If climate decides one big race this year, this could be it

By Josh Kurtz | 05/03/2018 07:55 AM EDT

RICHBORO, Pa. — With its historic stone houses and sprawling lawns, this slice of suburban Philadelphia hardly seems as if it would be at the center of the Trump resistance.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) talking to a voter following a Republican candidate forum this week in Bristol, Pa.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) talking to a voter following a Republican candidate forum this week in Bristol, Pa. Josh Kurtz/E&E News

RICHBORO, Pa. — With its historic stone houses and sprawling lawns, this slice of suburban Philadelphia hardly seems as if it would be at the center of the Trump resistance.

But on the most pleasant night of the spring so far, 75 people sat in a public library meeting room this week to listen to candidates for Congress talking about climate and the environment — a sign, activists are convinced, of an engaged and fired-up electorate.

The session was sponsored by Bucks Environmental Action, an umbrella organization that sprouted up after President Trump’s election, encompassing several existing environmental and social justice organizations.


Pennsylvania’s 1st District, based in Bucks County just north of Philadelphia, is ground zero for Democrats as they search for the 23 seats they need to flip to retake the House majority. Local activists seem all too aware of that status.

"They call Bucks County purple, but I call it psycho sometimes," said Sharon Adesman Furlong, a co-founder of Bucks Environmental Action.

In the race for the highly competitive and newly drawn district — a redraw forced by the state Supreme Court following Republican gerrymandering — climate is playing a major role.

The incumbent is freshman Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R), an early member of the House Climate Solutions Caucus and a genuine moderate who had far and away the best score for House Republicans on the latest League of Conservation Voters congressional scorecard — 71 percent.

Fitzpatrick frequently talks about climate change on the campaign trail. But his devotion to the issue pales in comparison with the three Democrats seeking to defeat him.

The Democratic field features the co-founder of the local 350.org chapter; a naval veteran who did disaster and recovery work in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, meeting with leaders and residents whose land is being washed away; and, perhaps most intriguingly, the grandson of former Vice President Henry Wallace, whose family foundation has spent a fortune working to combat climate change.

Now, some of that fortune is being spent on the congressional race.

The $900,000 that Scott Wallace has poured into the campaign has undoubtedly transformed the May 15 Democratic primary and will be a factor in the general election if he prevails in two weeks.

Wallace, 66, spent 15 years running the Wallace Global Fund in Washington, D.C. He returned to his boyhood home in Bucks County to seek the congressional seat.

"This is an extraordinary time," Wallace said in an interview this week. "I’m in my 60s. Running for office is not something that ever occurred to me before."

Wallace said he was moved to run after he couldn’t persuade Diane Ellis-Marseglia, a Bucks County commissioner, to enter the race shortly before the candidate filing deadline.

"I felt with some dismay that we didn’t have someone who could pull us over the finish line," he said. "We need to win this seat. If we don’t win this seat, then we can’t retake the House."

But Wallace’s free-spending ways have rankled his Democratic opponents.

Rachel Reddick, the 33-year-old Navy veteran who fits the profile of the candidates Democratic leaders have been recruiting all over the country this election cycle — young, telegenic, often female, often with a military background — is airing a TV ad casting Wallace as a carpetbagger who is attempting to buy the congressional seat.

"Who can we trust to stand up to Trump?" a narrator asks in the ad. "A Maryland multimillionaire? Or Bucks County’s own Democrat Rachel Reddick. … Scott Wallace isn’t one of us. Until last year, he was registered to vote at his mansion in Maryland and directed ballots to his home in South Africa, in a gated luxury estate."

The third Democrat, community college official Steve Bacher — an early admirer of former Vice President Al Gore — noted during the candidate forum this week that he is the only contender with a history of involvement in the local environmental movement.

"With all due respect to all the good work that the other people on this stage have done, I’m the one who’s been here, doing the work, for 10 years," he said.

Family legacy

Throughout the candidate forum Tuesday night, Wallace talked at length about the research his foundation has funded on climate change and ways to prepare for the crisis of global warming.

When he took over the foundation from his parents, after a career of doing policy work on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, the foundation worked broadly on environmental issues and population control. But Wallace shifted its emphasis to climate change.

"When we came in, we realized it’s all about the climate," he told E&E News. "It’s all about controlling this runaway freight train."

