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

Enviros Claim Victory In Mid-Term Elections

Air Date: Week of

Laura Knoy talks with Living on Earth's Peter Thomson and Terry FitzPatrick to review the results of the mid-term election. Environmentalists are claiming the future is brighter now than it was just one week ago. Among the topics discussed are land use sprawl as a U.S. phenomena, ballot initiatives, Senate and Green Party races.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

KNOY: And I'm Laura Knoy. The midterm elections have produced a new Congress that looks pretty much like the old one, although there could be some subtle changes. Joining us now to discuss the role of the environment in the midterm elections is Living on Earth's Senior Correspondent Peter Thomson, who's in San Francisco, and in Seattle our National Affairs Correspondent Terry FitzPatrick. So, Peter and Terry, did the environment make a difference in these elections? Did it play a role?

THOMSON: Yeah, I think it really did, especially on the Senate side. In the four marquee Senate races, the Republicans were portrayed as being weak on environmental issues, and in every one the Democrats one. In New York, in North Carolina, the Democrats took seats from the Republicans. In California and Washington they held what were supposed to be very hotly-contested seats. There's also a factor in at least 2 of the seats that the Democrats picked up in the House of Representatives. Of course, it wasn't the only issue in these races, but it was one of those key issues in which the Democrats and their allies painted the Republicans as out of touch with mainstream America. And I think, Laura, that that's one of the main messages the Republicans got this election, that support for strong environmental protections, sometimes even with the power of big government behind them, is a mainstream American political value. It's a message that a lot of moderate Republicans have tried to deliver to their party for years, and I think voters delivered it unequivocally across the country this year.

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, the environmental groups do consider themselves to be clear winners, and their opponents are really licking their wounds right now. For example, the head of the Private Property Rights Coalition, which is trying to weaken the Endangered Species Act, says that he feels like he's been hit by a train by these results. Meantime, over at the League of Conservation Voters, the head is saying that she's walking on air because of the numbers. Now, the League was really one of the big factors in this election. They have a Dirty Dozen list of candidates that they consider to be the worst members of Congress on environmental issues. This year that grew up to 13; they call it a baker's dozen, and 9 of the 13 who were targeted for defeat did in fact lose. That's a big change from the past, and in part it represents a change in strategy. In the past the League just sort of picked the worst members on their scorecard, but this year they targeted who were the worst that were vulnerable, and then they put money into those districts to hammer home their point. The Sierra Club also had a change of tactics. They worked on behalf of 43 pro-environmental candidates and won 38 of those races. They gave money to some candidates directly, and they spent about $6 million in soft money TV advertisements. And that was a tactic that worked.

THOMSON: You have to remember, though, Terry and Laura, that despite the environmentalists doing much better than they expected, the makeup of Congress is still virtually unchanged. I mean, a month ago the best outcome that environmentalists hoped for was not to lose ground in Congress. That's exactly what happened. But a wash is still a wash, and you've still got a Congress that is relatively hostile to environmental issues as the last few have been.

KNOY: So, Peter, does that mean we won't see any movement on the major environmental issues before Congress, such as the Kyoto Treaty on Climate Change that's going to be an issue in the Senate? There's the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, Superfund. All of these major bills need to be renewed.

THOMSON: Yeah, I think we're going to see more of the same. Gridlock. Certainly there was nothing in this election to, I think, sort of push the green agenda up to the top of the list in Congress or even any further up than it's been. And, you know, the Republicans might be quarreling among themselves, but they're still in control, and on balance they're still more conservative than the Democrats. I mean, it might be slightly easier for moderate Republicans and Democrats to forge a majority on some environmental issues, but they don't control the agenda so they're not going to get their way very much.

FITZ PATRICK: I should say, also, this -- I don't think this election result will discourage people who want to try to roll back environmental protection, but it will prevent them, I think, from doing it in a very public way. The stalemate means that environmental policy will be done as it has been in a last-minute backroom dealmaking in the form of riders that get attached to the budget. Very little about the environment seems to be going to the floor these days for straightforward debate or straightforward up or down roll call votes. It seems to be an issue that's used for horse trading.

KNOY: Besides the Congressional races, there were lots of governors up for reelection this time and a lot of state and local ballot initiatives that had to do with the environment. What happened there?

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, there was a phenomenon that kind of exploded across the landscape, so to speak, which is land use management and sprawl and controlling some of the traffic and the gobbling up of open space and the air and water quality issues that are associated with unchecked urban development. There was a wide range of slow growth initiatives, and there were some really mixed results on this. I guess the biggest one was in New Jersey, where there was a billion dollar fund that was created by voters to preserve forests and farms from suburban growth. In Los Angeles, up near Ventura, anti-sprawl zoning was passed. In San Francisco, the idea of mass transit caught on very well. However, their voters didn't support the taxes needed to make a visionary rail transit program really happen. And in Arizona, there was a bit of a mixed result. There was a $200 million fund created to preserve open space, but also, as part of that provision, developers got in a clause that would prohibit communities from drawing urban growth boundary lines around them to protect the natural regions that surround the cities there. This was really just the first salvo, I think, in what's going to be a bigger and bigger hot button issue in the coming elections, because sprawl crosses all sorts of political and ideological boundaries and touches almost everyone. It's something that Al Gore is trying to build on for his presidential campaign in the year 2000. And in a couple of those governor's races, Paris Glendening in Maryland and John Kitsawber in Oregon, sprawl was a big issue and land use management -- some people thought they might lose their jobs because of what were viewed as progressive growth control measures, but in fact they did survive. And that might encourage other governors, particularly Gray Davis, the new governor in California, to embrace this so-called smart growth strategy.

KNOY: What happened in Green Party races in these elections?

THOMSON: Well, they actually picked up a number of offices at the local level, but in terms of statewide and national elections the deck is still really stacked against small parties. And they haven't really been able make much headway. The one significant exception to that is in New Mexico, where the Green Party has really made its presence felt in the last few elections, and they played a role in 2 of the state's 3 Congressional elections this year. In the first district, the Green candidate took 11% of the vote. The Republican won with only 46% of the vote, so I think a lot of Democrats in New Mexico are probably blaming the Greens for their loss there. Meanwhile, in the district around Santa Fe, the Green candidate only got about 5% of the vote, didn't make a difference in this particular race. But she ran very strongly in a previous race for the same office the Democrats lost, and a lot of people are saying that that loss forced the Democrats to run a more progressive candidate this time. That was the state's Attorney General Tom Udall. He picked up the Green mantle and ran with it and he took the seat back for the Democrats.

KNOY: What about Al Lewis of New York? We spoke with him just a few weeks ago.

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah. Yeah. And he seems to have done it for the Greens in New York. He was on the ballot for Governor to get 50,000 votes that the party needed to ensure ballot positions for the Greens up and down the ticket next election. Now he's just below that threshold, but New York counts its absentee ballots very late, so I think he's going to make it. Now, Lewis is most famous, of course, for playing Grandpa on the TV show The Munsters back in the 1960s, and his candidacy was criticized by many as a gimmick, but as a party building tactic for the Greens it seems to be a gimmick that worked.

KNOY: All right. Thanks both of you, very much.

THOMSON: Thanks, Laura.

FITZ PATRICK: My pleasure.

KNOY: Living on Earth's Peter Thomson in San Francisco and Terry FitzPatrick in Seattle.



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