California: A 28-year-old talks the talk to green voters

 

Compared to the passionate fight to save redwoods from logging in the privately owned Headwaters grove, the campaign for California's 1st Congressional District is a skirmish. But it has attracted national environmental groups aiming to strengthen protections for wildlife, water and woods.

Their target is Republican Frank Riggs.

The district ranges from the well-heeled wineries of Napa Valley north of San Francisco through tiny fishing and logging communities to Crescent City, home to Pelican Bay State Prison on the Oregon border.

A sheriff's deputy turned politician, Riggs, 45, is seeking a third term representing the sprawling 1,500-square-mile district. His support comes from the financial and real estate industries as well as local timber, agribusiness and mining companies.

The League of Conservation Voters named Riggs to its "dirty dozen" polluters list after giving him a zero rating for his 1995 stand on environmental issues. He is also on a Sierra Club list of 25 candidates targeted for defeat.

Challenging Riggs is Michela Alioto, 28, granddaughter of former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto. After defeating the candidate backed by the Democratic party in the primary election, Alioto now has the party's full support in her bid to become the youngest woman in Congress.

A 1992 graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, Alioto spent over two years at the White House, first as a transition liaison for the Department of Health and Human Services, then as an aide for Vice President Al Gore, preparing daily press briefings on telecommunications, the environment and other issues.

Backed by her San Francisco family connections, Alioto is sophisticated about politics and promises a liberal stance on social issues, says Lynda McClure, a Mendocino County organizer and political activist. Alioto is campaigning on a green-leaning platform but her position on environmental issues is largely unknown.

"The jury is out on her. But the jury's in on Riggs," says McClure. "He's convicted."

Riggs has voted to gut Environmental Protection Act enforcement and clean water laws. He voted for the timber salvage rider, which suspends appeals on dead and certain green timber harvests on federal land. In the controversy over northern California's redwood forest, however, Riggs favored protecting the much-fought-over Headwaters grove and a buffer zone with a land swap of about 4,700 acres.

But this was far less than environmentalists - and some other politicians - wanted to save from being logged. A tentative land swap brokered last month protects 7,500 acres in and around the grove, which is the world's largest ancient redwood forest under private ownership (HCN, 9/30/96). Environmentalists had called for the preservation of the entire 60,000-acre ecosystem.

Riggs has sometimes bragged about his anti-environmental stand, telling reporters, "Newt is greener than I am." That was a joke, says Beau Phillips, Riggs' campaign manager. And the League of Conservation Voters' zero rating is "a bum rap," Phillips says.

He cited 1995 legislation authored by Riggs which extends federal funding for fish and wildlife restoration in the Klamath and Trinity rivers. Riggs also introduced bills to permanently ban new off-shore drilling and preserve nearly 25,000 acres in the King Range.

While local environmentalists welcome any efforts to protect natural resources, Riggs' work represents the bare minimum, says Tim McKay, coordinator of the Northcoast Environmental Center. "Riggs views the environment as commodities first. He sees national forests as a source of wood fiber, not a source of clean water and habitat for fish and wildlife."

Alioto has no voting record to reflect her position on environmental issues, but she is campaigning on promises to reverse most of the stands Riggs has taken. She would repeal the salvage rider and oppose the House-adopted Clean Water Act amendments. In the Headwaters Forest controversy, Alioto supports the proposal to preserve 7,500 acres of redwoods as a first step. She is not promoting preservation of the 60,000-acre ecosystem.

But even this modest environmental stance is eroded by Alioto's investment portfolio. She owns as much as $50,000 worth of stock in DuPont, called the nation's leading corporate polluter in a report issued recently by the EPA. She also owns as much as $50,000 stock in Exxon and up to $100,000 in Chevron.

"Does Ms. Alioto think voters are stupid enough to believe that she really cares about the environment when the only real record she has is her ownership in America's number one corporate polluter?" asks Pam Simpson, Riggs' spokeswoman.

David Madland, Alioto's campaign staffer, says calling her anti-environmentalist is sheer hypocrisy coming from Riggs, who has accepted over $100,000 from timber, mining and agribusiness companies.

In recent months, the candidates have traded dirty tricks. A magazine article hung in the window of Riggs' campaign headquarters compared the Alioto grandfather-granddaughter relationship to that of Benito Mussolini and his granddaughter, Alexandra. Riggs apologized. The tables turned a month later when two of Alioto's staffers - her brother and her cousin - conspired to improperly gather Riggs campaign material through a San Francisco television station where one of them was a summer intern. Alioto apologized.

The exchange has left many political activists lukewarm about the tactics of the campaign. "So far it's a pissing match," says McClure. "It's a silly little stand-off on non-issues."

Jane Braxton Little writes from Plumas County, California.

This article is part of a feature package - about the 1996 election - that includes these other articles:

- Greens prune their message to win the West's voters

- Colorado: Environment wielded like a hammer in tight Senate race

- Utah: A liberal wilderness lover may prevail

- Montana: A scrappy Republican tries to cut down a green Democrat

- Montana: For veteran Baucus, it seems to be in the bag

- Washington: Greens storm the suburbs

- Arizona: Harvesting a bumper crop of bombast

- Nevada: Who hates nuclear waste most?