LCV President Deb Callahan previews 2006 elections, looks back at her tenure

As the 2006 congressional elections approach, environmental groups are beginning to mobilize their political outreach efforts. During today's OnPoint, Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, explains about how the group will try and influence key races in Florida, Washington, Rhode Island and elsewhere. Plus, she talks about how recent ethics scandals tie into the environmental community's broader message. Callahan, who recently announced she will step down from her position at LCV, also addresses her reasons for leaving the organization, and where she's headed next.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Deb Callahan. She's the outgoing president of the League of Conservation Voters. Deb thanks a lot for being here today.

Deb Callahan: Thank you for having me. You're the first person who said outgoing president --

Brian Stempeck: I know, a little scary.

Deb Callahan: -- of the League of Conservation Voters, yeah.

Brian Stempeck: We'll start with that. That's the obvious question after 10 years at LCV you're stepping down at the end of next week. Why are you leaving?

Deb Callahan: Well you know at an organizational like League of Conservation Voters, which is so involved in campaigns and elections, I started thinking a little bit ago that either I was going to have to sign up for another three years, really through the presidential election cycle, or it was time for me to move on. And I'm ready for some new challenges. I think the organization is in fabulous shape. I'm so proud of what we've accomplished. And so it's time for a change. It's always hard to leave an organization you love, but I'm so proud of what we've accomplished together. And I'm very excited to see who they replace me with.

Brian Stempeck: Looking back over the past 10 years that you've been in LCV, what would you point to is the most substantial accomplishments?

Deb Callahan: I can't choose, but I think we've seen incredible growth in the organization, both in terms of the size and the ability of the organization, sort of what I call the heft. When I came on board in 1996 we had about 16 staff. And we actually had about 225 in 2004 during the presidential election. We're usually around 50 to 65 staff. Took the budget from $2 million to $24 million. Instituted the Dirty Dozen campaign. Instituted the Environmental Champions campaign. LCV used to be really more of an inside-the-Beltway-type group. They would endorse. They would put out the National Environmental Score Card. Since I've been there we've really gotten much more engaged in sort of activism, out there campaigning, grass-roots engagement. There are now 32 state leagues around the country. So I think the organization has really been positioned as a national force, in politics in general and certainly within the environment movement. And they're just getting started. I can't wait to see what they do next with it.

Brian Stempeck: Already work is beginning from LCV and other groups, looking at the 2006 elections coming up, already shaping up as a very interesting election year with a lot of the scandals that are taking place. Tell us about some of the candidates you guys have endorsed so far. So far I think it's Senator Chafee of Rhode Island and Senator Cantwell of Washington. What made them stand out as candidates that you're endorsing already so early in the election cycle?

Deb Callahan: Because they stand out. We made a real deliberate choice in making Senator Maria Cantwell our first endorsement. Because we want to make sure that voters in Washington state understand the incredible quality of leadership that she has exhibited on a wide variety of environmental issues. I'm not saying she's just a good vote. I'm saying she's a leader. Particularly most recently we saw on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge fight, certainly on energy issues, on Superfund, on the whole array and host of issues. And then of course Senator Lincoln Chafee is a profile in courage up there on Capitol Hill. I continue to believe that some of the most courageous votes that get cast on Capitol Hill are those where Republican members stand up and against the strong arming of their leadership, say no, I'm here to protect the environment. And so I'm going to step up and be a bipartisan vote for the environment. And Senator Chafee has repeatedly stood with us and so we know we need to stand with him.

Brian Stempeck: One of the things that critics of your organization always bring up is the fact that Senator Chafee aside, for the vast most part, these are Democrats that LCV is supporting, in maybe 90 percent of the cases here. How do you respond to that, that you're not basically just a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party?

Deb Callahan: You know I think first of all you need to separate political speech from true analysis. Those people who pound on us for being partisan, first of all, are wrong. In 2004 20 percent of our endorsements were for Republican candidates. We were very actively engaged with independent campaigns on behalf of important Republicans. And like to think we played key roles in some of those elections, certainly with Congressman Joe Schwarz in the primary. We actually spent more money on TV commercials for Congressman Schwarz than his own campaign did. And there are many, many stories. So I think if you talked to those folks who we've worked with, such as Congressman Chris Shays, Rob Simmons, certainly now you're seeing, once again with Lincoln Chafee and many, many others. I think they'd say LCV is a loyal and bipartisan friend. So, again, you've got to look at the fact that those people who criticize us really don't like being criticized by us. And therefore, they're going to, instead of attacking the message they're attacking the messenger. It's an old Washington ploy. And frankly, if you look at the facts, it's just not true.

Brian Stempeck: Getting back to the Senate for a bit. Last time you were on our show you mentioned that the race for Senator Santorum of Pennsylvania would be very close. Although LCV hasn't endorsed any other candidates right now, what are the races you're looking at and some of the closest ones and places where you can really have an impact?

