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

Where the Passaic River Runs North

Air Date: Week of

Paul Conlow reports on the New Jersey congressional race where the Republican candidate is running to out-green his Democratic pro-business opponent.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Over the sweep of this century, the major parties in the US have staked out fairly similar territory on the environment. Both the elephants and the donkeys have at various times been out front or lagged behind. But today, the Republican-led assault in Congress on environmental regulation has tagged the GOP as anti-environment, and handed the green mantle to the Democrats almost by default. Today, as the parties battle for control of Congress, many Republicans are trying to push their party back toward the mainstream on environmental issues. And nowhere is that more evident than in New Jersey, where nominees of both parties are claiming to be the truest green in a tight race for a House street. Paul Conlow of member station WHYY has our report.

(Water flowing)

CONLOW: The Passaic River thunders over the great falls in the heart of Paterson, New Jersey, about 20 miles west of Manhattan. The meandering Passaic defies common notions about rivers. It flows north for much of its length.

(Water gurgling)

CONLOW: The river is an appropriate symbol for this year's election in the Eighth Congressional District, which lies within its basin. In a hotly contested race for the District's House seat, nothing seems to follow normal patterns. And that goes for candidate endorsements by New Jersey environmental groups. Democrat William Pascrell, the mayor of Paterson and a 5-term state legislator, has the support of New Jersey's largest grassroots environmental group. Incumbent Republican William Martini has the backing of the League of Conservation Voters and he's the only freshman House Republican to earn the Sierra Club's endorsement. It's not clear how these endorsements will affect the close race in this district, which is equally divided between Democrat and Republican voters. But Ella Fillipone of the Passaic River Coalition says issues of the environment are important to the residents of the district's old cities and suburbs.

FILLIPONE: You will find what is the best in this country and some of its worst. You will find a diversity of people but they all have a great concern for their environment, their back yard. They speak all the languages of this planet.

(Salsa music plays)

CONLOW: Paterson's Puerto Rican Day Parade attracts a huge crowd, and in this election season, both candidates. Bill Martini wades into the crowd, leaving no hand unshaken.

(Martini: "What's your name?" Child: "Ernie." Martini: "Ernie? Ernie, you've got a great hat and some great sunglasses.")

CONLOW: Martini is 49 years old, with boyish good looks. In 1994, he became the first Republican to win the district in more than 30 years, but his margin of victory was less than 2,000 votes, and Democrats believe he's vulnerable. As 1 of 73 freshman House Republicans in the 104th Congress, Martini signed the Contact With America. So Democrats are casting him as a radical follower of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But Martini, who earned a 73% rating from the Christian Coalition, casts himself as a moderate. He says he supports the Republican agenda of lower taxes and less government, but not at the expense of the environment.

MARTINI: I believe, frankly, that it would be immoral to have an economically sound future for our children and grandchildren, which we are achieving and we will get there, if we didn't also give them a safe and clean world in which to live.

CONLOW: On environmental issues, Martini often broke ranks with the Republican leadership. He voted against attempts to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement powers. And he drew praise from environmental groups for his efforts to preserve the Sterling Forest, a critical watershed in the Passaic River Basin. Tim Dillingham, President of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, says Martini's stand against the anti-environmental agenda in Congress showed courage.

DILLINGHAM: If we have more and more advocates like him in office, then the signal will get through that the agenda needs to change, and there'll be a more even course, a return to the bipartisan support for environmental protection, that this country's enjoyed for the last 25 years.

(Salsa music continues)

CONLOW: Challenging Martini is Paterson mayor Bill Pascrell. He's in his element leading the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Dressed in an embroidered geyaberra, the traditional long shirt worn by Puerto Rican men, Pascrell addresses the crowd and greets guests in his city.

PASCRELL: You're always welcome to Paterson! Let's hear it for the Puerto Rican community! Let's hear it! [Cheers]

CONLOW: Pascrell is known as a hands-on mayor, and in Paterson he has his hands full. The city, once known for the production of silk and locomotives, passed its prime long ago. Today, many of its old industrial sites are vacant. Pascrell's efforts to attract jobs to Paterson has cost him in the environmental community. The Sierra Club's Tim Dillingham says too often in recent years, Assemblyman Pascrell has supported Republican Governor Christine Whitman's business-friendly, deregulatory environmental agenda. Pascrell responds with characteristic bluntness.

PASCRELL: The Sierra Club chose not to endorse me because they don't understand what's going on in the industrial parts of this state. They don't have a clue what's going on. They don't know how to produce jobs, they don't know how to move ratables back onto the tax rolls again.

CONLOW: Pascrell did oppose Governor Whitman's efforts to cut hundreds of jobs in the state's Department of Environmental Protection. And he has solid support from the state's business community and labor groups. And while his recent record in the legislature has dismayed some environmentalists, Pascrell has earned the endorsement of the New Jersey Environmental Federation. Dolores Philips of the Federation says Pascrell 's passionate leadership on environmental issues, like his opposition to waste incinerators in the late 1980s, outweighs his recent record in the Assembly.

PHILIPS: The telling difference between these 2 candidates is that one has a long history of environmental activism. Personally, down in the trenches. The other one simply has a moderate voting record in Congress.

CONLOW: The outcome of the race may be in doubt, but one thing seems certain: it will be expensive, with the combined tab expected to exceed $2 million. Victory in the district is considered vital in the neck-and-neck races for US Senate and President in New Jersey this year. Neil Upmeyer of the Center for the Analysis of Public Issues in Princeton notes that Democrats must turn out the votes in cities like Paterson to win in New Jersey, where President Clinton won by only 79,000 votes in 1992.

UPMEYER: It's very uncertain whether Clinton can duplicate what he did 4 years ago. And the key to whether he can or not lies in places like the Eighth District.

(Water flowing)

CONLOW: The past above, the future below, and the present pouring down. That's how poet William Carlos Williams described Paterson's great falls. For the present, political observers say the race in the Eighth Congressional District is to close to call. Anything can happen in a place where the rivers run north. For Living on Earth, I'm Paul Conlow in Paterson, New Jersey.



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