Unhappy with the politicians who represent you?
Why not become one?
By Tom Valtin and Brian
||From the Sierra
Club to public office. Click
here for a sample of "homegrown" Sierra Club politicians,
like the ones shown here. From top to bottomw: Deborah Dawkins, Randy
Zurcher, Michael Merrifield, and Spencer Black.
Deborah Dawkins, a self-described "cowgirl
from Fort Worth," got involved with the Sierra Club when she moved
to Mississippi and fell in love with the Gulf Coast. As a Club activist,
she traveled frequently to the capitol in Jackson to lobby her state senator
on issues she cared
about. When the senator told her, "There’s nothing I can do," she
ran for his seat—and won.
From the White House on down to county commissioner, too many of our
elected officials are paying more attention to their developer and industry
not enough to protecting the environment. The Sierra Club is always pressuring
politicians to do the right thing, but all too often these attempts fall
on deaf ears. So what do we do? Throw the bums out and get someone better,
Right, except sometimes a good man or woman is hard to find. That’s where "growing
our own" makes sense. Sometimes the best-qualified candidate for
the city council might be sitting in our midst, chairing our clean air
Nationwide, the Sierra Club endorses and works for thousands of candidates,
from city council members to county supervisors to U.S. senators to presidential
Chapter and group political committees make most of the Club’s
endorsements; for federal-level candidates, they make the endorsement
with the national political committee.
"One of the basic tenets of the Sierra Club’s Political Program is
working with politicians to turn them into good votes for the environment," says
Scott Taylor, the program’s chair. "Obviously, that job is
much easier when they start with a love for the outdoors, but it is rare
for a ‘friendly
politician’ to become a true leader. Environmental leadership comes
from a commitment to an ideal. That true believer, the politician who
makes the environment
the most important thing on their agenda, almost always comes from growing
our own. It can be a daunting prospect—giving up hikes to sit in
city council meetings, taking ‘urban hikes’ ringing doorbells—but
it is vitally important."
Many who have made the jump from activism to political office experienced
a crucial point of discovery through the Sierra Club. Others had been
even before joining, but gained new confidence in their ability to participate
in politics through the Club.
"If it hadn’t been for my involvement with the Sierra Club, I would
never have considered running for office," says Melisssa Gardner of Omaha,
Nebraska, a Club activist and staffer who now serves on the board of the Papio-Missouri
Natural Resources District. "The Club showed me how to turn my environmental
dreams and wishes into an effective grassroots public outreach campaign.
no better way to learn than by doing, and that is where the Sierra Club
In the late 1960s, an Akron lawyer named John Seiberling became active
in the Ohio Sierra Club. He decided to run for Congress, primarily to
protect the Cuyahoga
Valley between Akron and Cleveland. He won, got the Cuyahoga Valley National
Recreation Area established a few years later, and went on to chair the
House Interior Committee subcommittee responsible for Alaska lands legislation,
of the most important pieces of conservation legislation ever.
Seiberling’s rise was an environmental best-case scenario, but there is
near-unanimity among environmentalists in office that getting green candidates
elected to local- and state-level positions is the key to real and lasting environmental
change. "Local politics is the place to be," says veteran environmentalist
Richard Worthen, who spent nearly two decades as a county board member in Madison
County, Illinois. "Start where you feel comfortable. Run for school board,
library board, precinct committeeman. You’ll meet all the local
politicians, some state politicians, and the federal ones will show
up eventually. One
person does make a difference."
Mississippian Dawkins, a former operating room technician, is now vice
chair of the state Environment Protection, Conservation and Water Committee.
her first term she introduced several strong environmental measures
that were ultimately killed by the committee chair, who Dawkins describes
as cozy with
industry. "But I’ll keep on introducing them," she declares. "There
are some good candidates running for state office here. There’s
an opportunity for a real sea change in this state."
Inspiring New Leaders
For Phillip Bimstein, a musician and former Chicagoan, a personal sea
change occurred when he vacationed in southern Utah and was blown
away by the
red rock canyons, wild geological formations, and open vistas reaching
horizons. He returned home a changed person and freshly-inspired
composer. Shortly thereafter,
he received a letter from the Sierra Club. "My first act of
political advocacy was because of that mailing I received from
the Club," says Bimstein. "The
BLM was considering turning over an area of pristine land to development,
so I wrote a letter to an elected official in protest."
