The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument sprawls over nearly 1.9 million acres across southern Utah, but at times the figurative shadow of the rocky landscape has stretched to Pennsylvania, falling across Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty’s career path.
In the two decades since President Clinton designated the Utah lands as a national monument — the Bureau of Land Management marks the area’s 20th anniversary this year — McGinty has alternately seen her role in the monument’s creation hailed by environmentalists and attacked by Republicans (Greenwire, July 13).
As she looks to block Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s re-election bid in November, McGinty last month touted her work to create the Utah national monument in a speech to the League of Conservation Voters — the first time the Democratic candidate appears to have done so this cycle.
That mention, reported by Morning Consult, prompted criticism from both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which have backed Toomey in the contest. The chamber framed the 1996 designation as "regulatory shenanigans" in a post to its website.
But in 2003, the still-controversial project played a more much significant role — nearly derailing McGinty’s nomination to lead the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Then-Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who is now the chairman of McGinty’s Senate campaign, was forced to pull his nomination of the former White House Council on Environmental Quality chief after objections from state Republicans.
"I question whether she is someone who can work with both sides of the aisle," then-state Sen. Mary Jo White (R), who chaired the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003. "I have a lot of questions that aren’t resolved."
Among her major objections, White had highlighted McGinty’s role in the monument’s 1996 designation, as well as complaints from Utah’s congressional delegation that the Clinton White House had misled lawmakers about its intentions to create the monument, which cut off access to valuable coal reserves.
Then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) asserted on the Senate floor that McGinty in particular had misled him about the existence of a map for the monument just days before Clinton announced the new designation.
"I made it very clear that I did not believe her earlier statement that there was no map and no consideration if in less than 48 hours the president made a complete public disclosure of it," Bennett said on the Senate floor in July 2001. "Something as major as this just doesn’t happen overnight. It isn’t an immediate decision."
An earlier House Natural Resources Committee investigation into the monument’s designation also unearthed documents that showed McGinty had argued to Clinton that the monument would create a "compelling reason" for environmentalists to rally to the president (Greenwire, May 25).
Environmentalists were disillusioned with Clinton in the wake of a bill opening forests to salvage logging, and McGinty recognized that the groups could be a force in the 1996 election.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in 2003 that McGinty had likewise authored a note to then-Vice President Al Gore, suggesting "the enviros have $500,000 to spend either for us or against us."
But McGinty defended her actions in a 2003 confirmation hearing when pressed on whether she had sought to circumvent Congress and keep the Utah lawmakers out of the loop.
"I was very genuine and very real," McGinty said, according to an Associated Press report.
While White’s objections forced Rendell to pull and then resubmit McGinty’s nomination, she was ultimately confirmed to the office a few months after her showdown with White.
McGinty ‘has sort of stayed away’ from green issues
In recent months, McGinty’s campaign has pointed to her work on the Utah monument to highlight her environmental credentials, but has only cited it among a list of projects from her time in the Clinton administration.
Republicans and supporters of Toomey seized on the issue only after McGinty’s remarks last month, suggesting that it is unlikely to become a key talking point in the 2016 cycle as the monument designation was two decades ago.
"At the moment, I just don’t think that this is a cutting-edge issue for voters in Pennsylvania," said Franklin & Marshall College poll director Terry Madonna, who has been monitoring Keystone State politics for 25 years. "There’s so many other issues that crowd it out having to do with the economy, having to do with foreign policy, having to do with health care."
And unlike in Western states such as Utah or Nevada, where the federal government claims a much larger share of the state’s land, public lands are not a top issue for voters in Pennsylvania.
"I just don’t see this as an issue of prime importance," Madonna added.
Moreover, Madonna suggested that McGinty — despite sparring with former Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic primary over the role of hydraulic fracturing in the state — has "sort of stayed away from environmental issues in general."
"Most of her campaign is about attacking Toomey and trying to present herself as this sort of heir apparent to the seat," Madonna noted. McGinty’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll released last night showed McGinty with a slight edge over Toomey, 44 percent to 41 percent, among registered voters. But that was within the poll’s 3.4-point margin of error.
Toomey has focused on McGinty’s resume and her moves between public posts and private industry, including stints on the boards of wind and natural gas firm Iberdrola and NRG Energy Inc., while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched ads criticizing McGinty’s past support of various energy taxes (Greenwire, April 29; Greenwire, June 17).
Environmentalists backing McGinty announced plans Tuesday to spend $1.8 million on the race via television ads and a voter canvassing program (Greenwire, July 12).
A Toomey spokesman said McGinty could face similar criticism about her record if the Democrat opts to make the Utah monument a key example of her work.
"The dishonesty Katie McGinty showed when she lied to voters about being the first in her family to go to college, and the hyperpartisan political games she employed when she presided over the worst budget gridlock in Pennsylvania history, have defined her entire career," said Toomey spokesman Ted Kwong. McGinty recently faced criticism for stating she was the first of 10 children to attend a four-year college, although an older brother graduated nearly a decade earlier after transferring credits from a two-year to a four-year institution.
Kwong added: "After decades of Shady Katie in Washington and Harrisburg, there’s no evidence she would change now."
But a McGinty spokesman rejected that notion, firing back with one of the campaign’s own messages about the Senate Republican.
"We figured Pat Toomey and the NRSC would try to dig into Katie’s past to find anything they could to criticize her, so that’s not really a surprise," spokesman Sean Coit said today. "The fact is that Pat Toomey and Republicans are scrambling to talk about anything other than Pat Toomey’s own record as Wall Street’s favorite Senator."