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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Political Swing Dance

Air Date: Week of October 22, 2004

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The presidential candidates aren’t the only ones swinging through battleground states these days. Their top environmental officials and advisors are also stumping on the campaign trail. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on how election year politics could interfere with environmental protection.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Recent travel schedules for some top environmental officials in the Bush administration show them spending most of their official travel time in the hotly contested states in the presidential election. Some conservation groups complain that’s improper, and warn that election year politics could interfere with environmental protection. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports from Washington.

YOUNG: Back in June, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt announced some grant awards in Wisconsin. Communities there were getting money to clean up old industrial sites under the brownfields redevelopment program. Leavitt had a little trouble with some of the Wisconsin town names.

LEAVITT: The village of A-Ashwonimbinwah? Did I get that close?

CROWD: (LAUGHTER) WOMAN: Close.

LEAVITT: Close? Okay. The city of Delavan?

YOUNG: Since then, Leavitt’s had plenty of practice on his pronunciation, with four more public events in Wisconsin. Leavitt also had 11 events in Michigan. And he’s been a frequent visitor to Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. One thing these states have in common: they’re all up for grabs in the presidential race. Leon Billings of the non-partisan environmental group Clean Air Trust says that’s probably not a coincidence.

BILLINGS: That’s a very clever and probably modestly, in a modest way, effective technique to use public funds to accomplish political purpose.

YOUNG: Mike Leavitt’s travel schedule shows 38 public events in battleground states since June, and just 16 trips to so-called safe states, where the presidential race is not close. Leavitt’s also handing out a lot of money at some of these events. Four of the five largest brownfields grants this year, totaling some 23 million dollars, went to four battleground states. EPA press secretary Cynthia Bergman denies election politics played any role in the grants or in Leavitt’s travel.

BERGMAN: He’s a very active administrator who keeps a very busy travel schedule.

YOUNG (TO BERGMAN): But no connection whatsoever between his travel schedule and the political terrain?

BERGMAN: No! I think that minimizes what he’s doing and the business of this agency. A lot of these environmental problems the administrator wants to see first-hand. A lot of these states or counties that we’re going to who have some of the worst air quality problems in the country, some of them happen to be in battleground states.

YOUNG: Other Bush environmental officials are also spending a lot of time in the battlegrounds. Of Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s 31 trips since June, 26 were to swing states. Norton’s deputy secretary, Rebecca Watson, recently spent a weekend picking up litter in a popular recreation area in the swing state of Nevada. And White House Council on Environmental Quality Director James Connaughton had events in the battlegrounds of West Virginia and Florida.

So, is there anything wrong with this apparent mix of election year politics and environmental policy? Trevor Potter is president of the Campaign Legal Center, a non- partisan watchdog group that follows campaign law. Potter says he sees no violation of law or ethics, although directing so much official business to swing states could push the ethical line.

POTTER: It’s probably dancing. Where you’d fall off the line is where the campaign is requesting appearances in particular states or if there is any record that these events are being scheduled only in these states for political purposes.

YOUNG: Potter says it’s certainly nothing new for incumbents to press their political advantage by lavishing attention on the states that matter most. Bush administration critics say what is new is the matter of degree.

Roger Ballentine is an environmental advisor to Senator Kerry’s campaign and was President Clinton’s deputy assistant for environmental initiatives. Ballentine echoes what other Clinton-era officials claim: that the Bush administration has greatly politicized environmental protection.

BALLENTINE: We certainly did not do it to this extent. This is a pretty extraordinary change of course. And I don’t think it’s unprecedented to target officials to key states, but I’ve never seen it quite at this scale.

YOUNG: The Clean Air Trust’s Billings says that could carry a cost for an agency like the EPA, which needs some distance from partisan politics in order to fulfill its regulatory role.

BILLINGS: To the extent that the Environmental Protection Agency is perceived as practicing partisan politics it will hamper its effectiveness.

YOUNG: If that happens, Billings warns, the environment could end up the real loser in this election. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

 

 

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