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

Democrat vs. Democrat

Air Date: Week of

As part of Living on Earth's 1996 political election coverage, reporter John Rudolph does the rounds with upstate New York democratic congressional newcomer Lee Wasserman who is hoping to make gains with his background as an environmental activist, against the democratic incumbent Michael McNulty.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This year activist environmental groups are campaigning against members of Congress who supported rolling back existing environmental laws. Many of those lawmakers are Republicans. An early indication of the strength of the environmental vote may come in September in a Congressional primary in upstate New York. But this race does not pit a green Democrat against a brown Republican. Voters in and around Albany will choose between 2 Democrats: popular incumbent Congressman Michael McNulty and his challenger Lee Wasserman, a longtime environmental activist. John Rudolph has more.

(Chimes and bird song)

WASSERMAN: Nice bell.

RUDOLPH: Several days a week Lee Wasserman campaigns door to door in Albany's residential neighborhoods. In shirtsleeves and a tie, with a clipboard tucked under his arm, Wasserman walks from house to house introducing himself to Democrats who are likely to vote in the upcoming party primary.

(Sound of a door opening)

MALONE: Hello.

WASSERMAN: Hi, Mrs. Malone?


WASSERMAN: I'm Lee Wasserman; I'm running for Congress this year in the Democratic primary.

MALONE: Mm hm.

WASSERMAN: I just wanted to come by an introduce myself and quickly tell you why I'm running for Congress.


RUDOLPH: By his own admission Wasserman is fighting an uphill battle against incumbent Democratic Congressman Michael McNulty. Wasserman is a newcomer to Democratic party politics. He spent the last 8 years heading up a nonpartisan environmental lobbying group called Environmental Advocates. But in this race Wasserman claims to be the only true Democrat. He tells virtually every voter he meets that McNulty voted in favor of 13 of the 15 initial bills in the Republican Contract with America.

WASSERMAN: You know, I just think where Newt Gingrich's agenda would take this country would be a disaster for us. And that's why I was really distressed to see that McNulty had supported this Contract With America more than just about any other Democrat in the country.


RUDOLPH: Despite his door-to-door campaign, a lot of voters still don't even know Wasserman's name. Congressman McNulty, on the other hand, is a familiar face. He served 4 terms in Congress, and comes from a family that's been active in upstate New York politics for decades. But McNulty has never before faced a serious challenge within his own party. The Wasserman campaign is trying to change that. Lee Wasserman says Congressman McNulty is too conservative to be a Democrat.

WASSERMAN: He's the fellow, of course, who on Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition scorecard scored higher than Al D'Amato. And he's the fellow who scored a zero on the Human Rights Campaign's scorecard. He's the fellow who was dead last in the League of Conservation Voters scorecard among all Democrats in the state. So it's clear that his votes place him in the middle of the pack for Republicans. When it comes to Democrats he's way off the scale. As a matter of fact he's so far out into the constellation among Democrats, you can't see him with a Hubble telescope.

(People milling. A band plays, "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing")

RUDOLPH: The living room of a fashionably restored townhouse in the city of Troy, New York, is the setting for a Wasserman fundraising party. It's an informal gathering, attended by many of Wasserman's friends from the upstate New York environmental movement. This party is a far cry from the black tie fund-raisers that have become fixtures of many political campaigns. But events like this have proven very effective. According to the latest report filed with the Federal Elections Commission, the Wasserman campaign has raised over $160,000. That's $50,000 more than Congressman McNulty's campaign has reported. Wasserman's clout as a fund-raiser is one reason why the local chapter of the Sierra Club decided to drop its long-standing support of Congressman McNulty and endorse Wasserman instead. The Sierra Club's Roger Gray says switching candidates was difficult. But he says McNulty made it easier when he voted in favor of Republican bills that would have rolled back laws to protect the environment.

GRAY: When people saw that there are elements in the Contract With America that might jeopardize 20 years of protections of clean water and 20 years of protections of clean air, they began to get ticked off. That relates to this campaign because Congressman McNulty voted for 13 out of the 15 provisions of the Contract With America in the first, I believe it was the first, 100 days of the contract votes. And I think people are beginning to make the connection that this campaign pertains to the whole agenda in Washington right now that is a real threat to the environment.

RUDOLPH: McNulty dismisses the Sierra Club endorsement of Wasserman as simply a professional courtesy between environmentalists. Another group that's supporting Wasserman is the League of Conservation Voters. Each year the League rates members of Congress on key environmental votes. In 1993 McNulty rated 79% out of a possible 100. But in 1995 his rating dropped to 54%. Even so McNulty says his record on environmental issues is very strong.

McNULTY: I would estimate that in the last year and a half we've probably had close to 100 environmental votes, and I would imagine if they scored me on all of them I'd be somewhere in the 90s. So I think it's been a very, very strong record through the years and most people in this region recognize that. That's all I care about.

RUDOLPH: In the end, however, the competition to be the best environmentalist in the campaign may not matter much. Voters have other concerns on their minds, especially the need for more jobs and economic development. In fact, Wasserman's identity as an environmentalist could actually hurt him at the polls. That's the view of Helen DesFosses, a professor of Public Administration and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany, and a longtime Democratic activist.

DESFOSSES: I think the environmental issue is both in the plus column and the negative column. It's in the plus column in that obviously I think Americans are more concerned with the environment than they have been in a long time. But it's not an issue that grabs most people in this area of upstate New York. We -- we're not like Love Canal and Buffalo or anything; we haven't had any major thing. And I think another disadvantage for Lee is that people knew him in the environmental community, but nobody knew him in connection with any other type of political activity.

RUDOLPH: Wasserman's status as a party outsider is being used against him by the McNulty campaign. It's a powerful indictment in a city once dominated by a Democratic Party machine, and where party loyalty is still important. McNulty's supporters also call Wasserman a one-issue candidate. Jack McEneny is a member of the New York State Assembly.

McENENY: Finding out that the executive director of the environmental planning lobby is pro-environment is not going to be a big revelation to the voters. I think they're going to ask other questions, where he stands on some of the other things, and to most people he is still an enigma.

RUDOLPH: Wasserman has responded to these doubts by raising a variety of issues in his campaign. He often talks about the need to create jobs, and he contrasts his pro-choice position with McNulty's anti-abortion stance. Wasserman has also been credited with running one of the most professional campaigns that Albany has seen in years. He's even borrowed techniques from the old party machine. Rather than relying on media advertising to blanket the district, he's employing old-style retail politics, attempting to personally contact as many voters as possible before primary day. Wasserman's campaign, well-funded and well-organized, clearly represents a challenge to Congressman McNulty and to the local Democratic Party organization. But it also poses a challenge to Wasserman's own supporters. Judith Enk is an environmental activist.

ENK: Well, I think it's a real test of the environmental movement. I think one thing that has challenged us more than anything is environmental protection shows up pretty well in the polls but, you know, as an activist I can say one thing we have failed at doing is translating this positive poll support into electing our own folks to Congress. So in a way, this is a test of the local environmental community. Can we mobilize people? Can we fund raise? Can we out-organize the local machine?

RUDOLPH: The answer will come when Democrats go to the polls. The September 10th primary is all-important because no candidate is expected to run on the Republican line in the November general election. Whoever wins the Democratic Party nomination is virtually assured of being elected to Congress as the representative from New York's 21st District. For Living on Earth I'm John Rudolph in Albany, New York.



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