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LCV's Callahan, NRDC's Wetstone evaluate enviro performance in the 2004 elections

How do environmental groups evaluate their effectiveness in influencing the '04 election? What are their strategies moving forward? Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, and Greg Wetstone of NRDC join OnPoint for their insight on how environmental groups view their political and policy challenges.

Transcript

Darren Samuelsohn: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. With us today is Greg Wetstone, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters. Also with us is Ben Geman, reporter from Environment & Energy Daily and Greenwire. Thanks for being with us today.

Greg Wetstone: My pleasure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Today we're going to be talking about the 2004 presidential election and the congressional elections and also the policy and political strategies of two major environmental groups going forward for the next four years with a second Bush administration and also with even stronger Republican majorities in Congress. Deb, let's start with you. The League of Conservation Voters last year spent $8 million in the congressional and presidential elections. The LCV endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time, I'm sorry, the earliest time that they've ever done that. You've focused on eight swing states, unfortunately for your group, you came up short on five of those states. I'm wondering, LCV has a tendency to score congressmen, senators, I'm wondering, how would you score the League of Conservation Voters in this last round?

Deb Callahan: Well first of all, in just a little amendment we targeted five states in the presidential election. We had eight top tier congressional races. We actually won seven of eight of our top tier congressional races and so that was actually the best congressional showing we'd ever had. We won three out of the five of our presidential states, but of course, we know John Kerry did not become president. He is who we endorsed, and we did endorse him earlier than we ever had endorsed someone before, because of his incredibly strong environmental record. We made a shift into grassroots organizing and that was something which we felt was very important this election because our base wanted to get involved in this campaign and we wanted to give them a place to get in there and walk precincts and get involved and volunteer so they could really get engaged in this presidential election. I'm actually going to be taking a tour over the next month, going to every one of these states and having open town meetings with our volunteers to find out what do they want to do next with these networks we built in the campaigns. Because what we've discovered is the environmental base is ready to get re-engaged in grassroots politics in a big way. So we feel, in that sense, that we had a very, very good election though. Certainly we had hoped to have some results differently in some of these key races.

Darren Samuelsohn: Would you say you passed at least? Give yourself a grade.

Deb Callahan: I think, in terms of our effort it was the best campaigns that we had run in the nine years that I've been with LCV. I give our programs a B+ or an A.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Deb Callahan: So we are very proud of our work even though Kerry didn't win. But again, seven of eight congressional campaigns a win, that's a pretty good campaign record in American politics, especially from an environmental perspective.

Ben Geman: I thought it was interesting that you guys, my sense is that for the first time you put a significant amount of money into the presidential contest. You know going forward to the midterms and then to the '08 race, far away as it is, are we going to see any more shifts in tactics and do you think you're going to put a lot of money into the '08 race, the '08 presidential race?

Deb Callahan: Well, my board will decide if I'm going to put a lot of money into the '08, but again, environmental issues continue to be terribly important issues in so many ways around this country. And I will point out to you that, though in the general election we didn't have what I would call a vibrant environmental debate, in the primaries all those Democrats who were running for the nomination actually talked a lot about specific environmental issues in the specific states that they were in. I think that Ken Salazar, for instance, who won the Senate seat in Colorado, his theme was protecting Colorado's land, water and people. So I think environment played in some of these places. We intend to absolutely stay with the grassroot strategy. We're starting to build what I believe is a new political movement in this country from the ground up and that's where politics really happens.

Ben Geman: But unclear whether it will involve specifically the '08 presidential race in a big way, the way it did in '04 for the first time?

Deb Callahan: Well, you know again, we were in five states in '04. We expect to be in more states building a grassroots network in '06 that will give us even more infrastructure going into the '08 cycle. You never want to presuppose 3-and-a-half years down the line, but it's hard for me to imagine that LCV as the leading political environmental organization in this country won't be sleeves rolled up in the presidential election in '08. I think we're going to have a lot more infrastructure to work with than we even did in '04.

Ben Geman: Fair enough. Greg, I wanted turn to you for a second. There's been a lot of soul-searching of late within the environmental movement. I'm sure you're both very familiar with this essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," and what I wanted to ask is, is it true that it's time for a very, very broad shift in thinking within the environmental community going forward and are we starting to see that shift?