Deb Callahan: Well I think, as you said a moment ago, this is going to be a very dynamic election cycle. And so what I predict today may well be different tomorrow or in a matter of months. I think that certainly, you pointed out to the Pennsylvania Senate race and Rick Santorum. I think certainly in Florida you're going to see a very important for the environment Senate race down there and possibly a couple of House seats in play. I think the Minnesota Senate seat, which is now an open Senate seat, open seats are always very important and interesting contests. Of course, again, I really want to repeat that that Rhode Island Senate race for the environment is going to be very important in re-electing Senator Lincoln Chafee. I think Colorado could have some interesting House races. But there's a bigger point to be made, beyond specific races. We're seeing emerging now just terrible wave after wave of stories of corruption in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill and by people who've tried to buy the process. What is really at the nut of that story? It's about power and influence shaping policy. I think we may well see that some of the players, who sort of haven't taken center stage yet, actually are people who shape and make environmental policy. And in fact I'm often asked the question why would these members of Congress vote against clean air and clean water? The answer is it's because of corporate special interests. I think the environment is actually going to emerge as a really key issue in some campaigns down the road. Because as we look at the role of special corporate interest in politics you're going to find that environmental interests have been as affected by this wave of corruption in Washington as the other sorts of things that you're reading. So I think we've got a very dynamic cycle in front of us and I think we have yet to see a lot of the campaigns that are really going to be hallmarks of what's going to be one of the most dynamic cycles we've seen in 20 years.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think that's a message that LCV should use going forward in the next year as they start to look at these campaigns to target? Tying the corruption scandals to environmental and energy issues?

Deb Callahan: You have to go where the facts take you. And as I said, you know, we have yet to see how this emerges. But again, certainly, there are members who continually and constantly vote against their constituent's interests. I think you take Congressman Richard Pombo as an example. You know he's someone who's been out there in a powerful position on a key environmental committee who has been working hard to do things that voters completely would reject if they knew about it. Selling off national parks, just absolutely overturning the Endangered Species Act, simply advocating for a position that really is anti-environmental straight down the way. So I think, again, folks like that, who have to defend their positions that they've staked out, that are against their constituent's interests, for the corporate special interests. Really, at the end of the day, voters, the more they think about this the more they learn about it, I think will say, wait a minute. Who are you representing while you're serving in Congress? And I think that's the story LCV will be talking about. As well is celebrating the great accomplishments of our champions.

Brian Stempeck: At the same time, let's take the Congressman Pombo example, he does represent a lot of ranchers, a lot of land owners, people who might support a lot of things that he's doing. And also he's won his last few elections pretty handily. What is the role than for environmental groups? I mean do you think you can actually make up a five to 10 point difference when it comes to supporting his challenger?

Deb Callahan: I think there's a couple of points in there. And first of all, in particular the western part of this district, you're seeing a lot of people move into that district that sort of butts up against Oakland. A lot of people are moving in there that are just beginning to learn about who is their congressman. Who are likely, once they learn about his record, to say, well, wait a minute, this person doesn't reflect my values. Secondly you mentioned ranchers and other people who work on the land. And I think that I'm seeing, increasingly in the West, people who interact with the land, who work with the land, who live on the land, who are proud of being good stewards of the land are beginning to understand that some of these antiregulatory sell off public lands kind of activities - those people who represent that point of view are not necessarily working in the best interests of ranchers. I mean if you look in Colorado, in Wyoming, in New Mexico, in these places where they're seeing increased drilling for gas on lands which is resulting in contaminated groundwater or they don't own their mineral rights. And a lot of ranchers are beginning to sort of second guess their perhaps opposition to environmental protections as represented by the environmental groups. We're seeing some of these old vote lines break down and I think that's good for the environment.

Brian Stempeck: Beyond the '06 elections, looking ahead to 2008, as you're leaving LCV, what message would you leave for your successor in terms of, you know LCV spent a great deal of money in 2004. You didn't get the outcome you are looking for obviously with President Bush re-elected. What is the message you would send your successor about how to fix your mistakes?

Deb Callahan: Well the first thing I'd say is in 2004 LCV, and this is missed because the hallmark campaign was the presidential, we actually did win seven of eight of our priority congressional campaigns in 2004. And that's what I would say to my successor, is you've got to stay focused on the long haul and recognize that. And how I've seen my role at LCV, and frankly my role in the environmental movement as I think any of us should, you're never going to have a morning where you wake up and you say, "The job is done. The environment is protected and we don't have to worry about it anymore." I've always viewed my role as running a leg in a relay race. And I'm going to carry this baton for the environment as long as I can and then hand it off to someone else. I think the environmental movement is one of the greatest potential sources of organized political power in this country which exercises itself very powerfully through policy channels. And LCV plays that role, but we also need to continue to bring our constituency to the ballot box to exercise their power as a bloc of voters who are demanding that their elected official, of any party, vote for the environment. To send a message Capitol Hill, the environment is an election issue and we're not going to stand for anything else. If you don't support the environment, if you don't support our neighborhood and our family's interests, we're going to vote for someone else. And that's the goal. It's one of the most dynamic organizations in the environmental movement. Politics changes and LCV has to change. We'll always be going through evolution. I have been so proud to have served there and I'm really looking forward to seeing what the next head of LCV does with this great organization.

Brian Stempeck: One last question for you. What's next for you?

Deb Callahan: Perhaps some scuba diving.

Brian Stempeck: Taking a break?

Deb Callahan: You know, what I'm thinking of this sort of the white noise of Washington. There's so much, you know it's just, it's so intense here. So I think it's good, midcareer, to have this amazing opportunity to step back, clear my mind and really focus on what I want to do next and how I can sort of serve the public interest world next. So I'm going to at least take off through late March. And who knows, maybe it will be so tempting I'll take a little bit of a break and then we'll see. There's a lot of directions we can go. I'm midcareer. I have a lot of time in front of me to do something else wonderful. I just feel so lucky to have the time I've had. And we'll see if I can find a way to match the chance that I've had at LCV to really make a difference.

Brian Stempeck: All right, well best of luck to you and thanks for stopping by.

Deb Callahan: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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