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

Political Reversals in Washington State

Air Date: Week of

In 1994, Washington State led the charge in electing freshman Republicans to congress. Just two years later, the State's voters appear to be leaning toward representatives who will reflect more of their "green" values. Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports on this perceived voter turnaround.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Two years ago Washington State led the Republican Congressional sweep. Disgruntled voters ousted more Democrats from office there than anywhere else in the nation. The Republicans who took over promised less environmental regulations and decreased governmental control. But it now appears Washington voters don't like the results. Republican efforts to weaken the nation's environmental laws apparently clash with a deep Green ethic among many Northwest voters. And now the state's freshman delegation is scrambling in the face of an assault from environmental activists. From Seattle, Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports.

SCHMIDT: High in the Cascade Mountains, dozens of campers bundle up in wool sweaters and stoke campfires to fight off the evening chill. They're here for a weekend of grassroots organizing. After settling in, the group gets down to business.

WOMAN: Do you want to be part of the legislative update? Stay in this site here. And citizen monitoring of timber sales over that way.

SCHMIDT: There are plenty of seasoned environmentalists at this gathering and a few unexpected newcomers. Like Joanne Wood, a grandmother from suburban Seattle. Wood has started volunteering with her local Sierra Club chapter and says she also plans to make her voice heard this year at the ballot box.

WOOD: Now I will be voting for candidates who are concerned about our environment, definitely.

SCHMIDT: Do you typically vote Republican or Democrat?

WOOD: Republican. But I don't know if that's going to be the case. We did enact laws for a reason, and I don't like to see my party overturning the very laws that we put through with a great deal of effort, and I'm not for that.

SCHMIDT: Neither is camper Peter Ilian with the group Christians for Environmental Stewardship.

ILIAN: The environment's a paramount issue for me, and growing in a paramount issue for a lot of my Christian friends. And the only Christian response to environmental issues is one of stewardship. You know, we're not against using resources. But when species go extinct, you know, we're sinning.

SCHMIDT: Washington environmentalists are heartened by the presence of moderate Republicans and Christian conservatives at their gatherings. The Sierra Club's Julia Reitan says it shows that efforts to educate state voters about Congress's environmental record are paying off.

REITAN: Our sense is that the environment is consistently talked about as an issue of grave concern to a lot of the public, and an issue that will have an impact on this election.

SCHMIDT: The Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters are banking on a belief that environmental protection can be a vote getter this year. These groups are pouring millions of dollars into unprecedented ad campaigns aimed at unseating what they call anti-environmental extremists in Congress. One of their targets in Washington State is freshman Republican Randy Tate.

(Woman's voice-over with suspenseful music: "Congressman Tate voted 4 times to limit your right to know about new toxic chemicals released into our air and water." Man: "The Clean Water Act." Woman: "And Tate voted to weaken the Clean Water Act that protects Puget Sound from sewage and industrial pollution.")

SCHMIDT: The ads seem to be striking a chord with voters, and have put Randy Tate on the defensive.

(Music: "I Miss You Like Crazy." A knock on the door.)

SCHMIDT: As he canvasses his district, passing out campaign literature, one resident challenges Tate on his environmental record.

TATE: Mr. Schock.


TATE: I'm Randy Tate.

SCHOCK: Oh, how about that, I voted for you.

TATE: Hey, well thank you very much.


TATE: I wanted to drop off one of my flyers and let you know I'm running, and that I need your help again. And the brochure covers a bunch of different issues trying to cut taxes for working people, to saving Medicare for senior citizens, to trying to clean up Congress which has been corrupt.

SCHOCK: What about clean water?

TATE: I'm for clean water.


TATE: Yes, sir. Absolutely. In fact I -- as a lifelong --

SCHOCK: What about that negative advertisement I heard on the radio? That said you voted against clean water.

TATE: No. A couple of points that I would make on that is, I'm born and raised in this area. I live in Puolock. My daughter drinks water every single day, I drink the water --

SCHOCK: ...we have good water around here.

TATE: Yeah.

SCHOCK: What about --

SCHMIDT: Tate stands behind his votes to increase logging and national forests and slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. He says he's taking a balanced approach.

TATE: I've tried to focus in on common sense environmental issues that have broad support and take a reasonable, moderate stand on environmental issues, stay away from the extremes, and try to do things that really improve people's lives and their quality of life.

SCHMIDT: Tate isn't the only Republican Congressman on environmentalists' hit list. They've also kept the heat on freshman Rick White. White represents a fiscally conservative suburban Seattle district with a strong environmental bent. Many of his constituents work in the software industry, and typify a new breed of Washington resident: people who say they've come to the northwest for the quality of life and who spend their substantial discretionary income on outdoor activities like hiking, camping, and sea kayaking. White seems to have gotten the message. After towing the party line early on, these days he's considered the most environmentally friendly of the state's Republican delegation. He's even backing a $100 million plan to tear down 2 Washington dams to restore salmon runs. During an interview in his Olympic peninsula office, White dismisses those who say he's recasting his environmental image for political gain.

WHITE: I just have to chuckle when I hear that. I mean, you know, I've lived here all my life. I've climbed every single peak and you can look out this window and see 7 of the 8 peaks that I've climbed over the last 5 years. There's no way in the world I ever would have done anything to jeopardize that, and it's something that I started out with. Now, there may be some people in the party who have seen the light here in recent months, but I started out knowing that we needed to change these laws, but knowing that we had to change them in a way that would improve the environment. And really what's happened is, I've been making that argument in my party.

SCHMIDT: Just how important the environment is to voters is unclear. Nationwide polls have found that support for environmental protection is widespread. But in Washington State the environment may not be the number one agenda. In fact, state polls suggest protecting the environment ranks below such issues as taxes, education, crime, and the deficit. In small Washington communities like Goldbar, once a thriving timber town northeast of Seattle, anger over environmental regulations still runs deep. Long time resident Stephanie Vaughan says such regulations have devastated the local economy.

VAUGHAN: People have lost jobs. You know, states try to re -- you know, to help with programs, setting them up. But it's pretty hard to train 40-year-old men, retrain them and whatever, and it's devastated families, it's -- I've seen families move away, divorce, I've lived out here for 22 years so I -- it was definitely a timber community and now it isn't.

SCHMIDT: The stakes in this election are high. Republicans need these seats to help maintain control of Congress. Environmentalists are banking on their high visibility, high priced ad campaign to help elect lawmakers more sympathetic to environmental protection. They're looking at the northwest as a key testing ground for their new strategy of attacking candidates directly rather than pouring funds into challengers' campaigns. Washington pollster Stuart Elway says it's hard to tell how effective the environmental attack will be, but he says Washington State is a good place to find out.

ELWAY: We are historically an independent voting state. We split the ticket all the time. So I think both of those things make Washington a real good test case. And if an environmental group can't sell an environmental message in Washington and Oregon, they're sure as heck not going to sell them in Wyoming or New Jersey.

SCHMIDT: Environmental groups say they'll continue running their ads up till the election. Meanwhile, conservative groups have started counter-attacking with their own ads defending Washington State's besieged Republican delegation. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt in Seattle.



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