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Unmasking Pretenders

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Voter education campaign shines light on candidates, keeps environment in voters' sights

By Tom Valtin

Does greenscamming work? Wayne Allard did it in Colorado, and he prevailed in November's Senate election despite a full-court press by the Sierra Club to refute his claims. In addition to Allard, candidates with poor environmental records and values spray-painted themselves green this November in New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oregon.

Truth Squad: From left to right, Amy Schlotthauer, Christina Sanchez, Steve Welter, Rebecca Dickson, and Deb Robison get psyched to hit the streets on the Colorado voter education campaign. At right, Sierra Club activists in Atlanta shine the spotlight on the voting record of Senate candidate Saxby Chambliss (R).

"The good news," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, "is that never before have so many people been elected to Congress claiming to care about the air, the water, and the land. The bad news is that an unprecedented number of them didn't mean it."

Greenscamming is simple-you say you're for environmental protection, but you act and vote otherwise. The tactic demonstrates that no candidate for public office wants to be perceived as weak on the environment.

The Sierra Club's Environmental Voter Education Campaign (EVEC), begun in 1998, serves as an environmental lie detector, unmasking pretenders and holding elected officials accountable for their positions. EVEC's mission is not to elect or defeat candidates, but to promote the environmental agenda and make it a central campaign issue.

EVEC operated in Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, and South Dakota in 2002. "Voters want to know where the candidates stand on protecting clean air, safe water, and beautiful places," says Margaret Conway, the Club's political director, "and they trust their neighbors in the Sierra Club to give them the scoop. Our dedicated army of grassroots volunteers sends a powerful message to big polluters: 'You have more money, but we've got more heart, and we'll make our message heard.'"

The most flagrant greenscammer this year was Senator Allard, who consistently receives ratings of near zero from the League of Conservation Voters, which ranks him among the Senate's "Dirty Dozen."

Locked in a tight race this fall, Allard decided it would be a good tactic to tout himself as an environmentalist. In September, his chief of staff told the Denver Post that Allard was an "honorary member of the Sierra Club." Club employees pored over membership records, found the claim was untrue, and told the Post "no such thing." But the Allard campaign stuck with their claim.

With more sleuthing, it was discovered that Allard had once received a standard form letter inviting him to join the Sierra Club, which included a clip-out "temporary membership" card that would become valid upon receipt of the $35 membership fee. Allard opted not to send in $35, but he did clip out the card, which he brandished during this fall's campaign as proof that he had been "honored" by the Club.

Colorado organizer Deb Robison prepared a tongue-in-cheek tip sheet, "Top Ten Ways to Tell That You Are Not Actually a Member of the Sierra Club," which ran in Denver's Rocky Mountain News and was the talk of the town for days (see sidebar).

Turns out Club Executive Director Pope had received a similar form letter and dummy membership card from the Republican Party as a result of contributing money to Senator Lincoln Chaffee (R-R.I.). The Republican Party sent him a thank-you letter, a request for more funds, and an ersatz membership card identifying Pope as "one of the leaders of the Republican Party."

At a September press conference, Allard's campaign manager trumpeted his candidate's green credentials, asserting anew that Allard had been honored by the Sierra Club. The plot thickened two days later at a Club press event-attended by members of the Allard campaign-when Pope pulled out his Republican Party "membership" card.

"I have been identified as a leader in the Republican Party," Pope proclaimed, "and I will trade this for Senator Allard's honorary membership in the Sierra Club." Angry words ensued as Allard's campaign manager-who had arrived with a "dossier" on Pope that he refused to let Pope see-claimed that Pope was just bitter because "we nailed your ass to the wall." At this point Robison suggested to Pope that it might be a good time to leave.

"The day after the election, I actually felt really good about the job we did in Colorado," Robison says. "I don't think Wayne Allard convinced voters he was an environmentalist; voters just had other priorities this year. But it's a big deal that the Allard campaign felt we were a big deal. Sierra Club groups around the state have been receiving phone calls from people wanting to join. We energized our base."

A similar scenario played out in New Hampshire, where candidate John Sununu claimed that he was committed to protecting the environment even though his record as a member of the House suggested otherwise. During a September broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio, when asked about his support for drilling in the Arctic, Sununu replied that "the bear population enjoys walking on [oil pipelines] because it gives them a better vantage point as a scavenger and a predator." The New Hampshire Sierra Club responded, "No polar bears could be reached for comment."

Laura Scott, former Seacoast Group chair for the Club's New Hampshire Chapter, volunteered for New Hampshire EVEC this year. "We succeeded in making the environment one of the top issues in the campaign," she says. "It was always the second or third issue brought up at campaign events, both by voters and by the candidates."

Chapter volunteers attended county fairs, festivals, parades, old-home days-anyplace the public and the candidates were gathered-and handed out literature. "Sometimes a couple of us would go in polar bear suits," Scott says. "Sununu would be working the crowd with a big smile on his face, and then he'd see the polar bears coming his way and the smile would vanish."

Scott feels the strategy paid off, even though Sununu's opponent Jean Shaheen-by far the more environment-friendly candidate-lost. "A year ago, Sununu would never have called himself an environmentalist," she says, "but by this fall that's exactly what he was doing.

"New Hampshire is a conservative state," Scott explains, "but I met a lot of people-hunters, for instance-who don't call themselves 'environmentalists,' but who support what the Club stands for. People were with us in opposing sprawl, stopping highway expansion, and keeping the Arctic free from drilling. And nearly everyone considers air and water quality a big issue."

More than 1,200 volunteers were involved with EVEC this year, and even though election day brought disappointing results, their experience was that the environment is more important to American voters than ever. New Hampshire's Laura Scott sums up the prevailing attitude: "I'm excited about what we did this year," she says. "We laid the groundwork for the next cycle."


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