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The Planet

Voters: Start Your Engines

By Mike Newman
National Political Representative

What was the most endangered species in America in 1998? Pacific salmon? The Florida panther?

Try the anti-environmental member of Congress. Thanks to the hard work of Sierra Club volunteers around the country, we knocked off Sens. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) and Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) and three other anti-environment incumbents. We helped our friends as well: We won 38 of our 43 priority races.

Now we're one year away from the next round of national elections -- and they're already shaping up to be some of the most pivotal in recent history. Control of the White House, Senate and House will be determined on Nov. 7, 2000.

"Without pro-environment elected officials, we'll never have a chance to achieve our conservation goals," said Ken Brame, chair of the Sierra Club Political Committee (SCPC). "And the Club's involvement can make a huge difference." After the 1998 election, he pointed out, The Economist magazine called the Sierra Club "the group with the biggest return on (its) investment" electing pro-environment candidates.

What's at stake? The fate of precious wildlands, such as Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Utah's red rock wilderness. Progress on reducing air and water pollution. Protection for national forests.

In early October, the SCPC held its off-year political training in Washington, D.C., to prepare the troops for the coming elections. More than 70 volunteers from around the country gathered to add political skills to their activist toolbox.

One, Steve Baru of Overland Park, Kan., was a key volunteer in the upset victory of challenger Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) over incumbent Vince Snowbarger (R-Kan.) in 1998. "It was so frustrating watching Snowbarger routinely vote against the environment," Baru said. "And our political work there didn't just elect a new environmental champion, it strengthened our chapter in the process."

The political program aims to inject environmental issues into campaign debates and elect a pro-environment president and Congress. In some races, the Club will run advertisements highlighting an incumbent's bad record. But in most places we'll rely on the tried-and-true tactic of having volunteers go door to door. It's still the best way to connect with voters.

In 2000, we expect to be heavily involved in approximately 10 Senate and 50 House races. A switch in a handful of seats could restore a pro-environment majority to Congress.

In many districts, the Club will endorse candidates. Chapter and group political committees make most of the Club's endorsements; for federal-level candidates, they make the endorsement in conjunction with the national political committee.

The Club also has a political action committee that raises money from Club members specifically for electoral work. In 1998, the Club spent more than $500,000 on behalf of pro-environmental candidates. We hope to significantly increase that next year.

Another way the Club will be involved next year is through the Environmental Voter Education Campaign, in which we aim to serve as an "environmental truth squad" to help the public distinguish the true environmental champions from the pretenders. These activities are not about telling citizens who to vote for, but educating them about the candidates' records on major environmental issues.

As for the presidential race, the Club board of directors has not made a decision whether to endorse presidential candidates in the primary or general election. Both Democratic contenders -- Bill Bradley and Al Gore -- have good environmental records far superior to any of the candidates in the Republican field. However, making an endorsement is a big decision for the Club and will require broad consultation with Club chapters, groups and other entities.

A presidential endorsement should be made only when it's clear that it could make a difference in how the issues are debated and in the final outcome of the campaign.To get involved in the Club's political program, contact your local chapter. For more information, contact the political desk at (202) 675-7917, political.desk@sierraclub.org.


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