Greens prune their message to win the West's voters

  By Heather Abel





he glow from his laptop computer turns the young man's face pale green. On the screen is a labyrinthine database: street names, women's ages, voting records. The bearded activist says that this technology could change the outcome of many of the West's elections.


"First we took the member lists for the environmental groups in the region and matched them against voter files," he explains. "That gave us basic information most of these groups didn't have about their own members. Do they vote, for instance? Everybody told us, "Oh yeah, almost all of our members vote," but they were wrong. Environmentalists are no different than the general public. Only about half of them vote."


Next, he matches census data with a computerized map of the region. The screen suddenly shows a satellite-generated image of say, Laramie, Wyo., then zooms in closer until we are looking at a city block.


"I can find, for instance, all the women on this block between the ages of 20 and 34 who have college degrees," he says. "This is how companies market their products."


What does this have to do with protecting forests and fish?


Everything, says the strategist, who guards the details of the technique like a Pentagon official. He won't even allow us to print his name.


Why is this environmentalist working so stealthily and aggressively to court the Western voter? Because he is part of a movement that got burned. On Nov. 8, 1994, environmentalists who had spent months or years holding placards and filing lawsuits to save salmon in Washington and forests in New Mexico woke up to find that their neighbors had sent people like Idaho's Helen Chenoweth and Arizona's John Shadegg to Congress. There, they and other pugnacious Western freshmen Republicans declared themselves victors in the War on the West, and did their best to dismantle some of the most venerable environmental laws on the books. Nearly half of all Republican representatives earned zeros from the League of Conservation Voters in 1995, with the freshmen as a whole averaging a 12.


Polls couldn't explain it. Some 70 percent of Americans considered the environment a top issue. Why, then, did they elect politicians who voted to clearcut forests and dismantle the Endangered Species Act? Environmental activists turned to the political equivalent of the spiritual guide - political consultants - for answers.


Longtime Democratic pollsters Matt MacWilliams and Celinda Lake held focus groups, chatting with Westerners about the environment. What they heard sent some environmentalists, who formerly left campaigning to the parties and national groups, in new directions. They have adopted aggressive campaign tactics pioneered by the Christian Coalition and computer technology borrowed from consumer marketing.


More fundamentally, some groups have chosen to avoid strong environmental positions and even strong environmental candidates. They have gone mainstream.


At this time, the experiment is mainly confined to the Northwest. But if it is successful, it could become the future of environmental politics.





TALKING TO THE NEIGHBORS


This radical transformation is happening because the consultants found that environmentalists were alienating the majority of Americans. They were speaking in jargon that made even sympathetic voters' eyes glaze over and made less-than-sympathetic listeners furious.


The consultants told their green clients that the average American thinks that "biodiversity" is a strange scientific term. They want to hear about the things that touch their lives: the air they breathe, the water they drink and the beautiful places they like to take their kids. Environmentalists were out of step.


"We've spent a bunch of years getting really good at bringing lawsuits, dissecting environmental impact statements and eviscerating entire agencies," says the Idaho Conservation League's Rick Johnson. "But one day we turned around and saw that nobody was with us. We need to be speaking for the public - not at the public."


"People don't wake up in the morning and think, "How many parts per million will I encounter today?" or "How did the subcommittee vote yesterday?" "''''says environmental leader Jane Elder. The environmental movement, she contends, has fast-forwarded beyond the rest of society. "We need to back up and find common values. There's not enough people out there like us to make a political majority."


Elder directs a project funded by over 40 foundations based in Madison, Wis., that is spearheading some of the refocusing effort. Called the Biodiversity Project, it set up workshops in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Seattle, Wash., to teach environmental activists, ironically, not to use words like biodiversity.


At these and other workshops, activists learned to talk to the West's voters, especially the suburban Republican women whom pollsters found to be the swing vote on the environment. They learned to use biblical-sounding words like stewardship, and to talk about local control to tap into the self-reliant spirit of Westerners.


Underpinning this new jargon lay a sobering truth: Their neighbors were neither analytical nor impassioned about environmental activism. If the majority is passionate about anything, it is a desire for peace and quiet.


To the several hundred environmentalists who came to these workshops, the possibilities sounded promising. Activists from local groups, who were feeling estranged from their rural communities, were grateful for words to bridge the gap, says Elder. "(They said) "Just give me a tool. Just help me do it." "





Taking cues from the pros


But a new lexicon does not create a viable political strategy. To many long-time activists, changing the way they talk about their passion is awkward and unsettling. And the workshops didn't explicitly direct activists to work on elections: Many local groups still leave campaigning to the national organizations, using their resources in courtrooms or at rallies to fight the ways the laws are implemented. Elections in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada are being conducted along traditional lines.