Greg Wetstone: I think actually there has been a shift in thinking in the environmental community over the last maybe four to five years, and I think you've seen efforts where the environmental community has really been focusing on broadening its base, on improving ways to communicate. I think we need to do more of that, clearly, going forward, but I also think you have to look at the realities of how the environmental community has done in the past several years and the long list of very serious challenges we faced within Congress that we surmounted, including, for four years running, the Bush administration's energy bill which was extremely destructive and a grave concern. You know we're going to probably fight that battle again, the effort to weaken the Clean Air Act, on a bill that is ironically named Clear Skies, the same thing. You know, there's a long list of these battles that the community, I think, has defied the odds on. I'm hopeful we'll continue to do it. We're not done. We need to continue to do better, to reach out better and I think in a variety of areas there's a sense that well, you know, perhaps the election is a reflection of lack of support on some of these domestic issues. I certainly don't think that's true in the environment. We saw no indication that the overwhelming majority of the American public that supports strong environmental protection has retrenched at all. I think that becomes increasingly important now as we face some pretty serious threats in the coming Congress. I feel like, given the threats we face, we're very lucky that we do have the level of public support we do and we see evidence of it in the way that our opponents talk about their issues, that an effort to weaken the Clean Air Act is called Clear Skies, because they don't want to face the public wrath for moving backwards. You see that played out again and again. We've seen the memos from the president's own pollsters documenting that environment can be a huge liability for his party if they don't position themselves as saying they're moving forward. We need to be in a place where we can work with both parties moving forward. I think that's where we are on a public basis, it's really the congressional leadership where we haven't crossed that bridge yet. But I think the public is there from both parties.

Darren Samuelsohn: Greg, you've seen in the immediate, after the election in terms of the start of the 109th Congress, President Bush came out with the State of the Union, called for the moving of his energy bill, called for the moving of the Clear Skies bill. He's also signed into law already the class action bill, so clearly there's a push from the Republicans with larger majorities to move Bush's agenda here in the second term. Has your job gotten harder with just a couple more Senate seats going into the Republican side of the column?

Greg Wetstone: Well, I think that it's difficult, it's not clear to me whether it's harder because you look at some of the votes and some of the folks who left, you know, they may have been Democrats, they didn't always vote with us. I believe that we're positioned well to shine a spotlight on these policies and the big difference between where we are now and having a public fight on Clean Air and where we were really four years ago when we were having these fights below the radar screen on these arcane administrative fronts, is, this is a place where the American public is going to find out what's happening. Where we can have political accountant ability with the kind of effort that Deb works on, we'll have much more of a hook because we're going to have people voting, are you going to weaken the Clean Air Act or not? Those kinds of changes, I think, will be very hard for our opponents to secure, in my view, because of the very accessible nature of the decision. We are much more vulnerable to the quiet arcane technical decisions that we've seen and that have really eroded some very important structure there to see that good laws are enforced.

Darren Samuelsohn: Turning back to politics for a second, Deb, looking at the 2004 election, it was the first election after September 11. I'm curious, there was a lot of talk, campaigning, with homeland security, the war in Iraq were clearly the major issues that people were hearing the most about from the candidates. How did your strategy change in the presidential campaign looking at homeland security, terrorism being sort of the top-tier items? Was it simply the president and the Republicans in Congress were able to make that issue drown out issues like the environment?

Deb Callahan: It's interesting, we actually did have the '02 midterm elections before the '04 presidential and, again, I think in the general election, it's one of, it's the hardest campaign to get an issue injected into because when you're running for the Senate or you're running for the state Senate or you're running even for the nomination in the primaries, you're talking about issues that people care about in their specific states, whether it's Iowa or California or Florida, Maine, New Hampshire. In the presidential general election you need a one-size-fits-all issue and frankly, the way we know that environmental issues play best is when you're talking to people about where they live in their context, their health, or their forest issues or whatever. I think it's the toughest kind of place to get any issues, and we know there weren't social issues really debated in this election, whether, beyond the environment, even social security, education, none of those were talk about. I do think there could've been a stronger debate about issues of security. Environmental security is national security, particularly in the area of energy. I would have liked of seen a more lively debate about energy security and how we're going to solve that problem of dependence upon dangerous --

Darren Samuelsohn: Did you try to get the message to Senator Kerry's campaign?

Deb Callahan: We couldn't because we run independent expenditure campaigns.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Deb Callahan: So, no and that said, I also know that Senator Kerry did talk about these issues. In many cases, the news media simply didn't pick it up. I just saw Senator Kerry last week. He actually had the list of all the environmental speeches that he had made on the campaign trail. It was three pages long, didn't get covered and I think it goes to the point that the president and his campaign had a brilliant message machine. I think that they really defined Kerry, I think they defined themselves, and I think Kerry had a tough time defining his agenda. Therefore, I think the environmental issues, the energy issues didn't come through in what the public was reading. I think that that's something we're really examining as we come out of this cycle and move into the next one all of the sudden.

Ben Geman: Into the midterms which come up pretty quickly?

Deb Callahan: That's right. These things come up on you faster than you can possibly imagine.

