If an environmental reporter needed a pithy quote on deadline sometime from former President Bill Clinton’s first term into the Trump administration, there’s a decent chance they dialed up Clean Air Frank.
For decades, Frank O’Donnell — a television reporter turned clean air advocate — was an institution among Washington’s environmental advocates and a media favorite.
He was quick to answer reporters’ calls, willing to say things in print that some of his allies wouldn’t, and ready to condense a complex policy argument into a succinct one-liner.
He once derided a Trump administration move on air pollution as a “classic special-interest loophole” to The Washington Post. He accused then-President George W. Bush of being “more interested in science fiction than science” in a New York Times story. And he slammed an Obama-era smog standard as an “arbitrary decision in search of a rationale” in an E&E News story.
For years, O’Donnell doled out clean air “Villain of the Month” awards to scorn the polluters and politicians who received them. Some of the “winners” included administration officials, Republican and Democratic senators, industry groups, and corporations.
But after decades of ubiquity in environmental news stories (including 813 mentions in E&E News dating back to the mid-1990s), O’Donnell quietly retired in 2018, leaving a void in the realm of environmental media that hasn’t been filled.
He’s living in Florida, where he spends his time acting and doting on his dog, Molly, a 10-year-old puggle — half-pug, half-beagle.
He didn’t want to make a big deal about his retirement, O’Donnell said recently when reached by an E&E News reporter.
“I don’t consider myself some sort of big-shot celebrity,” he said in December.
When he retired from his Washington environmental policy gig, O’Donnell said, he put up a brief note on his account on the social media platform formerly called Twitter, where his username is @cleanairfrank. He periodically posts about climate change and air pollution.
“Retired President of the non-profit Clean Air Watch. Devoted dog dad,” his biography reads.
O’Donnell was a celebrity — at least among environmental reporters and advocates — in part because he knew how to get his message into the press.
“He was the king at not just waiting for reporters to call him — he knew exactly who to call and when to call and what to say,” said Bill Becker, the former executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.
A “reporter at heart,” O’Donnell was skilled at turning complicated, acronym-driven policy debates into stories that reporters wanted to cover and that the public could understand, said Paul Billings, a longtime clean air advocate at the American Lung Association.
“Frank was fearless,” Billings said. “He was able to say what everyone knew to be true but were probably not able to say for attribution because of potential consequences.”
Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell with industry clients, long worked in the same energy and environmental policy sphere as O’Donnell.
“They used to call him Clean Air Frank and me Dirty Air Frank,” Maisano said. On top of sharing the same first name, they have a similar affinity for advancing their causes by appealing to the reporters who cover their issues.
Maisano thinks both Franks filled a need for reporters to get timely information reflecting the views of industry and environmental groups.
Since O’Donnell’s retirement, “others have tried to emulate it,” Maisano said. “They haven’t really done as good a job.”
Journalism to advocacy
O’Donnell, 72, grew up in Baltimore. His father, Thomas O’Donnell, was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun who later became a spokesperson for Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., who was former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) father.
The younger O’Donnell attended Princeton University, where he majored in “classics” — ancient Greek and Latin literature and history. On the side, he created a comic opera group.
O’Donnell performed in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” at the university in 1972. “In a play which calls for hams, O’Donnell is a prime cut,” his classmate, Ronald Fondiller, then editorial editor of The Daily Princetonian, wrote at the time.
The self-deprecating O’Donnell, who called himself an “abject failure in a series of post-college jobs,” went on to get a master’s degree in journalism from American University and wrote for outlets including The Progressive, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and the City Paper.
“This is obviously genetic,” O’Donnell said of his path to journalism.
He landed in television news and worked as a producer for Washington’s Channel 5 until he resigned in the aftermath of a disagreement with the news director. O’Donnell’s 1991 resignation was detailed in The Washington Post’s TV column.
He went on to edit Regardie’s, a magazine the Post called a “chronicle of the 1980s Washington land and power frenzy” that folded in December 1992. “It got caught up in one of the recessions,” O’Donnell said of the magazine’s demise.
O’Donnell “bounced around for a while” after his journalism jobs, including a year at the public relations firm Potomac Communications Group. “We didn’t do anything terribly embarrassing,” O’Donnell said, but it was “not my cup of tea.”
