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

How Green This Autumn?

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood interviews former Bush Administration environmental aide Dale Curtis about the upcoming mid-term elections and their possible impact on environmental policy. Curtis predicts that the results in several races may mean Congress contains fewer shades of green.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The mid-term elections are now heating up. And we thought it was time to see how some of the key races around the country may affect environmental policy. We'll be looking closely at several races throughout the fall. But first, for a quick survey of the national political landscape, we turn to Dale Curtis, who's on the line from Washington. Mr. Curtis was an environmental advisor to former President Bush, and he's now co-publisher of the daily on-line environmental service, Greenwire. Dale, welcome to Living on Earth.

CURTIS: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Now, Dale, Greenwire has been following political races across the country. What do you think Congress will look like from an environmental perspective after the mid-term elections?

CURTIS: I think overall it may be slightly less sympathetic to environmental initiatives than it is now. And as you know, in 1992 there were a lot of new members elected in the atmosphere of Ross Perot and "It's the economy, stupid," so the last 2 years have not been particularly friendly to environmental initiatives. And it might be slightly tougher in the next 2 years. In the Senate, we're tracking about a dozen races where the environment will be a factor, and right now I would predict switches from green votes to brown votes or less green votes in Arizona, New Jersey, and in Virginia. There are some other notable states that are too close to call; in California, Dianne Feinstein running for re-election. In Maine, George Mitchell stepping down. Ohio, where Howard Metzenbaum is retiring.

CURWOOD: Now what about on the House side?

CURTIS: I think it's too soon to predict. There's a lot more races in play. There's maybe a dozen races where the environment might be a factor, but those are mostly local issues and it's hard to cast a generalization over all of them.

CURWOOD: To what extent do you think these races will hinge on the environment?

CURTIS: Well, as in most election campaigns in most years, the environment is not the major factor in these races. But a majority of people do say they're more likely to vote for someone who's perceived as pro-environment. And there's probably a hard-core of 3 to 5% of the voters out there for whom the environment is one of the most important issues they look at. So that can play a significant role in a tight race. And I think perhaps the race where the environment may play the greatest role this year is in the Pacific Northwest. The Washington Senate race, the Montana Senate race, and the Oregon Governor's race. In Oregon, the Republican candidate, Denny Smith, has accused the Democrat John Kitzhaver of being too cozy with environmental groups. Kitzhaver has been on the board of several environmental groups that have sued to block logging and grazing and salmon fishing and also some of the hydroelectric dam projects out there. So, there's this building sense in parts of Oregon and throughout the west that the Democrats care more about the environment than they do about people. And while it's still too early to say whether those mostly rural voters will outweigh the votes of urban people, who tend to think the environment needs greater protection, it's clearly going to be a factor in Oregon and in the upper Northwest of this country.

CURWOOD: Well now, of course, we move from the Senate to State houses. Let's talk about State house races. Oregon is an interesting one. What about California?

CURTIS: Well, in California, enviros will almost uniformly vote for Kathleen Brown for Governor. Pete Wilson has been criticized for standing up to the EPA on some regulatory issues and for generally being more sympathetic to business interests. But he's not completely anti-environment. For example, he's been a staunch backer of the electric car. It's not clear to me that Kathleen Brown, who's a moderate, will be all that different.

CURWOOD: In Florida, former Senator and now Governor Lawton Childs, had pretty strong support from the environmental community when he was elected. This year things have changed; I guess there's been a flap around his own Secretary of the Environment. Could you explain for us?

CURTIS: Sure. It's actually, if it weren't a serious issue it would be kind of funny. His environmental protection secretary, a woman named Virginia Weatherall, has been perceived as favoring business interests in a number of development cases. And then more recently, she and her husband created a lake on their property by dredging some wetlands. Now, they had all the permits that they needed, but it just doesn't create the right kind of image for your environmental protection secretary to be dredging wetlands on her property. And Childs has also been hurt, I think, by the Everglades clean-up agreement which he and Interior Secretary Babbitt negotiated with the sugar industry, and a lot of enviros feel that that agreement let the sugar industry off the hook for its fair share of the clean-up burdens. So it's quite likely that environmental groups in Florida won't endorse a candidate this year.

CURWOOD: Now, even without the mid-term elections and possible changes in the political landscape, President Clinton's been having a pretty hard time getting stuff through Congress. And the environmental agenda, which has some important things - I'm thinking of the Clean Water Act, Superfund, and Endangered Species - seem pretty bogged down. What's your assessment?

CURTIS: Well you're right. There's a growing backlog of legislation that has to be renewed. In addition to Superfund, Clean Water, which you mentioned, there's also mining law reform and there's the Safe Drinking Water Act. Now, right now it looks like the Administration could still pull out some major legislative victories this fall. On Superfund especially, it's got some momentum and it's got strong backing to get a Superfund reform bill through. The others are more dicey. And what I expect you may find when 1 or 2 or 3 of these bills have been pushed through this year, they may have the same kind of feel as the outcomes on crime and health care. In other words, these have been battled over by the special interests. They've been delayed by partisanship. And when it's all said and done, you're going to feel like less was accomplished than could have been.

CURWOOD: There must be some environmental successes that the Clinton Administration can point to.

CURTIS: Yeah, he got off to a good start with the Pacific Northwest Forest Summit, and the plan that was developed as a result of that summit has passed muster with the Federal judge, who's now lifted the logging injunction in the Northwest. I think they made good starts with recycling policy and technology policy; and I like their approach to climate change, although that's heresy among some environmentalists. The policy, as you know, is mostly voluntary. They also have gotten a lot of things rolling: Superfund reform, pushing the Biodiversity Treaty through the Senate, and so forth. But the test will really be closing the deals on the legislation, pushing the regulations through, and that's where it is really tough. And in the next 2 years they'll have an election to worry about on top of it all.

CURWOOD: Dale Curtis is the co-publisher of the on-line environmental news service, Greenwire.



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