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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth’s Chris Ballman reports from South Florida on a controversy over plans to build a major airport near the Everglades, and how Al Gore’s silence on the issue may have cost him crucial Florida votes.


TOOMEY: "Every vote counts." This chant by demonstrators in West Palm Beach, Florida, is the understatement of election 2000. A few months ago the state of Florida was thought to be solidly in the camp of George W. Bush. Of course, it turned out to be a lot closer than that. While much has been said about the question of vote counting, today we turn our post-election attention to plain old vote getting. Or perhaps we should say vote losing, over a key environmental issue. Our story takes place on the edge of the Everglades in a town called Homestead. A controversial plan calls for converting an old Air Force base there into a major commercial airport. Some say candidate Al Gore's silence on the issue may have cost him crucial Florida votes. Living on Earth's Chris Ballman reports.

BALLMAN: You could say Homestead became a political issue just as the winds of Hurricane Andrew were fading. The 1992 storm all but destroyed an Air Force base there, and when the federal government decided not to rebuild the facility a group of South Florida business and civic leaders stepped in. They wanted to construct a world-class airport on the skeleton of Homestead. Their goal was to restore the local economy, crippled when the Air Force base closed. They also said a major jet port at Homestead handling hundreds of flights a day would help relieve congestion at nearby Miami International. Alex Penelas is the Mayor of Dade County.

PENELAS: We're going to run out of space at Miami International Airport by the year 2012. So if it's not Homestead Air Force Base, which is within the urban development line, then where are we going to build a new airport? In the Everglades? I don't think anybody wants that.

BALLMAN: Well, no. But South Florida's environmental community said a major airport at Homestead was just as bad. The Everglades lie eight miles to the south. A few miles to the east sit Biscayne National Park and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, both home to fragile coral reefs and aquatic life. When Lloyd Miller, an environmental activist who lives near Homestead, thought about the noise pollution and development a major airport would bring, he feared the worst.

MILLER: We know the park will be destroyed. And apparently, that hasn't sunk through, or apparently people don't care.

BALLMAN: A preliminary environmental analysis by the Air Force suggested that the airport could be built if a number of steps were taken to reduce its impact on the environment. But in January of this year, when the heads of the Interior Department and the EPA disagreed with that assessment, the report's release was put on hold. Meanwhile, Vice President Gore urged "a continued discussion of how a balanced solution can be found that can help the community without hurting the environment."

CHENOWETH: Well, it's frustrating to see that it's taken so long for the administration, the current administration, to make a decision on this.

BALLMAN: Michael Chenoweth, president of Friends of the Everglades, says there is one reason for the delay.

CHENOWETH: Politics.

BALLMAN: Political analysts say Al Gore was walking a tightrope over Homestead. Coming out for the airport would alienate environmental voters. Coming out against it would offend key backers of the plan, including Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Mitch Berger, Gore's top South Florida fundraiser.

McGINTY: Well, all of that is just ludicrous.

BALLMAN: Katie McGinty is the Gore campaign's chief advisor on environmental issues.

McGINTY: The only reason we don't have an airport there built and operating right now today is because Al Gore blew the whistle, put a stop to it, said that he demanded a thorough environmental analysis and review.

BALLMAN: Gore campaign officials say that it would be inappropriate for the Vice President to take a stand on Homestead until the government's final environmental analysis is released. The report was due in late October. Then, in a move with further angered environmentalists, the deadline was pushed back until after the election. Don Chinquinna co-chairs the Florida Everglades Coalition.

CHINQUINNA: Somebody in the White House made a decision not to release that SCIS, and they told the Air Force not to, and they withheld it till after the election. So, that further added to our own concerns and worries as to where the vice president might actually be going in the final analysis.

BALLMAN: Again, Gore's environmental advisor, Katie McGinty.

McGINTY: And I think that now we have partisans in this debate and advocates in this debate who are reaching for whatever arguments, even if it damages the one person who has been their champion. But reaching for whatever arguments they think can help them to secure the prize that they particularly are after. And I think it's a very short-sighted strategy in this case.

(Drumming and chanting)

BALLMAN: In the closing months of the campaign, the Green Party targeted Homestead. In a mid-October press conference in Tampa, and at a Miami rally three days before the election, Ralph Nader pointed to the controversy when citing the lack of difference between the two major parties.

NADER: And who has come out against converting the Homestead Air Reserve Base into a commercial airport? The Green Party's come out against it. But not Al Gore or George W. Bush. (Cheers from the crowd) Al Gore, Al Gore in his wavering, waffling style, says he hasn't decided yet. (Laughter from the crowd) He'll decide after the election...