In the late ‘80s, Bimstein moved to Springdale, Utah, the gateway town
to Zion National Park. He joined the Sierra Club, and five years later he became
the town’s mayor. In office, he partnered with Zion’s director to
create a shuttle system that brought visitors into the park from the town center,
decreasing auto congestion, pollution, and noise within the park. He was one
of the few elected officials to celebrate the opening of Grand Staircase-Escalante
National Monument with President Clinton in 1996, and he has made several trips
to Washington to testify before House and Senate subcommittees in support of
America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act.
Similar epiphanies can take place right in one’s own backyard. Oregon state
Representative Charlie Ringo was a lawyer who had never considered running for
office until he attended a presentation about the Columbia River Gorge with some
friends who were Sierra Club members. "I was shocked at how critical one
state senator was of environmentalists and the very idea of protecting the gorge," he
recalls. "I thought, there’s no reason I couldn’t be up there
countering him with a more convincing point of view." It took
several years and countless hours of walking door-to-door before
he was elected
to the state
legislature, but that event was a turning point for Ringo.
The Sierra Club also served as a catalyst for former Fayetteville,
Arkansas, city councilman Randy Zurcher. "The Club played a huge role in my political
development," says Zurcher, now a Green Party organizer in Savannah, Georgia. "It
gave me an association and an affiliation, and it taught me about
leadership and working together."
Zurcher had been troubled by overdevelopment in Fayetteville. "There was
rampant sprawl," he says, "lots of new gas stations,
traffic lights, rezoning from agricultural to commercial, and there
growing sense that
Fayetteville was losing its charm."
He started showing up at city council meetings and speaking out. "The
city council candidate in my district was a developer who wanted
to put a strip mall
in the middle of an historic district. So I ran for his seat on
neighborhood integrity, the need for planning, and the need to
While Zurcher was in office, a department store chain announced
that it wanted to cut down more than 90 old-growth oak trees to
new store. "There
was a city ordinance against doing this," he says, "but
the city council caved and gave them permission."
Zurcher was outraged. "I took photos, mobilized people, and the next thing
you know a 53-year-old grandmother climbed up in one of the trees to protest
and wouldn’t come down." The local Sierra Club excom pitched in to
buy her food and drink, and when Zurcher brought her provisions he was arrested—as,
ultimately, were 31 other people. "The Sierra Club and the press were all
over it," he recalls. Sadly, the developer plowed ahead and
cut down all the trees.
"The silver lining," Zurcher says, "is that people in
Fayetteville immediately realized what had been lost. It ushered
in a change in
attitude about development,
similar I think to the way New Yorkers started to value historic
buildings in their city only after Penn Station got torn down."
Kay McGinn was a New Yorker and a nurse who says she was always
aware of environmental effects on health, but she didn’t
join the Sierra Club until she moved to Florida and cut back to
attending local Sierra
Club meetings, and shortly thereafter ran for city commissioner
as an environmentalist concerned about overdevelopment. She is
mayor of Pompano Beach.
McGinn has fought back several large-scale development proposals—including
an Enron diesel-burning power plant and an airport expansion that would have
wiped out habitat for endangered species. "It’s so important for environmentalists
to run for office," she opines. "There’s a lack
of people in office who are dedicated to the common good. The environment
cause, and it benefits everybody."
The Road to Public Office
Spencer Black became a Club member in the 1970s, mostly due to
his interest in Alaska public lands. He met local activists
at a Wisconsin
park, started leading Club outings and getting involved with
the local chapter, and eventually became chapter chair. In time he
as a staffer in
the Club’s Midwest office. "But as I tried to influence voters and policymakers," he
says, "it became increasingly obvious to me that the fate
of the outdoors is very much influenced by decisions made indoors."
Black ran for the state assembly, where he is now serving his
tenth term. As chair of the Environmental Resources Committee,
some of the nation’s strongest legislation on acid rain and recycling,
and he is widely considered the leading environmentalist in the Wisconsin legislature. "Even
as minority leader I’ve been able to make a difference," he says. "Legislators
look to their colleagues for information, and if you’re
in office you can speak to them directly. You can prioritize
is greater than just one vote."