Eventually, he “got scooped up” by Leon Billings, Paul Billings’ father and a legendary figure in the environmental world who had served as a key congressional staffer during the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Leon Billings had launched a group called the Clean Air Trust, “and he put me in charge of it,” O’Donnell said. From there, O’Donnell emerged as a prominent watchdog on air pollution issues, regularly landing in news articles and declaring a new clean air “villain” each month.
He stayed for a decade or so before he and Billings split. They “found out that the room wasn’t big enough for the two of us in it,” O’Donnell said of his exit.
O’Donnell and Billings cited “irreconcilable differences” that had nothing to do with air policy in a 2005 Post story announcing the division.
They later patched things up, O’Donnell said. Billings was “an American hero,” he said. “One of the last, I thought, significant PR things I did was to try to make sure that when he died there were some excellent obituaries about him.”
‘It was just me’
O’Donnell’s own group, Clean Air Watch, was born from his breakup with Billings.
“The Clean Air Act appears to be in unprecedented danger,” O’Donnell told the Post when he launched his own organization, warning of efforts by the George W. Bush administration and congressional Republicans to weaken air pollution protections.
O’Donnell wasn’t always in room with policymakers working on air pollution policies, Paul Billings said. “They were a little afraid of him.”
O’Donnell saw reporters as his key constituency.
“My goal was always to try to be an aid to the reporters,” O’Donnell said. “Either guide them toward the good stuff or guide them toward bad stuff and make sure they were aware of it.”
He recalled a comment from an industry lobbyist who once said O’Donnell was basically continuing to do journalism, “and he was accurate,” O’Donnell said. “That was my hope.”
O’Donnell’s influence was outsize, given his modest staff and budget. He ran a shoestring operation with a staff of one at Clean Air Watch.
“It was just me,” he said. “And volunteers.” The group’s revenue in 2008, the final year of the George W. Bush administration, was about $169,000, tax records show. O’Donnell’s compensation that year was $90,000.
By comparison, that same year, the heavy-hitting green group Environmental Defense Fund’s revenue was about $122 million and the salary of its president, Fred Krupp, was about $446,000, according to tax documents.
O’Donnell’s board members at Clean Air Watch included William Butler, former general counsel at EDF and the National Audubon Society. Adèle Hurley, a co-founder of the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain, also served on the board.
The group’s funding came from individuals and foundations, O’Donnell said, including the Rockefeller Family Fund and the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment in Annapolis, Maryland. He also received some “pass around money from some of the other environmental groups.”
Back in 2011, years before he closed up shop at his environmental nonprofit, O’Donnell moved to Florida.
“I moved [to Washington] initially because I thought it would be fun to watch the Nixon impeachment,” O’Donnell said in a recent interview. “And it was. But after about four decades, you go, ‘Maybe it’s time for something a little different.’ My wife and I had looked all over the country for places to go, and then just pulled the trigger at one point.”
O’Donnell met his wife, Mary O’Donnell, at Channel 5, where she was a reporter and anchor. She’s now a psychotherapist. They’ve been married nearly 31 years.
He stayed in the environmental world until about 2018, when he stopped tracking the ins and outs of Washington policy.
There will never be “perfection” on clean air, O’Donnell said, but he’s proud of what the movement accomplished. The reductions in air pollutants like sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and lead have been “astonishing,” he said. It’s “the biggest story that no one writes about because it’s not man-bites-dog kind of stuff.”
Part of his decision to retire, he said, was that “we had come so far.”
He drives a plug-in electric car — a Honda Clarity — eats beef about once a month and acts at his local theater.
For six years running, he’s played Ebenezer Scrooge in a musical at a playhouse near his home in Fernandina Beach, Florida. He also played Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Most of his acting gigs are unpaid.
The play that was “perhaps most interesting was ‘I Am My Own Wife,’” he said. That was a “one-person show where I played about 35 different characters over two hours with different accents and stuff, all of it wearing a dress because the protagonist was an East German transvestite.”
He acted a lot when he was younger, O’Donnell said, but returned to the stage after taking about 30 years off.
He puts his decision to leave environmental policy into theater terms.
“To use an analogy that’s somewhat relevant to me today, there are times when it’s time to step off the stage. And after decades of doing user journalistic work or advocacy-type stuff in D.C., it was time to step off stage,” he said.