Using Local Sprawl Fights to Elect Environmentalists to Public Office
or Ten Years to a Greener Congress!!!
The Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl campaign has the potential to elevate
environmental concerns to the defining issue in many local election campaigns, providing
us with an immediate opportunity to elect environmental activists and supporters to public
office. Not every Group level sprawl campaign will have this potential. However, prominent
initiatives such as Urban Growth Boundaries, master plan fights and other "Smart
Growth" agendas offer good opportunities. Other opportunities certainly exist when a
controversial project such as a new road, a new housing development, a shopping center or
other locally undesirable land use (LULU) is being pushed. When incumbent officials pursue
these projects over the objections of a well organized opposition movement, there is an
opportunity to "throw the rascals out" and elect our own candidates.
There are numerous successful examples of this tactic. U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski
(D-MD) was first elected to the Baltimore City Council as a result of her opposition to an
interstate highway extension through her neighborhood. Representative Earl Blumenauer
(D-OR), an outspoken opponent of sprawl in Congress, earned his wings locally in the early
years of Portlands growth boundary initiatives.
FINDING OPPORTUNITIES TO DEFEAT PRO-DEVELOPMENT POLITICIANS
Too often opportunities to defeat pro-development politicians are missed because:
- local activists fail to target the local politicians as the decision makers and instead
flail away at government bureaucrats - typically permitting agencies. The bureaucrats and
permitting agencies have little legal discretion and are often under intense political
pressure (generally behind the scenes) to issue the necessary permits for a controversial
- there is no credible opposition candidate recruited to run on the local development
issue or, if there is such a candidate, the candidate lacks basic election campaign
Some local environmental activists (Sierran and non-Sierran) have an aversion to
electoral politics and do not appreciate the central role of politicians (and the
secondary/subservient role of bureaucrats) in land use decision making and in other
environmental policy issues. Youve probably heard the rosy cheeked new volunteer say
at a meeting, "I think what we really need is more education" when, in fact, the
politicians know all too well what they are doing to the environment. Local Challenge to
Sprawl campaigns need to emphasize the importance of politics and the role of elected
officials in land use decision making, even when the politicians have no
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS MAKE GREAT AMMUNITION
Another approach to politicizing local land use fights is to investigate campaign
contributions from developers. The principal regulatory activity of local governments is
land use, and therefore, the biggest and most easily identifiable source of special
interest campaign contributions in local races is land development interests. In highly
charged land use fights this becomes a potent election issue.
In recognizing the special opportunities that many local Sprawl campaigns present to
elect strong environmental activists to public office, Sierra Club has an opportunity to
train grassroots activists (already motivated by an issue in their own back yards) in both
conservation campaign skills and in election campaign skills.
TEN YEARS TO A GREENER CONGRESS
Finally, some of the environmental activists elected to public office in Challenge to
Sprawl campaigns will develop as political leaders who will ultimately be elected to
Congress. Merging electoral politics with your Challenge to Sprawl campaign is ultimately
a means of a homegrown, greener Congress.
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