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

New Green D'Amato

Air Date: Week of

There's probably no tighter, nor more acrimonious race for public office this year than the contest between New York's three term Republican Senator Alphonse D'Amato and his Democratic challenger, Representative Charles Schumer. Everything counts in this duel to the finish, including the environmental records of the combatants. Mr Schumer gets higher marks from environmental activists than Mr. D'Amato, but the conservative senator is not about to concede the ecology vote. Indeed as Richard Schiffman reports, Senator D'Amato seems to be turning a brighter shade of green.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There's probably no tighter, nor a more acrimonious race for public office this year, than the contest between New York's 3-term Republican Senator, Alphonse D'Amato, and his Democratic challenger, Representative Charles Schumer. Everything counts in this duel to the finish, including the environmental records of the combatants. Mr. Schumer gets higher marks from environmental activists than does Mr. D'Amato, but the conservative Senator is not about to concede the ecology vote. Indeed, as Richard Schiffman reports, Senator D'Amato seems to be turning a brighter shade of green.

(A milling crowd)

D'AMATO: Good to be with you, thank you.

SCHIFFMAN: Senator D'Amato is walking down the aisle of a Brooklyn synagogue in the heart of his opponent's Congressional district, working the crowd of recent Russian immigrants.

D'AMATO: Thank you. Thank you, God bless you.

SCHIFFMAN: This type of older, more traditional ethnic audience has been one of the mainstays of Senator D'Amato's support in previous elections. But the Senator knows that this year he'll have to reach out to some groups not usually sympathetic to his conservative politics. With polls showing the race a statistical dead heat, the New York Republican is courting moderate Democrats as well as voters who are concerned about the environment.

(Commercial voice-over with dramatic music in the background: "New York's Number-One polluter is hundreds of feet tall and lives in the Midwest. They build their smokestacks tall to send their pollution here...")

SCHIFFMAN: During the last 2 years Senator D'Amato has spent over a million dollars on television commercials like this one, which show him fighting for New York State's environment.

(Voice over with music: "Al D'Amato makes a difference because he gets things done. Al D'Amato: fighting and winning for you."

SCHIFFMAN: But some of the Senator's critics wonder whether Mr. D'Amato's enthusiasm for protecting the natural world marks another election year conversion.

(People milling outdoors)

WOMAN: The Democrats claim that you're running away from your record. That you're using high-profile issues and that you've changed your position on the environment, on HMO reform.

D'AMATO: Totally, total nonsense. First of all, the record speaks for itself. I am proud of a record that has fought to stop the bombardment of the pollutants, airborne terrorism. It was my legislation and now joined with Senator Moynihan and I together that takes them on. And I encourage the cleaner standards and they should have been applied longer and before.

SCHIFFMAN: Senator D'Amato is referring to a bill that would force industries in the Midwest to reduce windborne pollution that drifts over state borders and causes acid rain in the Northeast. Environmental activists praised the Senator's leadership on this bill and on certain other air pollution issues that affect New York State. But some charge that his support for a few well- publicized green issues has been used to camouflage an otherwise poor record.

DAVIDOFF: Senator D'Amato would like to be known as an environmental hero.

SCHIFFMAN: Linda Stone Davidoff heads the New York League of Conservation Voters.

DAVIDOFF: Our role is to test those claims that are made by politicians as to whether they're really environmentalists or not, and to test them against the record. The National League of Conservation Voters rates the United States Congress, House and Senate, on every environmental vote of importance. and while Senator D'Amato's record tends to wander all over the map, it is, overall, embarrassingly and consistently low with a lifetime voting average for 18 years in the Senate of 32%: a failing grade, I think, by anybody's calculation.

SCHIFFMAN: And it's the worst environmental record of any senator in the Northeast, according to Linda Stone Davidoff. Alphonse D'Amato's offenses, she says, include moving to slash the Environmental Protection Agency's budget, and to gut its regulatory authority. Senator D'Amato's staff disputes the way the League tallies their scores, and they say that the Senator has a solid record of helping constituents with environmental complaints. Constituents like Anne Kayman.

KAYMAN: The problem was that we had a 200-ton-per-day municipal garbage incinerator, mass-burn incinerator, that was the oldest and dirtiest on Long Island.

SCHIFFMAN: Anne Kayman was a leader in the fight to close down the Long Beach incinerator, a stone's throw from Senator D'Amato's birthplace on Long Island's South Shore. It operated illegally, she says, burning hazardous and medical wastes at night in order to avoid detection. But it wasn't until Senator D'Amato personally intervened that New York's Department of Environmental Conservation shut it down.

KAYMAN: I don't know anything about voter scorecards or tallies that might have been taken. What I know is that I had a real problem, and this affected real people in a small corner of Long Island, and he took care of it for us.

SCHIFFMAN: Senator D'Amato's well-known enthusiasm for dealing with voter complaints has earned him the title Senator Pothole in the New York press. But activists, like attorney Larry Shapiro of the New York Public Interest Research Group, say that the Senator's praiseworthy actions on the local level do not generally translate into support for laws to reign in polluting industry and to expand consumer protections.

SHAPIRO: He has developed, in a really clever but I think somewhat cynical way, this ability to gain environmental points by being on the right side of high-profile, local fights. Yet his role as a Senator in voting on or proposing legislation has mostly been a negative one.

SCHIFFMAN: The Environmental Working Group in Washington tracks contributions to all US Senators. According to their data, Senator D'Amato has received over $700,000 since his last election from political action committees affiliated with companies that have lobbied against strong environmental regulation. Almost half of this money came from insurance and industry groups working to weaken the Superfund law on toxic clean-ups. In 1995, Senator D'Amato voted for an indefinite moratorium on listing new Superfund sites. And he also voted to weaken a community right-to-know law, which forces industry to disclose toxic chemicals released into the air and water. The connection between Senator D'Amato's votes and his corporate contributors has been a theme of the Green Party candidate for the New York Senate.

KOVEL: Hi, there, I'm Joe Kovel running for the US Senate. This is about global warming and Al D'Amato, how he's not dealing with it.

WOMAN: Uh huh.

KOVEL: It's very important. Your future depends on it. I'm serious.

WOMAN: Global warming.

KOVEL: Yeah, you know how the planet's getting warmer? All these storms...

SCHIFFMAN: Green Party members are distributing leaflets outside of Senator D'Amato's office in midtown Manhattan.

KOVEL: Senator D'Amato says he's senator of the potholes. I say let's be the senator of the globe, okay? Let's take the whole world into account. And so we're going to go up there and present this petition to him to let him know that you want...

SCHIFFMAN: The Green Party's petition calls on Senator D'Amato to take a stand on the Kyoto Accords to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Environmental activists say that the Senator has been evasive on this issue in the past.

(To D'Amato) Some scientists say that if global warming continues, in the 21st century parts of Long Island and New York City will be underwater. If the Kyoto Accords come up for a vote, how do you plan to vote on that?

D'AMATO: To be supportive. I've indicated that in the past. Notwithstanding there are some claims that may place a disproportionate burden. We have to see to it that within this country and other nations reach those standards.

SCHIFFMAN: But some of the Senator's critics say they're not convinced that his election year sympathy for the accord on global warming will translate into a vote on the floor of the Senate. Mr. D'Amato joined with most of the rest of the Senate last summer in supporting a resolution to shift the onus for limiting greenhouse gases away from the industrialized nations. Global warming may not be the leading issue in the race for the New York Senate seat, but in one of this year's most hotly-contested elections, the block of swing voters who put the environment first may hold the key to Senator D'Amato's political future. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman reporting.



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