Northwest environmental activists have branched out from their natural urban habitat and invaded the bright shiny suburbs of the Pacific Northwest, looking to wake up the green vote that slept through the 1994 election.
state has become a national battleground since 1994, when it threw
out five Democratic House members - including Speaker Tom Foley -
and elected a total of six new Republican congressmen. Most of them
had campaigned against the Clinton administration's spotted owl
protection plan for the Northwest and the Endangered Species Act,
instead backing the wise-use movement and property rights
Three of these freshmen hailed from
largely suburban districts that had previously chosen Democrats:
Rick White, who represents Seattle's northern suburbs; Randy Tate,
who serves the state's newest congressional district; and Linda
Smith from southwestern Washington, where the largest city,
Vancouver, is a growing bedroom community for
These freshmen were true to their
campaign promises: They became loyal troops in Speaker Newt
Gingrich's revolution to roll back health, safety and environmental
Back in Seattle, the defeated
environmentalists mobilized. The day after the election, Bill
Arthur, director of the Sierra Club's Northwest office, wrote a
memo to his colleagues outlining a strategy to unseat the suburban
freshmen. For most of last year, they rebuilt their grassroots,
aired attack ads against White and Tate on issues like the
so-called "Dirty Water Bill" and staged demonstrations against the
timber salvage rider. At the bottom of their effort was the
reasoning that the ideological extremism of the Washington freshmen
Republicans didn't jibe with the moderate environmentalism of their
suburban constituents. Most of the freshmen had won office by
margins of only a few thousand votes.
in the suburbs and cul-de-sacs of America talking to people" and
raising the awareness of environmental issues instead of trying to
lobby an anti-environmental Congress, Arthur
The efforts of the environmentalists - and
the records of the incumbents - yielded quick results. The results
of the Sept. 17 Washington primary election - in which three
incumbents received less than 50 percent of their party's vote -
show there is a chance to elect a pro-environment slate of up to
six Washington state Democrats to Congress, according to
Tate is under the most intense attack
from environmentalists. His near-zero voting record and
vulnerability to defeat earned him a spot on the League of
Conservation Voters' Dirty Dozen list. And in the primary, Tate was
the only incumbent who was outpolled by his Democratic challenger,
State Sen. Adam Smith.
A surprising outcome of
the primaries was a lower-than-expected 52 percent showing by Rep.
Linda Smith, who had been considered too popular for a concerted
defeat effort. In light of her poor showing, Arthur plans to put
additional resources into defeating her in southwestern
Washington's 3rd Congressional District.
Democratic challenger, Brian Baird, a psychology professor and
political newcomer who drew 48 percent of the primary vote, focused
much of his campaign on restoring endangered salmon and protecting
At first, it wasn't easy for
activists to gain ground in suburbia. Its residents were disturbed
by environmental activists' failure to acknowledge the country's
positive gains in environmental protection. "They don't believe
that the world is perfect, but they believe we've made progress,
(that) the air and water are cleaner than they were a quarter of a
century ago," Arthur said.
The greens also had
trouble hammering home their message that Congress was willfully
eroding environmental protection, because voters simply couldn't
believe that it would. But if told their members of Congress were
catering to special interests who gave them big campaign
contributions, the suburbanites found it
So activists re-packaged their
campaign in a pro-family light. Environmental groups ran a
60-second radio ad in the Puget Sound area that focused on children
worrying about the air, water and trees. In this "mouths of babes'
spot, "America the Beautiful" played in the background as the
narrator said, "They are trusting us to take care of America."
Tony Williams, chief of staff to Sen. Slade
Gorton, R-Wash., who has been helping several of the freshmen with
their re-election campaigns, said the suburban vote will be
decisive in some races. Tate in particular is in trouble, Williams
agreed. "That race is going to be door-to-door," and may be
determined by as few as 8,000 politically independent households,
But Williams said Republicans have
proven they can win big in suburban areas. Vancouver, in Linda
Smith's district, has grown fast and isn't deeply tied to one
party. But in his 1994 re-election bid, Gorton, a conservative
critic of environmental laws, captured 60 percent of the vote in
Clark County, which includes Vancouver.
House freshmen from Washington are vulnerable and will have close
contests, Arthur predicted. "Clearly there is a wind blowing out
there; it's just hard to tell how hard it's blowing until
November," he said.
Larry Swisher writes
from Washington, D.C.