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

1996 Presidential Candidates Profile Series: Lamar Alexander

Air Date: Week of

The Republican former Tennessee Governor's environmental outlook is profiled. Alexander believes states and municipalities, not the Federal Government, should be responsible for environmental planning and regulations. John Gregory of member station WFPL in Lousiville, Kentucky reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the New Hampshire presidential primary approaches, the budget battles in Washington have kept the limelight on Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. Pundits say the senator is virtually unstoppable in his drive for the Republican nomination. But the other contenders still hope to convince voters otherwise. Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander has been leading the pack of second-tier candidates since November, when he finished right behind Senators Dole and Phil Gramm in Florida's straw poll. Governor Alexander was also Secretary of Education under President Bush. On many issues, including the environment, the governor favors taking powers and responsibilities, traditionally held by the Federal Government, and returning them to state and local authorities. In our continuing series on the 1996 presidential hopefuls, producer John Gregory has this profile of Lamar Alexander.

GREGORY: Even though environmental concerns still get high ratings in national opinion polls, it's difficult to find Republican or Democratic candidates who will talk about the environment. Lamar Alexander is somewhat different. He recently chided his fellow Republicans for missing an opportunity to take the high ground on these issues.

ALEXANDER: I think we'd better be careful as Republicans in sending off a message that we don't care about these issues. Because I do and I think most Republicans do.

GREGORY: Alexander was born into a strongly Republican family in Maryville, Tennessee, a small town at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains. By the time he was 30, he had already served as a Congressional and White House aide. He returned to this roots, though, to win his first term as Governor of Tennessee in 1978. Alexander donned his trademark red and black checked flannel shirt and campaigned as the common man.

TIDWELL: Lamar was an excellent governor, and he was very, very good for the environment in Tennessee for his 8 years.

GREGORY: Ann Tidwell, a Republican and long-time environmentalist in Nashville, served on the Tennessee Water Quality Control Board during Alexander's administration. She says he strongly supported the board's efforts to address pollution problems and wetlands protection.

TIDWELL: He appointed people who were dedicated to the environment and then he let them make decisions in their field.

GREGORY: Alexander says his goal during those years was to balance economic development and environmental preservation. He opposed a Department of Energy plan to build a nuclear fuel storage facility in the state, and he fought the Tennessee Valley Authority on a proposal to restrict the flow of one of the state's scenic rivers. Former State Commissioner of Conservation Charles Howell says Alexander tackled surface mining problems in Tennessee's eastern coal fields and soil erosion in the western farmlands. Howell now works as a fundraiser for Alexander's presidential campaign.

HOWELL: One of the early things he did was develop what we called the Safe Growth Team, the Safe Growth Plan.

GREGORY: The team was Tennessee's first formal effort to coordinate economic and environmental concerns. A committee of citizens and state officials developed a plan to address existing issues and anticipate problems that industrial growth might create.

HOWELL: We developed this natural and cultural areas acquisition program. We developed the Natural Resources Trust Fund, developed a wetlands inventory...

GREGORY: Some local environmentalists criticize the Safe Growth Team for generating more visibility for Alexander on environmental issues than it did actual solutions. But overall, his administration gets above average marks from many Tennessee environmentalists, including Bill Terry, Legislative Chairman for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club.

TERRY: I think he would deserve a B or a B-plus. I think his positive record was more on the side of land conservation and probably a little bit less on the side of the regulatory environment.

GREGORY: Which is only natural, says Republican environmental activist Ann Tidwell.

TIDWELL: Many of his backers are business people. And he certainly doesn't want the kind of regulation that is unreasonable and strangles people.

GREGORY: This kind of flexible approach to environmental protection is exemplified in Alexander's opinion of the Endangered Species Act, which as he puts it has gotten silly in the hands of liberal extremist groups. He cites an example from his home state in which a $110-million dam was delayed in the 1970s because of an endangered fish, the snail darter.

ALEXANDER: Turns out the snail darter is a minnow, of which we have about 3 million in Tennessee. So it was the wrong use of a good law.

GREGORY: In 1985, near the end of his second term as Governor, Alexander was appointed chairman of President Reagan's Special Commission on Americans Outdoors. This bipartisan group produced a report calling for strong environmental laws, supportive biological diversity and endangered species, and the establishment of a trust fund for recreational land acquisition and development. The recommendations were largely ignored by the Reagan Administration. Alexander's next presidential appointment was as Secretary of Education in the Bush Administration. Alexander now says he would abolish the Department of Education. He says the lesson he's learned in Washington and as governor of Tennessee is that individuals know what to do better than the Federal Government does. This philosophy of new Federalism is the core of Alexander's campaign platform, including his approach to the environment. He says there should be strong Federal controls for clean air and water and toxic wastes, but that Washington is too strict in some of its regulatory policies.

ALEXANDER: I'm not proposing that we make the national standards different. I'm just saying that we give states and local communities the opportunity to come up with their own ways of meeting those standards.

GREGORY: But Bill Terry of the Tennessee Sierra Club says that states historically have been lax on environmental protection. He says the Alexander approach is good --

TERRY: As long as the standards are observed and as long as the Federal Government would have the necessary authority to step in and correct the problem when the state doesn't do it.

GREGORY: Terry and other environmentalists in Tennessee say that given his record on conservation issues, they hope Alexander will provide a moderating influence on the anti-environment sentiment in Congress. It's a role that Alexander himself seems eager to play.

ALEXANDER: As president, what I would do is work with Senator Dole and Speaker Gingrich and develop a Republican approach toward conservation that emphasizes our support for clean air, clean water, and the great American outdoors.

GREGORY: Former Tennessee Governor, and Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander. For Living on Earth, I'm John Gregory.



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