, the chamber did grow slightly more verdant with open-seat victories by Richard Larsen (D-Wash.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah).

The nearly equal balance of power in Congress will make it difficult for either party to push its legislative agenda, magnifying the necessity of coalition-building across party lines. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are already working to find common ground between environmentalists on both sides of the aisle, says Sierra Club political director Dan Weiss.

At the top of the Club's agenda is protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from oil drilling, preserving roadless areas in our national forests, and safeguarding our newest national monuments. In addition, says Weiss, promoting campaign-finance reform will be a strong focus. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has promised to try to move his McCain-Feingold bill early in the session, and the new seats picked up by reformers will make the vote very close. "More and more Sierra Club members recognize that the only way to even the playing field between big-money interests and environmentalists is to reform the way we finance campaigns," says Weiss.

But even McCain-Feingold wouldn't fix what ails the initiative process. Activists in both Colorado and Arizona saw the defeat of their anti-sprawl initiatives, which had been described by the New York Times as "the most wide-ranging growth-control measures ever proposed on a statewide ballot." As late as September, polls had shown both measures, which would have required many cities and counties to adopt growth-management plans, enjoying strong voter support.

But in the last few weeks of the campaign, construction companies and other business interests poured close to $6 million into the Colorado race and more than $4 million into Arizona. The moral, says Weiss, is that "big money used well can still beat a good idea."

Even if campaign-finance reform passes, big money would still have the upper hand in these contests, since the Supreme Court has ruled against spending-limits on initiatives. "The initiative process has become a creature of the corporate interests it was created to tame," Carl Pope says.

Whatever the setbacks, environmental issues were probably more crucial to the 2000 election than in any previous contest. As early as the New Hampshire primary, Bush campaign manager Karl Rove blamed Sierra Club ads criticizing George W. Bush's environmental record for his loss in that state. As the race went on, the candidates' environmental positions remained a sharp dividing line between them. In Washington State, polls showed that an amazing 88 percent of the voters were aware of Bush's poor record, while 43 percent of Oregon voters said that they were less likely to vote for Bush because of it.

Does Pope have any regrets, then, about the Sierra Club's electoral efforts? "I just wish," he says, "that we had done more in Florida."

Jennifer Hattam

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