Virginia House member Albert Pollard, a former chapter director,
says the Sierra Club taught him how to write a plan for transforming
into results. "The political process can be frustratingly slow," he
says, "but good things can and do happen. I’m a Democrat representing
the most Republican-leaning district in the state, which demonstrates to me that
politics is about the issues and helping people. It shouldn’t be about
a party agenda." Pollard is the only member of the General
Assembly to receive a 100 percent rating from the Virginia
League of Conservation
Sierra Club ExCom member Alex Forman saw himself as a protest candidate
when he ran for the Municipal Water Board in Marin County,
California. The local
newspaper and a bevy of legislators endorsed his opponent,
but her position on the county’s
water policy, which would have encouraged sprawl, was exactly what he was running
against. Forman won a lopsided victory. "My opponent was anointed by the
establishment," he says, "but I learned from walking the neighborhoods
that if you come across as honest and concerned, that goes a long way, even if
you’re running against people with big-name endorsements."
"In a state rep’s race, you have to shake hands with more people than
your opponent," says Brian Schatz, a two-term representative in Hawaii’s
House. "It’s not complicated, but it’s difficult!"
"Start early," suggests Michael Merrifield, state representative in
out to every chicken dinner and BBQ—anywhere where there
are 5 or 6 people meeting together. And start raising money
"Go where the people are," concurs Barbara Green, a longtime Club activist
and now a supervisor in Nevada County, California. "In
my race, in a rural county, we found most people visited the
so we handed
material outside the P.O."
How the Sierra Club Helped
Many green candidates are given a boost by their local Sierra
Club group. Brett Hulsey, an activist and Club staffer, is
also a county
in Dane County,
Wisconsin. (The part-time county board job, he quips, is "like
working at a convenience store, but without the glamour.")
Hulsey says the local Sierra Club group endorsed him, provided
As a supervisor, he has written, co-sponsored, and promoted
bills to protect water quality, preserve habitat, and combat
sprawl. He wrote
a stormwater ordinance that was the first in the nation to
protect trout streams from thermal pollution.
Michigan state Representative Aldo Vagnozzi, another strong
voice for the environment, says Club fundraisers and volunteer
putting him in
strongly believe I could not have been elected without the support of the Sierra
Club and other environmental groups," he says.
Even running in what looks like a ‘can’t win’ situation gives
voice to policies that are important and would otherwise be ignored," says
Vagnozzi’s colleague Jack Minore.
The world of politics can appear to be an exclusive club," says Oregon Representative
Charlie Ringo, "but it doesn’t require any extraordinary talents.
Anyone can run for office. If you are committed, don’t
be deterred or discouraged."
Not getting discouraged can sometimes take resilience. Kansas
activist Steve Baru, a Republican and president of a financial
firm, has held numerous
leadership positions in the Kansas Chapter. "Because of my Club background," he
says, "community leaders asked me to participate in local
task forces on transportation, sprawl, and economic development,
Republicans asked me to run for the Kansas House of Representatives.
Most of the money I raised came from Sierra Club activists
around the country.
a letter signed by four chapter chairs and I got a great internet
Baru says Sierra Club affiliation is a positive in his district. "There’s
a level of trust on issues like clean water and transit," he says. "I
knocked on every registered Republican’s door in my district, and I got
no argument on my environmental views. But a lot of folks said they couldn’t
vote for me because I was pro-choice. The right-to-life issue killed me." Undaunted,
Baru is considering a run for the state Senate next year.
For green candidates in conservative districts, Mississippi
legislator Dawkins offers this advice: "Several strong environmental candidates in Mississippi
have been defeated because they looked too ‘crunchy granola.’ Try
to look like a PTA member. I’ll always be an environmentalist, but when
I’m campaigning I dress like a businesswoman."
Virginia representative Pollard stresses that, "whether you win or lose,
running for office is a rewarding experience that creates the debate about protecting
our natural resources." He cautions that green candidates should realize
that voters respect the passion of environmental advocates, but care about many
other issues. "People love candidates who are passionate," he says. "They
do not, by and large, like zealots."
Richard Worthen, the former county board member from Illinois,
says political success is a matter of working toward goals
incrementally. "It’s an
extremely slow process," he warns. "In some ways politics and advocacy
are very different. Advocacy requires standing up with a backbone for what you
believe is right. Politicians compromise; advocates don’t. I’ve
been both, sometimes at the same time. I was a pariah at the
start of my political career, and an insider at the end.
"Growing our own is even more important than lobbying," he asserts. "Our
lobbyists don’t have money to ‘buy’ legislators
the way corporations do; they only have the goodness of our
issues to convince legislators to go with
us. But we can utilize the power of the people if we get involved
in local politics. If state and federal politicians see that
people are taking strong environmental
positions locally, they’ll figure they had better do
"Don’t be shy about becoming a candidate," exhorts Spencer Black. "Environmentalists
make great elected officials!"
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