Ben Geman: How about, Greg, on the sort of policy and advocacy side of things, has it been a challenge? How have you and NRDC been forced to sort of reframe the way you approach your issues given the sort of post 9-11 world with so much focus on homeland security?

Greg Wetstone: Well, I think what's hard about it is that we find ourselves, in many cases, forced to be putting resources into battles over should we move backwards? Should we move backwards on Clean Air? Should we move backwards on protections for threatened wildlife? Should we be moving backwards on energy and subsidizing sort of old energy sources, rather than investing in new ones? The problem with that is we're at a point in time now where it's crucially important that we be investing to move ahead. We have opportunities to move to a very different energy vision in this country that will be better for national security and that will assure the long-term protection of our planet's climate, which scientists tell us is increasingly at risk. What has changed though I think is there is a recognition, I mean, we've see it just even in the past several weeks among some senior Republicans, including some that are pretty conservative, that these are real issues that have to be dealt with. I mean, there's an article today, I believe, in The Wall Street Journal quoting the senators from Alaska about concern about global warming because they're seeing the changes on the ground. We have Senator Hagel, who was pretty outspoken at one point that this was more or less not really a problem, is now introducing his own legislation and I think that reality is catching up on this agenda and that we're actually in a better position. The real problem is that we are now seeing on the ground some of the impacts of the weakening changes administratively to air pollution control and water pollution. We are seeing pollution levels go up and Superfund cleanups are being slowed. There were not nearly as many in the last few years. There's a long list of, unfortunately, objective areas where the environment, which had been steadily improving because of these laws, is getting worse. So we have to protect the foundation and build on it very quickly to deal with problems like global warming, which is a solvable problem, but not if we continue to pretend science doesn't exist.

Ben Geman: It's interesting that you make that sort of point about the growing awareness on the Senate side of things, about the need to do something on global warming. Certainly there are, there seem to be more senators getting interested, but do you think there's enough to hit critical mass? I mean will we actually see passage of some type of carbon cap or carbon regulation in this term or in the next four years?

Greg Wetstone: Well certainly in the next four years I would say yes. This term, I don't know. There are a lot of comments by folks who are traditionally not seen as our allies, saying this is a serious problem. We need to start moving forward. But they're not quite sure where to go with that yet. I think we have a very popular and really very restrained and reasonable proposal from Senators McCain and Lieberman, that's one we support. The degree to which that catches on, I'm hopeful that it will, because I think it's a natural place for conservatives concerned about this issue to go. But this shouldn't be part of this liberal, conservative, Republican, Democratic dialogue. It's about sciences and it's really about the kind of world we're going to leave to our kids.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's jump back to politics again for a second. Of course, as you just said, it's a constant cycle here in Washington. The next one is in 2006. What specific races, LCV, will you be focusing on, House and Senate, in the next two years?

Deb Callahan: We will see what we will see. Always coming right after an election, members up on the Hill are thinking about whether or not they want to retire. I think it's entirely possible you might see some surprising retirements in the House and the Senate, so those will open some seats up. I think the Pennsylvania Senate race is going to be a very, very interesting race to follow. In fact --

Darren Samuelsohn: Senator Santorum?

Deb Callahan: Senator Santorum and I think that's going to be a hard fought race. I think you're going to see Democrats line up and Santorum has had a very poor record, from our perspective, on the environment. Washington state could be a very interesting battleground.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right, it was very close last time.

Deb Callahan: Yeah, it was very close. Senator Cantwell has been a staunch and stalwart environmental leader in the Senate. That said, it's going to be very interesting to see if the Republican who didn't win that gubernatorial seat by that kind of a margin, doesn't say, hey, my name recognition is higher than it's ever going to be, maybe I'm going to line up and challenge Senator Cantwell. We have to see how that race is going to shape up. I think that there could actually be a lot of also interesting ballot initiatives around the country. One of the great untold stories was the great success of environmental ballot initiatives, 76 percent of land bond initiatives around the country, in red states and blue states passed and I think we saw a great renewable portfolio standard initiative pass in Colorado. Mass transit in Texas and in Colorado and in other places passed. Leach pit mining, ballot initiatives across-the-board, takings did pass. In Oregon we might see more of those coming out, so not only in the campaigns and the elections in the Senate and the House, but also governorships and ballot initiatives. We have more to talk about and more to campaign on than I can possibly imagine. That's why we're going to need a healthy and really feisty environmental movement.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you already have a battle sheet up in the LCV offices with your names?

Deb Callahan: We have a watch list right now. We have, you know you don't start lining up quite this early because, as you know being an astute observer of these things, things can change, but we certainly know the five or six or seven races that we're really keeping our eyes peeled on where perhaps there's a retirement, a rumored retirement, or a challenge and a gauntlet already laid down, like in Washington state, like in Pennsylvania.

