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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Southern Tipping Point

Air Date: Week of

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The results of the upcoming election could shift control of the House of Representatives from Republican to Democrat. So, political eyes are closely watching the race for Alabama’s 3rd Congressional district between a well-financed republican and a Democrat who has the support of the environmental community. Melanie Peeples reports.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
With the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans hanging by just a single vote in the U.S. Senate, a number of those races are being closely watched this year. And we’ll have a story about one of the Senate campaigns a bit later in the program. But first, we’d like to turn your attention to a Congressional race in east Alabama.

A Republican has held the seat for the last six years. But this year, with new lines for the district, Democrats could pick up a seat in their quest to gain control of the House. Republican Mike Rogers is being helped by Vice President Dick Cheney and actor Charlton Heston. Democrat Joe Turnham is drawing substantial support from national environmental groups. Melanie Peeples reports.

PEEPLES: When Joe Turnham walks into a fundraiser sponsored by the Alabama Sierra Club, he doesn’t have to introduce himself to supporters. They already know him.


PEEPLES: Turnham has a stellar reputation among Alabama environmentalists for being the guy who united all of the state’s environmental groups into one political action committee, a committee that, until recently, he actually ran. Turnham says a conservationist, like himself, one that believes in environmental protection as well as economic development, can get elected in Alabama.

TURNHAM: You can have a Southern drawl like me, and you can be a good United Methodist, and you can be for the environment. You can be, you can be for protecting the resources of this state.


PEEPLES: Turnham frequently downplays his environmental background, and is more often heard reminding people that he’s a pro-gun, pro-life Democrat, a card carrying member of the NRA. Those are the kinds of issues that hit hard in Alabama, a state where most believe the right to hunt is guaranteed by the Constitution. But Turnham’s reminders fall on deaf ears, particularly when hundreds recently turned up at Republican Mike Rogers’ rally to see Charlton Heston.

HESTON: We need to elect leaders who will defend freedom, and that’s not an easy thing to find. There’s a lot of need for it, but it’s hard to find it. And this election is very important.

PEEPLES: Candidate Mike Rogers is more specific about why he thinks voters should vote for him, the Republican. There are 10 house seats in the country that could go either way this election, and that means control of the U.S. House of Representatives is up for grabs, too.

ROGERS: There are six votes in the U.S. House that separate the current conservative leadership from being given up to Dick Gephardt and his liberal colleagues who will spend everyday for the next two years working to push back President Bush and his conservative agenda. We can’t allow that to happen.


Mike Rogers

Joe Turnham

PEEPLES: That message resonates well with many in District 3. The most recent poll finds Rogers ahead of Turnham 44 percent to 32 percent. But there are voters who want to hear more from Mike Rogers, more on local issues. Keith Howland is a resident of District 3.

HOWLAND: Mr. Rogers has been a member of this community all of his life. His family lives here. And he’s been a state representative now for quite some time, and has not really stepped forward and dealt with any of the issues that could have been dealt with just at the local level. So I have no reason to think he’d do better as a congressman.

PEEPLES: At the top of those local issues for Howland is the chemical weapons incinerator just built in Anniston. Howland is the closest resident to the federal facility, and lives in fear of an accident. The incinerator will soon start burning deadly nerve gases left over from a time when the United States manufactured them.

Leaders in the community have argued bitterly over how best to protect residents in the event of an accident, whether or not to evacuate, whether or not to supply residents with gas masks. This incinerator is one of the issues Mike Rogers and Joe Turnham square off on. Republican Rogers is from Anniston and has represented that area in the state legislature for eight years.

ROGERS: Keep in mind, I live in what they call the "pink zone." It’s the immediate response zone outside the depot. I have a wife of 20 years. I have three small children, an eight-year old, a seven-year old, and a four-year old. There is nobody that cares more about keeping that incineration process safe than me, especially my opponet who lives two and a half hours away from here.

PEEPLES: But critics say Rogers hasn’t been helping residents deal with the unthinkable. They say he hasn’t even attended community meetings about the incinerator. Democrat Joe Turnham agrees.

TURNHAM: Where you been, Mike? The whole issue of emergency preparedness has been a complete and total fiasco, a disaster. The community, by any measure, is not ready for the burn to start. There’s been a lack of coordination between federal, state and local officials.

PEEPLES: Turnham says Rogers should have been involved in emergency preparedness. Rogers counters by saying that’s the county commission’s responsibility, not his. While the average Alabama voter doesn’t see the environment as a make or break issue, when it affects them closer to home it gets their attention. That’s the case with the incinerator, as well as the so-called "water war." For the last decade, Alabama has been involved in negotiations with Georgia and Florida over a water sharing agreement between rivers that flow through the 3rd District.

And many of the state’s residents are interested in preserving wildlands. But that issue tends to be linked to recreational hunting and fishing. Some observers say that might be why Turnham campaign ads don’t focus on his environmental ties. Birmingham Southern College Political Professor Natalie Davis.

DAVIS: When you think of environmentalists, they’re viewed as being on the left. So Joe’s strategy is never to look like he’s on the left. My guess is that if Turnham said, "I’m an environmentalist," he would have a gun in his hand when he said it.

PEEPLES: Even though Turnham downplays his environmental pedigree, he’s been endorsed by a number of conservation organizations. As they see it, they’re hoping that a Turnham win in Alabama will also be a victory for national environmental policy.

For Living on Earth, I’m Melanie Peeples in Anniston, Alabama.

[MUSIC: Louie Vega, "Maw Latin Blues" NUYORICAN SOUL (Giant Step, 1997)]



Mike Rogers (R) website

Joe Turnham (D) website


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