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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Wisconsin Senate Race: Enviro Scorecard

Air Date: Week of October 16, 1998

Wisconsin has a long legacy of progressive politics dating back to the turn of the century, and the right to redefine Wisconsin's brand of innovative politics is being fought over this year, in a hotly contested senate race. Environmental activists have radically different assessments of the two contenders. The League of Conservation Voters has given incumbent Senator Russ Feingold its highest rating for four straight years. His challenger Congressman Mark Neumann has received one of its lowest scores. Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio has our report.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Wisconsin has a long legacy of progressive politics dating back to the turn of the century. And the right to redefine Wisconsin's brand of innovative politics is being fought over this year in a hotly-contested Senate race. Environmental activists have radically different assessments of the 2 contenders. The League of Conservation Voters has given incumbent Senator Russ Feingold its highest rating for 4 straight years. His challenger, Congressman Mark Newman, has received one of its lowest scores. Chuck Quirmbach of Wisconsin Public Radio has our report from this Great Lakes state.

(Rushing water)

FORAN: We're standing here on the shores of one of the most spectacular water bodies in the entire world.

QUIRMBACH: Frothy cold whitecaps pound the shores of Lake Michigan as Jeffrey Foran, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Water Institute looks on. The lake is a vast and vital resource for the industrial Midwest. Jeffrey Foran says like all the Great Lakes, this one is less polluted than decades ago. Still, he says, progress on the clean-up has leveled off.

FORAN: It's not that long ago when one of the sister lakes to Lake Michigan, Lake Erie, was considered dead. And it's not that long ago when the Cuyahoga River coming out of Cleveland started on fire. And we had some of those same problems particularly along the southern shores of Lake Michigan. We don't have those problems now, thank heaven. But that doesn't mean that our vigilance is unnecessary. This lake is extremely fragile, And now we have different kinds of threats. But those threats in my mind are equally insidious.

QUIRMBACH: Beneath the waters of the Great Lakes lurk more than 40 toxic hot spots containing substances like dioxins, mercury, And PCBs. The US EPA says millions of pounds of toxic substances entered the Great Lakes in recent years. And what to do about the toxins is a flash point for Senate contenders Russ Feingold, a Democrat who arrived in Washington when Bill Clinton did, And Mark Newman, a millionaire home builder and member of the historic Republican freshman class of 1994. The environment is an even more sensitive topic in Wisconsin since the Washington, DC-based League of Conservation Voters launched a series of attack ads.

(Dramatic music and man's voice-over: "Yet Congressman Mark Newman voted to delay clean-up of our waterways. Newman also voted to gut clean air and water laws, And vowed...)

QUIRMBACH: The League this year named Representative Newman to a Dirty Dozen list of lawmakers who the group says are anti-environment and vulnerable in next month's elections. In contrast, Senator Feingold is tied for the League's most favorable ranking. Environmental activists criticize Representative Newman for refusing to take a position on a proposed zinc and copper sulfide mine that could pollute 2 major Wisconsin rivers, And for blocking the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative. They also complain about his 1995 vote to reauthorize the Clean Water Act. They say the measure would have increased sewage and toxic discharges into Wisconsin rivers and lakes. Representative Newman argues that one reason he backed the legislation is that it included cost-benefit analyses, an arithmetic he says the EPA ignores.

NEWMAN: If you do a cost-benefit analysis, if it's so costly that what's going to happen is you're going to lose the company to a foreign country where the environmental rules are more lax than they are in the United States, you could in fact enact new legislation that makes the environment worse.

QUIRMBACH: Representative Newman has built his political career on what he calls a commitment to balancing budgets and cutting back government spending. The incumbent, Russ Feingold, says his opponent's emphasis on cost-benefit analyses shows misplaced priorities.

FEINGOLD: The first thing I think you should do when you're talking about fish, health, And the health of our waters, is to ask what is the acceptable health level? In other words, you don't do the cost-benefit analysis until you first determine what is the level at which human beings and perhaps others are going to be safe. The Congressman believes in a cost-benefit analysis from the beginning. In other words, accepting a certain level of harm, health risk, And even death to people, including children.

QUIRMBACH: Green advisors, Representative Newman contends, are acting as partisan hit groups on behalf of the Senator. And whether coordinated with Mr. Feingold or not, environmental activists are criticizing Mr. Newman for his stance on another key environmental issue in the state: the dramatic loss of wetlands.

HULSEY: They don't even have soap curtains around the development to catch the dirt runoff.

QUIRMBACH: Brett Hulsey of the Midwest office of the Sierra Club leads a tour of construction sites in Waukashaw County, about 20 miles inland from Milwaukee. Five years ago this location was a farm, but now it's halfway to becoming a strip mall. A portion of the project is on hold, partly because of local and state concerns over the possible loss of about 5 acres of wetlands. Brett Hulsey says Mark Newman would hasten downstream flooding by sponsoring a bill that would allow developers to destroy up to 10 acres of wetlands without needing a permit.

HULSEY: It's an indication of both insensitivity to flood victims and the fact he just doesn't get it. He doesn't understand that protecting natural habitat also protects our families and our communities.

QUIRMBACH: Brett Halsey says Mr. Newman should withdraw his legislation. The Republican says his bill would simply put back into place a Federal rule that the EPA changed 2 years ago in an autocratic way.

NEWMAN: It's the same typical argument that we go through with these folks all the time. When you have a bureaucratic agency that unilaterally changes a rule or regulation that affects lots of people without the input from the elected folks like myself from Congress, okay, I don't think that's good.

QUIRMBACH: The Republican's dislike for the EPA carries into other areas, And he's vowed to wage war on the Agency. Senator Feingold says his opponent's environmental strategy is a big step backward.

FEINGOLD: He fundamentally wants to turn back the clock. Prior to the days of Gaylord Nelson. Prior to the days of, frankly, Richard Nixon and William Ruckelshaus, who was the first director of the EPA. They are the ones who created the Environmental Protection Agency. Under a Republican president knowing that we simply cannot leave this up to local business people, local developers and Republican and Democratic governors at the state level, And expect to have a nationally clean environment. That's how we got in the mess in the first place.

QUIRMBACH: But Representative Newman contends his policies reflect a common-sense approach, And both candidates say they are the true inheritors of the Wisconsin progressive tradition. Environmental groups and the EPA have counted on Senate allies like Russ Feingold to block some of the more dramatic legislation that's come out of the House in the last few years. If Mark Newman is promoted to the Senate, the 2 chambers could be that much closer to seeing eye to eye on environmental affairs. For Living on Earth, this is Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

 

 

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