September 30, 1996 - From the September, 1996 issue

Election Perspective: A Political Comeback for the Environment

By Sam Schuchat, Executive Director, California League of Conservation Voters


Sam Schuchat: “After a spotty record in his first three years, in the past year President Clinton has been speaking and acting more forcefully on the need for environmental protection.”

In recent years, environmental protection has not been a prominent campaign issue in most American elections. Even in California, where the environment is the equivalent of Mom and apple pie, the political community of candidates, consultants, and journalists has relegated it to the back burner, focusing instead on hot-button issues like the economy, education, immigration and crime. But as we enter the home stretch of Election '96, it's clear that the environment has re-emerged as a potent political issue. 

Credit—or blame—Newt Gingrich. Hidden in the fine print of Gingrich's Contract With America were rollbacks of environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency—legislative landmarks achieved over the last 25 years with bipartisan support. By the time Gingrich and his new GOP committee chairmen—supported by a number of Western and Southern Democrats—went so far as to let oil and chemical lobbyists write legislation, the push for "regulatory reform" became front-page news.

Meanwhile, Gingrich's Congressional agenda was being cloned in state capitals around the country—particularly the West, home of the so-called Wise Use Movement. 

In Sacramento, Republicans gained control of the Assembly at the beginning of this year's legislative session, and joined with some Central Valley Democrats to propose legislation that amounts to a California version of the Contract. As this article is being written, bills remain alive in the Legislature that would weaken the California Safe Drinking Water Act, deregulate pesticides and make it harder to prosecute oil and chemical spills. 

But this assault on public health and natural resources has not gone unnoticed by voters. There is abundant evidence that an overwhelming majority of Americans don't want their politicians to roll back a generation of environmental progress. In fact, any number of polls shows that Americans want more environmental protection, not less.

  • Once voters learned what was going on under the guise of the Contract, they began to send Washington a clear message: Hands off the environment. Moderate green Republicans in Congress, wary of voter retribution, warned the Speaker to back off. Gingrich's own pollster reported that "when it comes to the environment… our party is out of sync with mainstream American opinion."
  • In July, a Los Angeles Times poll of Republicans in Orange County—perhaps the most conservative part of the nation—found that while nearly all of the county's state legislators support rollbacks of environmental laws, the vast majority of their constituents hold just the opposite view. Eighty-two percent said they agree on the need for stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment.
  • A statewide poll conducted for the California League of Conservation Voters found that Californians, in every part of the state, show strong concern for environmental issues that affect public health, such as clean water, clean air and toxic waste. Seventy-one percent of Californians likely to vote this November say they'd be less likely to support a candidate who voted to weaken safe drinking water laws; 68 percent less likely to vote for a politician who wants to relax toxic waste regulations; and 64 percent less likely to support a candidate who favored weakening air pollution regulations.
  • Concern for these public health issues is even higher in Los Angeles County than in the state as a whole. In the CLCV poll, 82 percent of L.A. voters ranked air pollution as an issue of high importance; 69 percent gave toxic waste a high importance ranking, and 68 percent were highly concerned about the quality of their drinking water. 

Our poll shows that the environment is a particularly powerful issue with the "swing" voters, such as suburban women, who decide close elections. This has clearly registered with both national parties. 

After a spotty record in his first three years, in the past year President Clinton has been speaking and acting more forcefully on the need for environmental protection—vowing to veto budget bills that contain anti-environmental riders, announcing a restoration program for the Everglades, and refusing to allow the proposed nuclear waste dump at Ward Valley, California, to go forward until more safety tests are completed. The White House, concerned that enough Californians might defect to Green Party nominee Ralph Nader to endanger Clinton's lead in a state he has to win, has also dispatched aides on several missions to LA and San Francisco to reassure enviros of the President's commitment. 

For the Republicans' part, Gingrich has moved to soften his image by convening a GOP environmental task force (although he stacked it with Wise Users), advising Republican candidates to stage tree-plantings, and even going on The Tonight Show to cuddle with endangered species. Bob Dole, on the other hand, may not have quite gotten the message: Last month he stopped in a Northern California timber town to accuse Clinton of "environmental extremism," although he took care to note that a healthy environment and healthy economy aren't necessarily at odds with each other. 

At this point, with Clinton holding a substantial lead in the polls, the real battlegrounds look to be in the congressional and state legislative races. Democrats appear to have a shot at re­capturing majorities in the House and the Assembly, and increasing their slim margin in the state Senate. While this would not usher in a green millennium, it would return control of key committees to advocates, rather than opponents, of environmental protection. 

Mindful of this, environmental groups are mounting their strongest election efforts ever. 

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The California League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action, the national League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have all targeted key state and national races where contributions, organizing and advertising can play a part in electing environmentally responsible candidates or defeating anti-environmental incumbents. (CLCV and the national LCV are similar, but separate, political action committees that operate independently.) 

Here are some of the LA County races where the environmental vote should be a factor. (Environmental voting records are from LCV's National Environmental Scorecard and CLCV's California Environmental Scorecard.) 

CONGRESS:

In District 26 (Malibu, West Valley) Brad Sherman (D) and Rich Sybert (R) have a close race to succeed retiring Rep. Tony Bielenson (D), a stalwart environmentalist. In District 27 (Pasadena, Burbank), Doug Kahn (D) takes on Assemblyman Jim Rogan (R), who has one of the worst environmental voting records in the Legislature. In District 36 (Venice, Torrance), Rep. Jane Harman (D) carries a 88 percent pro-environmental record into a rematch with Susan Brooks (R). And in District 38 (Long Beach), environmental attorney Rick Zbur (D) challenges Rep. Steve Horn, one of the few California Republicans in Congress to approach a 50 percent score.

STATE SENATE: 

In District 21 (Pasadena, Burbank), Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R) puts her 11 percent environmental score on the line against Adam Schiff (D), who had a strong environmental record as a federal prosecutor. In District 27 (Long Beach), Betty Karnette (D), who scored 78 percent during a previous stint in the Assembly, challenges Assemblyman Phil Hawkins (R), another consistently anti-environmental vote. 

ASSEMBLY:

In District 44 (Pasadena), incumbent Bill Hoge (R), with a 12 percent score, faces a strong challenge from City College President Jack Scott (D). In District 53 (Redondo Beach to Marina Del Rey), the strong environmental record of Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D) will be a key to holding off moderate Republican Dan Walker. And in District 54 (Long Beach), Assemblyman Steve Kuykendall's (R) disappointing environmental record may make him vulnerable to a challenge by Democrat Gerrie Schipske, a public health nurse and educator. 

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