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

Maryland Politics: Republicans Play Catch-Up

Air Date: Week of

In the eyes of his constituents, Maryland's incumbent Governor Parris Glendening leads on environmental issues against his opponent Ellen Saurbrey. So in a tight race, Glendening is stressing his environmental achievements, with special emphasis on combating the sprawl of communities. Even the Governor's republican critics acknowledge that his is a good political strategy. Meghan Cox Gurdon has the story.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Voters will soon head to the polls to pick the 106th Congress and many state and local offices. In Maryland, Governor Parris Glendening is in a tight race with his GOP challenger Ellen Saurbrey. The Governor has been campaigning heavily on his environmental achievements, one area where the Democrat feels there's a clear difference. As Meghan Cox Gurdon reports, the questions about Ellen Saurbrey's environmental record illuminate a larger debate within Republican ranks: how to repair the party's image as environmentally ruinous rogue elephants.

(Bluegrass Country music plays)

GURDON: On a cool autumn day Maryland Governor Parris Glendening opens a new public trail on an old railway bed. The outdoor setting is a picture- perfect backdrop for a Democrat who's risen to national prominence on his environmental record.

GLENDENING: I really, truly care about the quality of life, and we're not willing to sacrifice that investment in the quality of life and especially in these very, very good economic times that the nation and the state are experiencing.

(Milling crowds)

GURDON: Governor Glendening is leaning heavily on his reputation as a fearless defender of Maryland's outdoors. He's been endorsed by major environmental groups, which applaud, among other measures, his decision to close 3 state rivers last year when an outbreak of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria threatened the Chesapeake Bay.

GLENDENING: The environment has become very important today because of things like the Pfiesteria outbreak, because of the excess of sprawl that is destroying our open space. And it has always been a major issue in Maryland. It's also very important, though, because there's probably not a more stark contrast between 2 different records.

GURDON: To sharpen the contrast between his record and that of his Republican challenger, Maryland legislator Ellen Saurbrey, Governor Glendening recently stepped up his media excoriation of Mrs. Saurbrey's environmental wrongdoing.

(Dramatic music and voice-over: "In the legislature Saurbrey voted against banning phosphates. Against the Clean Air Act. Even against penalties for oil spills in the Bay. The League of Conservation..." Fade to a phone ringing)

WILKINSON: Thank you. Good evening, Ellen Saurbrey for Governor. This is Tom Wilkinson. How can I help you?

(A copier runs)

GURDON: At Ellen Saurbrey's campaign headquarters, an ailing copier pushes out press releases laying out her environmental goals, such as seeding Chesapeake Bay with disease-resistant oysters to help filter the water. Mrs. Saurbrey claims Governor Glendening is grossly distorting her environmental record, highlighting a handful of highly controversial votes from her 16 years in the Maryland legislature.

SAURBREY: You don't have the time to go on television and rebut, point by point, why these votes were cast. And often bills have titles that sound good, but they include things that most people would have great difficulty believing are the right things to do.

GURDON: A week ago, Mrs. Saurbrey parried the Governor's attacks by publicizing a development he's proposed on environmentally-sensitive land. But otherwise, the Democrat has controlled the environmental debate. Here in Maryland and across the nation, that's a special problem for Republicans. For when pollsters asked the public who it thinks cares most about the environment, the public says Democrats.

HAYDEN: Republicans have not, except for a few of us, embraced the environment and conservation as we should have.

GURDON: Mike Hayden is a former Republican Governor of Kansas and the new chairman of the League of Conservation Voters.

HAYDEN: So it's partially our fault. It's also smart politics on the part of the Democrats to elevate their environmental record while chastising the environmental accomplishments of Republicans.

(Breezes blowing and birds chirping)

GURDON: And Republicans do have an environmental legacy. I'm standing right now on a small part of it here in Washington, DC. This is Roosevelt Island, a leafy nature reserve just across the Potomac River from the Kennedy Center. The island is a memorial to Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, who dramatically expanded the National Parks system. President Eisenhower, another Republican, created the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And Presidents Nixon and Bush respectively signed into law the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.