But in the Northern Rockies and the Northwest - in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Wyoming - activists are forming grassroots coalitions, and even political action committees, to get the new mainstream message to the public. If they elect green candidates in November, this tactic will almost certainly spread.


Activist Ed Zuckerman of Seattle, Wash., was one of the first to use the approach. A consultant himself, Zuckerman took the advice of consultants and built a coalition of fiscal conservatives, environmentalists, homemakers and students that went on to defeat Washington's takings initiative, Referendum 48. After that success, Zuckerman and his friends in the Northwest environmental movement wanted to try the approach in the 1996 general elections.


But there was a big problem. The groups they work with are nonprofits. Although some of them may campaign for initiatives, it is illegal for them to support a candidate. Zuckerman knew that there was only one way that nonprofits could legally influence elections - education.


Enter cyberspace. With sophisticated data, activists can find the names of members of conservation groups in one neighborhood who neglected to vote in 1994 and invite them to a get-out-the-vote barbecue. They can locate Republican college-educated women and send them a mailing about toxic emissions near a local preschool. They can call all the fishing enthusiasts near a polluted river, tell them about the threat posed by mine tailings and remind them of the important election coming up.


The only thing they can't do is suggest who to vote for. "Education" is legal for a nonprofit; campaigning for a candidate is not. The game is to make information available without explicitly backing a candidate.


"People who don't usually vote can be compelled to do so if the issue they care about is on the table. We are trying to better undertand who those people are and to find the right messages to get them to the voting booth," says Zuckerman. But he emphasizes that he is not working on elections.


His sensitivity is understandable. Another nonprofit, the Christian Coalition, was sued by the Federal Election Commission for crossing the line between education and influence earlier this year. But before they went over the edge of campaign propriety, they won a lot of elections with what is often called the "San Diego model." It was named after a surprising turn of events in November 1990, when the religious right placed 90 candidates on local ballots in San Diego. The Christian Coalition then gathered membership lists from 100 area churches and informed the people listed of all the candidates' positions on "family issues."


On the Sunday before the election, teams of volunteers placed voter guides on car windshields in every church parking lot, reminding church-goers where the candidates stood. Two days later, 60 of the Coalition's 90 largely unknown candidates had won.


"The Christian community got it backwards in the 1980s," says Coalition executive director Ralph Reed. "We tried to charge Washington when we should have been focusing on the states."


Like the Coalition, Northwest environmental groups have learned to stretch the limits of campaign finance law by occasionally using membership lists, non-partisan voter surveys and phone calls to make sure that residents know the candidates' positions and what's at stake for the environment. But environmentalists are at a disadvantage: While the Christian Coalition can tap the membership of San Diego's many suburban churches, a save-the-rivers group in Spokane, Wash., has only a few names and addresses. And while the Coalition used donations from these churches to conduct polls and hire consultants, a grassroots group rarely has enough funds to hire even a communications director.


Zuckerman's solution was to bring together hunters, environmentalists, fishermen, mountain bikers and others who normally won't work together. His group, Washington Environmental Alliance for Voter Education, pooled membership lists with over 30 groups. His friends followed his example.


Former Sierra Club lobbyist Rick Johnson, now head of the Idaho Conservation League, drew together hunting and anti-nuclear organizations to help the league change the state's representation.


And Dave Crandall left his post as executive director of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council in Spokane, Wash., to unite sporting and environmental groups in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana into the Northern Rockies Campaign. While Crandall modeled his coalition after Zuckerman's, he expects its mission of protecting public land to last beyond the election.


This pairing is not totally contrived. Although hunters and wilderness-lovers have many differences, they also share some values. The trick is to emphasize the shared values and stay away from some red flags, such as off-road vehicles ripping up public land and hunters baiting bears with jelly donuts.


That means talking about what is "healthy" and "clean" instead of about "ecosystem management," and using the word "conservation" rather than "environmental." As Johnson points out, "conservation" and "conservative" have the same root.





Fighting PR With PR


It is not just environmental activists who have softened their rhetoric. At a summer meeting of the wise-use movement, which supports extractive industries, timber industry lobbyist Donn Zea told a hundred Western state and county representatives to practice using the words "safer," "cleaner" and "healthier" in their everyday speech, and avoid industrial jargon.


"They are not insiders like us," says Zea. He was spreading an approach developed by Frank Luntz, the Republican consultant who took Newt Gingrich's goals for Congress and named them the "Contract with America." After holding his own focus groups, Luntz told the GOP it had better start sounding green. But he also told it to attack environmentalists where the focus groups say they are vulnerable: in their support of bureaucracies and in the elite lawyers and hippies who are seen as being at the heart of the movement.





