Air Date: Week of February 2, 1996
Living on Earth producer Peter Thomson recently spent some time in New Hampshire at a presidential candidate's forum on environmental issues: but very few candidates showed up to speak. Thomson met some disappointed Republicans, a cheerful Vice President, and a couple of presidential hopefuls.
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In these times, issues like the budget and taxes typically dominate presidential campaigns. But as the first caucuses and primaries of the 1996 elections approach, another issue has been gathering strength: the environment. Republican-led efforts in Congress to roll back environmental protection have brought a howl of protest from many citizens, and put care for the environment back in the center of American political debate. For example, in the recent special and close election for Oregon's open seat in the Senate, exit polls showed that voters who listed the environment as their top concern provided a key margin of victory for Democratic Congressman Ron Wyden, who had campaigned as an environmental advocate. President Clinton has made natural resource protection a pillar of his reelection campaign as well. But there are some in the Presidential race who don't seem eager to talk about it: the major Republican candidates. And that's not sitting well with a lot of Republican voters. Living on Earth's Peter Thomson attended a recent candidates' forum in New Hampshire and prepared this report.
THOMSON: There's less than a month to go before New Hampshire's first in the nation primary, and it's hard to avoid running into a presidential candidate here. Every group of more than a couple of people is likely to have a guy in a conservative suit or a plaid shirt pressing the flesh. So it was more than a little surprising recently when a coalition of state organizations threw a campaign forum and none of the major Republican candidates showed up.
(Sounds of people milling; glasses clinking)
COWLES: I'm Esther Cowles and I'm the forum director. I work for New Hampshire Wildlife Federation. We're extremely disappointed that the major Republican candidates didn't make it, and that includes Dole and Gramm and Alexander, Buchanan, Forbes, and Luger. In each of those cases they told us that they had scheduling conflicts.
THOMSON: Maybe it was the schedule, but there were few at the forum who didn't think it was actually the subject which kept the candidates away. The subject was environmental policy. The assembled included some Democrats and professional environmentalists. But many of those who were angry at being snubbed were business people, local office holders, and loyal Republican activists hoping to find a candidate that they could support.
PETERSON: I'm Roland Peterson. I'm a Nashua resident and a Commissioner of Public Works in Nashua. I am a Republican, but I've been concerned for a long time that the candidates that I've been interested in for other reasons don't take a more active interest in the environment.
RUSSMAN: My name is Rick Russman and I am in the New Hampshire State Senate, and I chair the Senate Committee on the Environment. I'm extraordinarily concerned about the rollbacks that Congress is attempting to do on our environmental regulation and protection. I think that they are simply going too far, and I was hoping to perhaps hear some of the Republican candidates tell us what their vision was for, or is for the environment in their presidency. And as you can see, by their lack of being here, the silence is deafening.
MARKS: My name is Martha Marks. I'm a county commissioner in Lake County, Illinois. My organization is called Republicans for Environmental Protection, and I would like to be able to support a Republican candidate. And by their not showing up it makes it pretty clear that the presidential candidates in my party are basically willing to write off a significant number of Republican voters.
THOMSON: Roland Peterson, Rick Russman, and Martha Marks are some of the voters who recent polls suggest could be a growing force in this year's election. They're moderate and even conservative Republicans who support strong environmental regulations and who are dismayed by what they see as their party's abandonment of a sensible environmental philosophy. They've watched Republicans in Congress try to eviscerate environmental protections, and have seen most of the Republican Presidential candidates toe the same line. Pat Buchanan and Phil Gramm both blast the EPA and promise to wipe out environmental rules that infringe on private property. Bob Dole and Steve Forbes both assail what they see as burdensome environmental legislation. Richard Luger and Lamar Alexander say they support strong environmental protections, but they've barely mentioned the issue on the stump. And none of the six came to the forum, leaving potential voters here with a lot of unanswered questions and an unchallenged invitation to jump ship.
MARKS: Where in the world have they gotten the notion that Republicans and Americans in general don't want protection of our air and our water and our endangered species and our wild lands? I would just like to know.
GORE: There are real differences between the political parties, especially on the environment. For example, at environmental forums, Democratic candidates show up.
(Applause from the crowd)
THOMSON: Vice President Al Gore took full advantage of the opportunity to snap up some disgruntled Republicans.
GORE: Where are the Republican candidates? Isn't New Hampshire an important state? Isn't the environment an issue of concern to the people of New Hampshire? Are they fearful that they might have to answer some questions about this extremist, anti-environment platform that they're trying to run on? Of course that's the reason they're not here. They ought to wise up. Their own pollsters are taking soundings among the American people. Some of their pollsters are now publicly pleading with them to change course before they lead the entire party off a cliff.
BOEHLERT: I think any candidate who runs for public office in 1996 who doesn't identify the environment as a major issue of primary concern is running at risk, whether that candidate be Republican or Democrat.
THOMSON: New York Republican Congressman Sheri Boehlert acknowledges the dilemma his party leaders have created by ceding environmental turf to the Democrats. In the last year he's fought tenaciously against his own Congressional leadership on environmental policy. He came to the forum to try to do some damage control.
BOEHLERT: There are a great number of Republicans, and fortunately that number is growing, that are sensitized to environmental concerns.
THOMSON: Have you come out in support of any particular Republican candidate?
BOEHLERT: Yeah, I have. The New York Republican delegation is committed to the candidacy of Bob Dole. He's got a decent record, somewhat mixed I suppose if you were a purist looking at it, but I've always found Bob Dole to be receptive to good ideas. He'll listen. I think he's much more of a centrist than he's given credit for being.
MARKS: The lip service that he's given to the environment is pretty poor. There seems to be a new Bob Dole who has emerged which is anything but moderate right now. I don't see a single one right now that interests me as an environmentalist.
THOMSON: These divergent sentiments cut straight to the heart of the GOP candidates' environmental gamble. With so many other powerful issues at stake, will the candidates' environmental agenda really make a difference? Even though they're frustrated, many Republicans here say the issue won't send them into the arms of the opposition. Yet.
(Ambient voices and tinkling glasses in the background)
MAN: I'm not at the point where I would vote for Democratic candidates.
MAN: I haven't got to that decision yet at this point.
MAN: I will stick with the party through the nominating process and through the election until I walk into that voting box, because I believe that I need to be a voice within my party. Because I don't think it's right to let our party being taken over by a radical fringe.
THOMSON: Ironically, the 2 Republican candidates who did show up were among those considered to be on the party's radical fringe: California Congressman Bob Dornan.
DORNAN: My 5 kids remind me regularly that this is part of me and my political life that I should talk about more because they said Dad, do you realize that somehow you have raised all 5 of us so that we absolutely are unable to throw anything out the window of a car?
THOMSON: And former State Department official Alan Keyes.
KEYES: Are we going to be folks who are willing to make proper and balanced use of that which is there and in the process of making use of it create a stake in its existence that leads to its preservation? Or are we going to go down the path of worship and find that we end up creating a lot of natural sacred cows? Some of whom, by the way, will as a result of that become more and more endangered? Thank you very much.
(Applause from the audience)
THOMSON: Mr. Keyes and Congressman Dornan probably won few votes here, but many at the environmental issues forum were at least appreciative that they showed up. And for some Republican voters their presence only seemed to illustrate the opportunity that the other candidates had lost by deciding not to come and even talk about environmental policy in the run-up to the crucial first primary. For Living on Earth, I'm Peter Thomson in Nashua, New Hampshire.
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