Yet the image of Republicans in the pockets of plutocrats and polluters endures, and with recent justification, according to Steve Cochran, legislative director at the Environmental Defense Fund.

COCHRAN: Perception is very strong, but perception is fueled by the reality of the very strong anti-environmental efforts that occurred in the 104th Congress in 1995. Taking some flight again because of some of the efforts that are going on now at the end of the Congress. So there is some reality to the perception.

GURDON: The efforts Mr. Cochran mentions are dozens of anti-environmental riders some Republican members of Congress attached to this fall's budget proposals. Meanwhile, the Congressional leadership has launched a new effort called the Coalition of Republican Environmental Advocates, or CREA. Its national co-chair, Grover Norquist, says the environment as an issue is ripe for an ideological shake-up.

NORQUIST: We reject your idea that state-sponsored edict, one size fits all economic fascism is good for the environment. It's wrong; it's bad for the environment.

GURDON: Mr. Norquist says CREA will trumpet Republican environmental achievements and promote what he calls a more rational debate.

NORQUIST: Take a look at the difference between prosperous countries with property rights and economic growth and free trade, and countries in the Third World that don't have property rights and don't have economic growth and don't have free trade, and you ask me which one has safer drinking water and safer food and a more healthy environment.

GURDON: But CREA is not the only GOP group trying to burnish the party's image on the environment. In Congress, Republican Representative Sherry Boehert of New York and his Senate ally John Chaffee of Rhode Island have funneled through their Political Action Committee, the TR Fund, about $100,000 to help elect environmentally-minded Republicans. Boehlert says he's seen a dramatic increase in the number of Republicans willing to toe a more moderate environmental line, since a vote he particularly remembers back in early 1995.

BOEHLERT: There was a bill that was advanced. It sounded very good. The generic name was Regulatory Reform. Now, who would be opposed to reforming needless regulations? Well, the answer is, as you began to look, examine the provisions of that bill, one quickly discovered it was not a good bill in terms of the environment. We had 2 Republicans that voted against that bill: Christopher Shays of Connecticut and me. Fast-forward. Now, every time we have a test on a key environmental issue, I get anywhere from 60 to 80 Republicans voting with our bloc to protect the environment.

GURDON: The GOP is clearly wrestling with how to handle its approach to the environment. But the party is split between those who dismiss environmentalism as just so much tree-hugging, and those who think ecology is good for both party and country.

(A woman on a bullhorn; a man answering)

GURDON: Back in Maryland, Republican Gubernatorial challenger Ellen Saurbrey, who's on the honorary board of CREA, says Democrats have had the issue to themselves too long.

SAURBREY: I think it is important that Republicans not just continue to be playing defense on the environment. That Republicans identify things that we care about and can go out and do something aggressively to pursue.

GURDON: Right now, though, Mrs. Saurbrey is concentrating on her aggressive pursuit of the Governor's job. And polls suggest she has a strong chance of taking it. Which is why Parris Glendening is getting some help from the White House.


MRS. CLINTON: Oh, thank you.

GURDON: In the serene and smiling person of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who shares the Governor's enthusiasm for nature trails like the one being opened on this day.

(Sirens in the background)

MRS. CLINTON: You know, when we take a stroll on the BNA trail or the CNO canal, we're walking in the footsteps of people who understood clearly how important it was for all of us who live in an urban environment, like we can hear (audience laughter amidst the sirens), to get out and be able to enjoy nature and to do it in a way that's accessible to every person.

GURDON: Love of nature is not confined to either political party. Love of political advantage is craved by both. Which is why Republicans seem intent, if not in this election then in the next, to capture some of the green terrain now held by the Democrats. For Living on Earth, I'm Meghan Cox Gurdon.



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