Ben Geman: Washington state is sort of becoming the new Florida I guess.

Deb Callahan: Ohio was the new Florida and, you know, even Florida being Florida was enough for me.

Ben Geman: One of the, sort of one of the big, I guess, characters in the last, in the '04 race was the 527 groups and the sort of, some of the work I believe both of your organizations and work and money put in to the 527s. As I'm sure you're both well aware, there's a new effort to regulate the 527 groups and make them subject to the same type of contribution and expenditure limits as the parties. How is that going to affect, Greg, your work going forward?

Greg Wetstone: Well, we'll abide by whatever approach is put forward. I don't think, we're basically a C3 that focuses on the legislative battles and the policy and that's really where our attention is. If we happen to find ourselves in an electoral cycle where there's a huge environmental cliff between the two candidates, we're going to look at the tax law and look at our issues and see whether we can still talk about our issues. If we can't talk about our issues, we may have to look at things like 527s, if they exist. If they're not there, they're not there, but for us it really comes down to can we talk about the ongoing battles on the environment in the context of an election, which we think is part of free speech and appropriate as part of the political process. When decisions are being made the American public should know. The battle we have is really helping the public to understand how much is in play, how much is at risk in a lot of these decisions because they are extremely fundamental.

Deb Callahan: Can I jump in on that real quickly?

Ben Geman: Yeah I was going to ask you, here's the 527 just like you guys.

Deb Callahan: Our side of the story hasn't come out yet on, and again, people define it by, as 527, we're constituency groups. We have membership, millions of members among these groups who are running efforts that were funded with 527. It's a bank account. So I want to make a bigger point about this, the role of constituency groups in the electoral process. In 2004 we saw the first increase in voter turnout since 1968. I attribute that to the grassroots campaigns that constituency groups were running across the country. It was good for democracy. Besides that, over a third of Americans don't consider themselves to be Republicans or Democrats. We give people who are independents or who don't want to volunteer through a political party, a place to get engaged in the democratic process. So I know that environmentalists want a place where they can go and get involved in the democratic process. Reforms are important because after 1972 when the campaign finance laws were set up, things have changed dramatically. That said, it would be a terrible mistake to try and shove politics back into the Republican and Democratic parties and not allow for the voice of democracy to emerge through constituency groups as well as through the political parties. We take very seriously the dialogue that is going on right now. I think that there is certainly a very, very strong chance that reform will move forward in the Senate and the House and we'll see what shape they take. We're going to work very hard to try and shape it to make sure my people continue to have a voice through my organization.

Ben Geman: Does that mean, am I hearing you say, that you're likely to fight some of the legislation as it's been considered to bring new regulation to the 527s?

Deb Callahan: We're going to try and shape the debate, again, because I believe that this goes beyond the tax code category of 527s. This law can conceivably also restrict 501C4 and 501C3, nonpartisan voter participation activity. That's not the way it's being spun right now and I think we really haven't had the fair debate and dialogue about what these bills on Capitol Hill really mean. I know from my own direct conversations a lot of the members of Congress and even lawyers at the FEC are still try to grapple with what the language even means within the bill.

Darren Samuelsohn: We're going to have to bring this thing to a close. I guess I'd just like to ask you, before we go, you got some names coming out of the 2008 presidential election, Senator Clinton, former Senator Edwards, governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson. How do, at least these few candidates at this point, potential candidates I should say, how do they sound to you?

Deb Callahan: Let the games begin. I think both on the Republican side and the Democratic side there's going to be the extraordinary number of people jumping in and I think on the Republican side in fact, it's going to be very interesting to see how that affects the politics in the Congress, as people want to out there and shape their image of the public by shaping the debate. The names you mentioned are all great friends on the environment. I want to see a lot of candidates out there who are great on the environment, campaigning on my issues, making the points and we will see what emerges. It is way too early to say I gotta favorite, but I'm happy to have some friends who are interested in throwing their hat in.

Darren Samuelsohn: What happens if Senator McCain got the Republican nomination? Where does that put you?

Deb Callahan: Well, it's very interesting because he is right now really championing climate change. Therefore, again, there's somebody who is being outspoken on a very important environmental issue and if he's gonna get in that race and he wants to make good point about the environment and climate change, I think that is a terrific thing. I want to see good voices come forward, good candidates and raise these important issues so the American public can hear the real truth about what's going on with the environment in Washington. It's not a pretty story.

Darren Samuelsohn: Not an early endorsement from the League of Conservation Voters.

Deb Callahan: Not yet.

Darren Samuelsohn: But certainly you've teed it up. Well, that's it for OnPoint today. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Thanks for being here guests, and we'll see you soon.

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