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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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 -
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
Fighting PR With
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Battling With Big
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
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
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
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.
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
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."
Heather Abel writes about
politics from HCN's Paonia, Colorado, office. HCN associate editor
Paul Larmer contributed to this