BALLMAN: Hillary Gerber was in the crowd listening to Ralph Nader chastise the vice president. Gerber is a native Floridian. Her father was in the Navy. And she remembers going to the PX at Homestead to buy diapers for her little brother. She also remembers family vacations to Biscayne National Park. She knew the race in Florida was close, and her Democratic friends warned her that voting for Nader could throw the election to George W. Bush. But in the end, she says Gore's silence on Homestead cost him her vote.

GERBER: I think that if Al Gore had taken a stand on that issue, I might have considered being part of that 50 percent margin that left Nader at the last minute and went and voted for Gore. Because then I could have been swayed. But he never did.

WEINTRAUB: I have always chastised people who would vote for third parties. I thought it was kind of stupid, actually. I thought it was a needless protest vote that went nowhere. I've always voted Democratic, up until now.

BALLMAN: David Weintraub runs the Center for Yiddish Culture in Coral Gables. He also abandoned Al Gore for Ralph Nader in the closing weeks of the campaign. It wasn't an easy decision. Weintraub says he sent at least four e-mails to Gore asking him to explain his position on Homestead. He waited and waited for a response. None came.

WEINTRAUB: We are in a very environmentally sensitive area. I think people have had enough with the development, have had enough with the pollution. Taking a position would have at least told me that this guy has a backbone. Not taking a position at all to me was pandering to where the money was coming from.

BALLMAN: There was no exit polling on the Homestead issue, so a definitive analysis of its effect on the Gore-Nader vote breakdown is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. But in a poll with likely Florida voters taken two months before the election, 63 percent of respondents said building a major airport at Homestead would increase pollution and sprawl and threaten nearby Biscayne Bay and the Everglades. Mark Mellman is president of The Mellman Group, the Washington, D.C.-based polling firm, which conducted the survey.

MELLMAN: Any politician that takes a stand against this airport has the possibility of picking up votes on that basis.

BALLMAN: The heads of South Florida's environmental groups took note of that poll, and they pleaded with Gore officials to head off an expected swing of votes to Nader. Florida Everglades Coalition co-chair Don Chinquinna.

CHINQUINNA: We even hosted a meeting here with his campaign, where they came down, you know, during the week or so before the election, asking for our support. And we told them in no uncertain terms that even if you could convince the environmental community that you're on the right side of this issue, we can't convince our followers. We can't convince our membership. Because they feel so betrayed by your silence that they're fearful that you're going to do the wrong thing. That you're going to go ahead and award this airport to Dade County. And as a result, they're voting for Nader.

BALLMAN: On election day, nearly 97,000 Floridians voted for Nader. In the three heavily Democratic counties in and around Homestead, Nader picked up 13,000 votes.

CHINQUINNA: It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened. People did not trust Al Gore any more because of his position on the airport, and, just my own humble opinion, I think it cost him the election.

McGINTY: Plenty of people can serve as Monday morning quarterbacks.

BALLMAN: Once again, Gore advisor Katie McGinty.

McGINTY: Ralph Nader has never lifted a finger on this issue. If it were only for Ralph Nader we'd have an airport operating there now, because he has never surfaced, never been active, never been helpful on this issue, ever. Period. And even though it meant that he would be criticized, as he is being criticized, Al Gore stood firm in defense of a process that's critical if this issue is going to be handled properly.

(Milling voices)

MAN: (on microphone) We're going to have everybody on this country calling that White House line comment operator until the President of the United States gets the clear message that these two national parks are not for sale...

BALLMAN: At a meeting in Coral Gables, Sierra Club members plan their next strategy on Homestead. The government's final report on what to do with the air base is due out in December. A decision on the airport's future will come 30 days later. So they're turning their attention now to President Clinton, asking him to pull federal support for the airport before he leaves office. Or at least come out in favor of the environmental community's plan to turn the old air base into an office and tourist complex. Others hope that Al Gore, whether he is the next president or the outgoing VP, will finally weigh in on the issue. That's why Lloyd Miller decided to vote for Gore.

MILLER: In terms of this issue, it was a reluctant vote.

BALLMAN: Homestead is not the only place where Al Gore's silence on environmental issues may have cost him some votes. Activists note the vice president never came out for or against breaching dams in the Pacific Northwest to restore runs of endangered salmon. And an unkept promise to close an incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, haunted him throughout the campaign. In those states the vote margins didn't matter. But in Florida, a contentious environmental issue in a small town may have made all the difference. For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Ballman.



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