Middle Ground Comes


at a Cost


One upshot of all this consulting is that a pall of blandness is settling over politics - even local environmental politics - as everyone promises a safer and healthier life.


Not all environmentalists cheer this new centrist language. Environmental columnist Jeffrey St. Clair says, "Maybe this sells in New Jersey, where people don't know about forest issues. But how can you escape it in Oregon and Washington? People are not ignorant. There is a front-page story (on mining, timber or grazing) every week ... that's what this whole thing is about. To couch it in terms of "clean water, clean air and livability," that is a bunch of bullshit."


The tension between pragmatism and purity came to a head during Oregon's recent Senate primary. The Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) formed a political action committee so it could endorse candidates. But when it did, it shunned former board member and committed environmentalist Harry Lonsdale and endorsed millionaire businessman Tom Bruggere. Then-executive director Andy Kerr explained that Lonsdale was taking a stand for campaign finance reform by refusing to accept PAC contributions or spend more than $25,000 of his own money. To Kerr, this made Lonsdale unelectable.


Lonsdale felt betrayed by the abrupt move of the militant ONRC toward the middle. He wrote to Kerr, "Andy, you broke my heart and destroyed my trust in you."


Tim Hermach, the director of Native Forest Alliance who had grown up idolizing Kerr for his "Rambo-style" defense of wild places, is still so angry that his words come out in a rush. "I've watched the Democrats sell us out for 20 years," he says. "We're never going to have an honest candidate or winning third-party candidate until we give them our support."


But Kerr says he saw too many progressive candidates lose in 1994. This year, he aims to win. "It has been argued that we should back Lonsdale as the best way to begin building a defined environmental voting block in Oregon. It is not clear how backing a loser helps build a movement. Most voters and volunteers feel bad, not empowered, by losing."


Kerr is not alone in his desire to field a winner who's still green - or green enough. Environmentalists in Idaho are supporting Senate hopeful Walt Minnick, a millionaire and former timber executive (HCN, 9/30/96). In Colorado's Senate race, environmentalists back Tom Strickland, a wealthy lawyer who has worked for developers.





Battling With Big Bucks


The backdrop to any political story, of course, is cold, hard cash. To win or even to show in politics these days, you have to confront the massive amounts of money that campaigns require. An average citizen earning $25,000 a year, and saving $1,000 a year, would have to work 4,570 years to earn enough to run a winning campaign for an average Senate seat.


Bruggere and the other candidates considered acceptable will get help from environmental groups that have formed political action committees. Some, like the new ONRC PAC, give money directly to candidates, with a limit of $5,000 per candidate. But the PACs run by the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club are carrying out what is called an independent expenditure campaign, following the model they used in Oregon's January election to replace Sen. Bob Packwood. The rules are simple: An organization may spend an unlimited amount campaigning for, or against, a candidate so long as it doesn't coordinate its campaign with any candidate. In Oregon, exit polls attributed Democrat Ron Wyden's narrow victory to the LCV and Sierra Club's $100,000 ad campaign against his opponent, state Sen. Gordon Smith (HCN, 2/19/96).


Despite this victory, environmentalists are vastly outgunned overall. So far, for November's election, all environmental PACs have contributed $221,663 to candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. During this same time, energy and natural resources PACs (not including timber PACs) have contributed $9,366,022 to candidates.


Over the past three years, the 660 industry political action committees that want to roll back environmental laws gave more money to members of Congress than did any other interest groups - doctors, unions, defense industries - $46 million, according to the Sierra Club.


The numbers should come as no surprise. The law regulating PACs are skewed in favor of industries: Environmental groups, like the ONRC, must create entirely new for-profit groups to give money to campaigns. These PACs must, by law, remain separate from the non-profit entity with separate fund raising. Often the group and its PAC compete for money from the same donors. Industries have none of these handicaps. Unlike nonprofit organizations, a for-profit firm can create, control and fund a PAC. And, of course, the private sector has much more money than advocacy groups.





The Year of


Playing Dangerously


At the heart of all the campaign hoopla, Western environmentalists are hashing out a fundamental question. What political approach will be best for Western land? Should they make compromises in order to achieve power, or should they remain principled and fight the system from the periphery?


St. Clair says the only hope for environmentalists is the latter: "We can't exploit the PAC process. We can't influence these guys with money. Our campaign should be "let's get the gold mine and timber company money out of politics." Or we will continue to lose forever."


But Rick Johnson, who helped form two PACs this year, is not deterred by the status quo. "I'm not a big fan of how campaigns are financed," he says. "I'm also a short person. I don't like that the rim (in basketball) is 10 feet high. But I play and win. I play by the rules." n





Heather Abel writes about politics from HCN's Paonia, Colorado, office. HCN associate editor Paul Larmer contributed to this story.