Voting for the Planet:
The fight against big money continues
For the first time in modern American history, voters woke up the day after the
election not knowing who their next president would be. Amid the confusion, however, one
heartening electoral message became clear: Americans care deeply about the environment.
No recount was necessary to show that the combined vote totals for environmental
champions Al Gore and Ralph Nader form a solid green majority. Eighty percent of the 204
Sierra Club-endorsed candidates won their congressional races. And in the most crucial
contests targeted by the Club, environmentally friendly candidates won, as of press time,
in 9 (and possibly 10) of 13 Senate races, and in 29 (possibly 30) of 41 for the House.
"The American people want the next president and Congress to continue protecting
the environment," says Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. "Our elected
officials ignore that mandate at their peril."
The state-by-state results validate Pope's warning. One of the tightest contests-and
biggest upsets-was in Michigan, where Representative Debbie Stabenow (D) defeated
incumbent Senator Spencer Abraham (R). The Sierra Club had targeted Abraham for defeat,
citing his dismal voting record (the League of Conservation Voters ranked him tenth worst
in the Senate) and his acceptance of almost half a million dollars from polluting
industries last year alone, more than any other member of Congress.
resonated with voters in Michigan, which has five national parks and more shoreline than
any state but Alaska. In contrast, Stabenow's sterling record of protecting clean air,
clean water, and open spaces helped propel her to victory, despite being outspent two to
one. An aide to Michigan's governor blamed Abraham's defeat on "environmental
organizations like the Sierra Club."
Overall in the Senate, victories by Stabenow, Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), Hillary Rodham
Clinton (D-N.Y.), the late Mel Carnahan (D-Mo.)-whose seat will be filled by his wife,
Jean-and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) strengthen the environmental voting bloc. (As Sierra went to
press, in Washington State, former Representative Maria Cantwell (D) was only a handful of
absentee-ballot votes away from unseating Senator Slade Gorton (R), long the bane of
Northwest environmentalists.) And while Republican control of the House promises continued
dominance of key committees by anti-environmentalists, the chamber did grow slightly more
verdant with open-seat victories by Richard Larsen (D-Wash.) and Jim Matheson (D-Utah).
The nearly equal balance of power in Congress will make it difficult for either party
to push its legislative agenda, magnifying the necessity of coalition-building across
party lines. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are already working to find
common ground between environmentalists on both sides of the aisle, says Sierra Club
political director Dan Weiss.
At the top of the Club's agenda is protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from
oil drilling, preserving roadless areas in our national forests, and safeguarding our
newest national monuments. In addition, says Weiss, promoting campaign-finance reform will
be a strong focus. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) has promised to try to move his
McCain-Feingold bill early in the session, and the new seats picked up by reformers will
make the vote very close. "More and more Sierra Club members recognize that the only
way to even the playing field between big-money interests and environmentalists is to
reform the way we finance campaigns," says Weiss.
But even McCain-Feingold wouldn't fix what ails the initiative process. Activists in
both Colorado and Arizona saw the defeat of their anti-sprawl initiatives, which had been
described by the New York Times as "the most wide-ranging growth-control measures
ever proposed on a statewide ballot." As late as September, polls had shown both
measures, which would have required many cities and counties to adopt growth-management
plans, enjoying strong voter support.
But in the last few weeks of the campaign,
construction companies and other business interests poured close to $6 million into the
Colorado race and more than $4 million into Arizona. The moral, says Weiss, is that
"big money used well can still beat a good idea."
Even if campaign-finance reform passes, big money would still have the upper hand in
these contests, since the Supreme Court has ruled against spending-limits on initiatives.
"The initiative process has become a creature of the corporate interests it was
created to tame," Carl Pope says.
Whatever the setbacks, environmental issues were probably more crucial to the 2000
election than in any previous contest. As early as the New Hampshire primary, Bush
campaign manager Karl Rove blamed Sierra Club ads criticizing George W. Bush's
environmental record for his loss in that state. As the race went on, the candidates'
environmental positions remained a sharp dividing line between them. In Washington State,
polls showed that an amazing 88 percent of the voters were aware of Bush's poor record,
while 43 percent of Oregon voters said that they were less likely to vote for Bush because
Does Pope have any regrets, then, about the Sierra Club's electoral efforts? "I
just wish," he says, "that we had done more in Florida."