The fund is the legacy of Henry Wallace, a pivotal figure in the history of American science and agriculture. An Iowan by birth and heritage, Wallace was President Franklin Roosevelt’s first Agriculture secretary and his second vice president, serving in the latter role from 1941 to 1945.

Wallace was an unlikely politician, but he was a deep thinker and scientific tinkerer whose entire family, dating back to the 19th century, pondered how to make American agriculture more efficient and environmentally sound. He also happened to invent a strain of hybrid corn that eventually brought the family hundreds of millions of dollars.

When FDR sought an unprecedented fourth term as president, he jettisoned Wallace as his vice president, to mollify party conservatives, and named Wallace secretary of Commerce as a kind of consolation prize. Just months into his term, Roosevelt died, and Harry Truman, his new vice president and another relative political novice, inherited the big job.

Wallace ran an audacious independent campaign for president in 1948, challenging Truman from the left as the nominee of the Progressive Party, which he founded. He failed miserably, taking just 2.5 percent of the vote, but he found a platform for his liberal views and attracted a devoted army of supporters.

The very first chapter of a sprawling 2000 biography, "American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace," co-written by former Iowa Sen. John Culver (D), is titled "Good Farming, Clear Thinking, Right Living" — a Wallace family credo that’s still around today. The Department of Agriculture’s research center in Beltsville, Md. — the largest agricultural research complex in the world — is named for Wallace.

Scott Wallace — whose full name is Henry Scott Wallace — recalls frequent childhood visits with his grandfather, who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1965 at age 77. Henry Wallace, he said, kept a journal about his failing health, hoping that others might benefit from his experiences.

"He was a scientist to the end — keeping a journal of his own decline for the good of the future," the grandson said.

Pruitt ‘should be in prison’

The two-hour-long Bucks Environmental Action forum covered a wide variety of topics — including EPA in the Trump administration, pesticides, clean water, a proposed local incinerator, public lands and the need for a "just transition" to a clean energy economy. It was a policy wonk’s dream, with the conversation occasionally veering into topics like neonicotinoids, the krill population decline in the Antarctic and upgrades to the electric grid.

The Democratic candidates were more fluent on some subjects than they were on others and barely differed on the big issues. But they used the occasion to emphasize priorities and aspects of their records.

Bacher, 56, name-checked the Citizens’ Climate Lobby — the architect of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, to which Fitzpatrick belongs — and said he supports the lobby’s carbon fee and dividend proposal. He also recounted local environmental battles and discussed his push to make the campus of Bucks County Community College, where he works, more sustainable.

"I’m the only one up here who’s testified at the Delaware River Basin Commission against fossil fuel infrastructure," Bacher said.

Reddick criticized the Trump administration frequently, saying she would make the restoration of the Clean Power Plan and other Obama administration green initiatives a top priority if elected. She also spoke dramatically of what she saw in the Pacific while on active duty in the Navy.

"People told us that their country was going to disappear," Reddick said. "That really struck me. Looking at folks in the eye who wouldn’t really have a place to live, that really struck me. And it brought home how much more we have to do to address climate change."

In addition to talking about the work his family foundation has done on climate change, Wallace embraced legislation by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) calling for the United States to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. He also appropriated a line from Republicans to discuss the current EPA administrator.

"Personally, I’ll give you my little theory about Scott Pruitt — I think he should be in prison," Wallace said. "I say, lock him up."

‘The squeeze’ on the incumbent

Also present at the environmental forum was Dean Malik, Fitzpatrick’s Republican primary opponent (Fitzpatrick had been invited but maintained he had several scheduling conflicts).

Malik, an attorney and Iraq War veteran, was diametrically opposed to almost everything the Democrats said. But he was game about being there and tried to find common ground where he could.

"I will freely admit that I have not spent the past 10 years protesting for the environment," he said, later adding, "We all have to be stewards of the environment."

Malik’s presence in the race has complicated Fitzpatrick’s road to re-election.

In a Republican primary, Fitzpatrick cannot afford to turn off too many conservative voters, whom he will need in November, assuming he wins the GOP nomination. But in a swing district, he can’t stray too far to the right to mollify them, either.

"That’s the squeeze," said William Pezza, a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Bucks County Community College, who has moderated candidate debates in the congressional district for several election cycles.

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, essentially inherited the seat from his older brother, ex-Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R), who represented the district for four nonconsecutive terms before retiring at the end of the previous Congress.

