From water to light bulbs, level-headed Calif. congressman is steeped in environmental policy

Talk a little with anyone who has worked with Rep.-elect Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and one quality shines through very quickly: his ability to find consensus.

In September 2006, for example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) virtually locked all the stakeholders involved in negotiations over how to restore the San Joaquin River in her Washington, D.C., office. Among them was Huffman, then an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The negotiations dragged on late into the night for several days because of the complex issues involving agriculture, ecology and protecting endangered species.

But through it all, said NRDC's Heather Taylor-Miesle, who was also in the room, Huffman kept his cool.

"Jared was very fair in that he didn't believe the river would ever be restored unless we found a compromise from all sides," she recalled.

Frankly, Taylor-Miesle said, Huffman was willing to listen to groups that NRDC "usually doesn't have a lot of time for."

Largely because of that quality, she said, a deal was eventually reached. Feinstein said 100 hours of negotiation led to her legislation, which drew broad bipartisan support.

On Election Day, Huffman, 48, easily won a sprawling Northern California district that was vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey. A former state legislator, Huffman has a long record of work on energy efficiency and water issues, including his time at NRDC and 12 years on the Marin Municipal Water District board.

But despite his background in environmental law, Huffman emphasized that the reason he ran for Congress was to find common ground.

"It's obvious that I'm a strong environmentalist -- it's a huge part of my background," he told E&E Daily this week, while attending orientation sessions for new members. But "if you look closely at what I've done, there has been a practical problem-solving current through it all. It is resolving these natural resources challenges and conflicts that I view as my calling."

He added, "Not fighting about them, but finding those solutions. So many of those solutions are win-wins that are good, smart policies for all sorts of reasons and also happen to be good for the environment."

Another example of that ability comes from his time in the state Legislature, said Rep. Karen Bass (D), the former speaker of the California State Assembly.

Huffman was part of Bass' leadership team, and she tapped him to be the point person to develop a comprehensive water package for the state. California had not successfully passed such a policy in 50 years for myriad reasons ranging from the competing interests to the fact that California is essentially three different states when it comes to water.

Again, Huffman was successful.

"It's extremely complex," said Bass, who was elected to Congress in 2010. "The fact that he was able to pull together environmentalists, farmers and everyone else and come up with a plan was very remarkable."


"I'd say that speaks for itself," she added.

Huffman is also responsible for a controversial measure that became one of the tea party caucus's top targets last year.

While in the California Legislature, Huffman drafted legislation that set ambitious energy efficiency standards for lighting. The bill passed with bipartisan support, including the backing of environmental groups and industry, he said.

Kimble McCraw of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank based in Washington, said the 2007 law was far-reaching in its aim. At the time, lighting accounted for 14 percent of home energy use.

"These bills would go after making lighting 25 percent more efficient," McCraw said. "That's a huge savings to the consumer as well as a huge reduction in energy demand."

The language was adopted into federal regulation when conservative members of the Republican House intervened last year. They cast the measure as an assault on the incandescent light bulb and consumer choice despite protests from the domestic lighting industry. Congress eventually passed a budget rider to defund enforcement of the statute.

"I'm the guy behind that," Huffman said with a chuckle.

'Very kind'

On a personal level, Taylor-Miesle said Huffman was "nurturing" and "very kind." She recalled that during those long San Joaquin River negotiations, she was pregnant. Huffman, she said, always made sure she had water and was comfortable. Others described him as "extremely smart" and "very hardworking."

He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was a standout volleyball player. That led to a stint on the U.S. national team in the late 1980s.

Huffman is requesting a seat on the Natural Resources Committee, as well as the Transportation and Infrastructure panel. Both, he said, are good fits for his district.

Ultimately, though, Huffman emphasized that he hopes legislators will view him as a capable negotiator, even with all his work in the environmental arena.

"I'm not coming here to pound the table and preach to people," he said. "I am coming to solve problems."

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