Environmentalists Take Heart at Election Victories in 2012

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Bruce Hamilton, deputy director of the Sierra Club, talks about the successes of the election –

By Glynn Wilson

CAMP BECKWITH, Ala. — It may come as something of a shock to conservatives in Alabama and liberals around the country to know that environmentalists won a major victory in the election of 2012 when voters overwhelmingly re-approved the popular and successful Forever Wild program for another 20 years by a margin of 75-25 percent in spite of some corporate Republican opposition. While president Barack Obama only received a little more than 38 percent of the vote in Alabama, nationally environmentalists are taking credit for helping the president win reelection and for playing a critical role in helping the Democrats gain critical seats in the Senate and the House.

Bruce Hamilton, deputy director of the Sierra Club, talked about the successes of the election as keynote speaker Saturday night at the Alabama Sierra Club’s annual retreat in Baldwin County.

He said while the election results came “as a great relief” for many, some might look at the situation in Washington and say nothing much has changed with Obama still in the White House, Republican John Boehner still Speaker of a majority Republican House and Mitch McConnell still an obstructionist minority leader in the Senate with the power of the filibuster.

“Frankly, a lot has changed,” he said.

President Obama doesn’t have to run for reelection, so he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder anymore, Hamilton said. “Now he’s playing for legacy.”

Also, the future of “Obamacare” is “no longer front and center,” he said. “That is now the law of the land and their (Republicans) pipe dreams about repealing this are past. So we’re going to have to figure out how to live with it and go on with other issues.”

While for the past few years the tea party has been one of the biggest stories out there, he said: “Now the tea party is in decline and disrepute.”

When Republican candidates see what happened to right-wing Republican candidates like Todd Akin of Missouri, who lost to Democrat Claire McCaskill, they may think twice about “going too far to the right,” Hamilton said.

The environmental community scored a number of electoral successes this year in Montana, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut, winning seven of eight targeted Senate races and three targeted House races.

In Montana, the Sierra Club and other groups spent $1.1 million to register about 30,000 voters by mail and helped reelect Democrat Jon Tester to the Senate over Republican Denny Rehberg. They helped McCaskill fight off the challenge from the likes of Akin.

In New Mexico, the Sierra Club beat back major corporate money from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. While who knows how many millions the unaccountable Republican groups spent — thanks to Citizens United v. FEC — the environmental groups spent $2 million on phone, mail and attack ads against Republican challenger Heather Wilson in the House race won by Democrat Martin Heinrich, beating Karl Rove at his own game.

They also helped Democrat Sherrod Brown hold onto to his Senate seat in Ohio in the face of a major conservative challenge from Republican opponent Josh Mandel.

“Those are people who can now be a little bolder and urge the president to do the same,” Hamilton said.

In addition, the groups got a number of “trade ups” in both houses of Congress that make a difference in the overall “green” makeup of the federal government.

While Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who retired, was a solid vote for the Sierra Club on the Energy and Environment Committee, Hamilton said, he was sort of “tepid” and willing to compromise. He is being replaced by another Democrat, Mark Heinrich, who was at one time on the executive committee of the Sierra Club in New Mexico.

“He is one of our real champions,” Hamilton said. “Now we have someone who really understands what a clear energy revolution looks like.”

In Maine, moderate Republican Olympia Snow decided to retire in 2012 rather than seek reelection in an increasingly hostile conservative environment in her party. She is being replaced by Former Governor Angus King, who ran as an independent who will caucus with the Democrats. He is a wind power entrepreneur who was endorsed by the Sierra Club.

“He ran a very pro-environment state government when he was governor,” Hamilton said.

There was also the upset victory of Democrat Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts over Republican Scott Brown. And with moderate Joe Lieberman gone in Connecticut, replaced by Democrat Chris Murphy, “another died in the wool environmentalist,” Hamilton said, those two seats are also considered “trade ups.”

“These make very big differences for us,” Hamilton said. “So we are really hopeful about changing the tone and the debate. They (the tea party Republicans) are not going to get away with challenging climate change anymore.”

One Loss

The one major loss the Sierra Club admits came in Michigan. In spite of spending more than $10 million to support a constitutional amendment to require 25 percent of the state’s electric power to come from renewable energy by 2025, Michigan voters shot down all six amendments on the ballot.

Moving Forward

Without a super majority of 60 in the Senate, however, and with the Republicans still holding onto a 234-197 seat majority in the House, it’s not like the people should expect a lot of major legislative successes in the next two years at least, Hamilton said. “But at least President Obama will have support on the hill rather then people constantly dragging him up there and reading him the riot act.”

It’s also interesting to note that while it was the Republicans who controlled the redistricting process in 2010, it was the Democrats who picked up seats, Hamilton said. “That tells you something about what’s going on in this country.”

While the environment hardly seemed like a major political issue in the presidential race judging by the questions and issues in the debates, he said, the environment played key roles in many Senate and House races in states like Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Maine.

“Clean energy was one of the main issues under discussion,” Hamilton said. “That was one of the key issues that turned those elections.”

In California, voters approved a proposition closing a tax loophole that will bring in about $1 billion from out of state companies selling goods in the state. Half of that money will go to clean energy initiatives. Voters there also passed tax increases to fund education and to restore state environmental programs that had been threatened by budget cuts.

The fact that people are willing to tax themselves even in the difficult economy, Hamilton said, “is really heartening.”

This is Part One of a two part series. Part Two will deal with the Sierra Club’s thoughts on the future of not only the environment in the U.S., but with democracy itself.

Bruce Hamilton has worked for the Sierra Club for more than 35 years, starting out as a regional organizer in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Northern Plains states. He served as National Field Director, National Conservation Director, and he has been involved in designing and implementing campaigns to promote Smart Energy Solutions, to preserve America’s Wild Legacy and to support Safe Healthy Communities at the local, state, regional, federal and international levels. He most recently developed and now helps to lead the club’s Beyond Natural Gas Campaign and the Resilient Habitats Campaign, which has the goal of protecting native species and ecosystems from climate change. Hamilton served on the Environmental Support Center Board of Directors, the U.S. Department of Energy Environmental Advisory Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Advisory Council on Sustainable Economies. He is presently a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas. Prior to joining the Sierra Club staff he was the Field Editor of High Country News (an environmental news magazine covering the West) and was an environmental consultant drafting federal environmental impact statements. He received a B.S. summa cum laude in Wildlife Biology and Natural Resources Administration from Colorado State University in 1973.

Originally published on November 12, 2012 in The Locust Fork News-Journal.

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.