Some local political activists complained in 2016 that the younger Fitzpatrick was unfamiliar to the voters and barely visible on the campaign trail. But at a GOP forum with Malik at the community college campus in Bristol on Tuesday afternoon, Fitzpatrick was friendly to everyone who approached and took pains to greet people by name when he could ("Derek, right?").

The two Republicans were a study in contrasts, with Malik taking the hardcore Trump line and chastising Fitzpatrick for shying away from the president’s agenda and conservative principles. His supporters dotted the audience, wearing red "Make PA-01 Great Again" baseball caps.

"I believe if you are going to run as a Republican to go to Washington as a Republican, you should vote like a Republican," Malik said.

But Fitzpatrick defended his record and said attempting to find compromise on Capitol Hill is the best way to serve the community and get things done. He added that he wants to get away "from this ridiculous Hatfield-versus-McCoy mentality in politics" and touted his work in the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, calling it "the future of the United States of America and what we need."

Fitzpatrick and Malik differed on a variety of issues, including immigration, gun control and the degree of Russian interference in U.S. elections.

"Voters will have some clear direction" in the primary, Pezza observed in an interview.

The only mention of climate change in the hourlong forum came after Fitzpatrick highlighted his vote for the Republican tax cut legislation that recently became law. Malik said he favors deeper cuts to taxes and regulations, noting that "Brian Fitzpatrick believes in man-made climate change," which, he argued, hurts the economy.

After the forum, clutching a bottle of raspberry kombucha in his hand, Fitzpatrick told E&E News that he was frustrated that he did not have an opportunity to respond.

"I believe that man is the cause of climate change, and he’s mocking me for it," the congressman said, gesturing in Malik’s direction. "You believe what you believe."

It is hard to tell just how competitive the Republican primary is. Even though conservatives dominate most GOP contests, there is a long tradition in the Philadelphia suburbs of sending moderate Republicans to Congress.

But these days, support for Trump is a litmus test for many GOP voters, and there Fitzpatrick could fall short. Marc Duome, a psychologist who lost badly to Fitzpatrick in the 2016 GOP primary and is advising Malik, told E&E News he believes the winner of the primary this year will need fewer than 50,000 votes — an achievable number for the challenger, he argued, given the fervor of Trump partisans.

On the other hand, Fitzpatrick was sitting on almost $1.4 million in his campaign account as of March 31 — compared with just $32,000 for Malik.

Asked how he felt about being attacked by Democrats on the left and Malik on the right, Fitzpatrick replied: "That’s what I signed up for. You have to do what you think is right. You don’t worry about elections."

Greens’ top-ranked House Republican

Whatever grief Fitzpatrick is getting from conservatives for his views and record on climate change, he is getting far greater grief from the Democrats, who assert that his actions are inadequate and don’t match his rhetoric. They note that while he was an early co-sponsor of a House GOP measure urging congressional leaders to address climate change and co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, his vote for the Republican tax cut bill is now paving the way for that drilling.

As for Fitzpatrick’s 71 percent LCV score, which puts him atop the list of House Republicans, Wallace said in an interview, "Being the least terrible in what you would say is the dirtiest Congress in history is not exactly a badge of honor. I would be 100 percent LCV."

Wallace said that looking at the 29 percent of votes where Fitzpatrick differed with the LCV, especially on regulations, "would make your skin crawl."

Democrats are convinced that climate change is one of the issues that they can use to chip away at Fitzpatrick in the fall. But who is the right messenger: an earnest local activist, a military veteran and young mother (who used to be a registered Republican), or the wealthy descendant of a long-forgotten icon of the left?

The Bucks County Democratic Committee endorsed Wallace shortly after he entered the race, prompting some complaints from progressive activists that the party was too enamored of his money and was trying to put its thumb on the scale the way national Democratic leaders did for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 White House primary. But The Nation magazine, a well-established arbiter of opinion on the left, promoted Wallace as one of 10 candidates to watch across the country during the midterm elections.

For his part, Wallace rejects the notion that he is an interloper who is trying to buy a congressional seat.

"People can talk," he said. "I live in the house I grew up in. My parents’ ashes are buried under the copper beech tree in the front yard. I’m not some guy who just moved here to buy the election."

As for his personal spending, Wallace said: "I don’t own a yacht. I’m putting my money where my mouth is. This is a time like no other, and this is the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life."