Conservation vote groups optimistic

Environmentalists redouble efforts on the local level


Note: A sidebar article accompanied this story: "Election bounce."

As he describes the results of the Nov. 5 elections, Ed Zuckerman sounds like a spinmaster. "Things may have been bleak for conservationists at the national level," he says, "but the states did quite well in the West."

With the environmental movement nationwide pinning most hopes on the Democratic Party, the sum of the elections looked disastrous. Democrats lost their slim control of the U.S. Senate and became a smaller minority in the House of Representatives, as Republicans got a boost from a patriotic theme - the Bush administration's war on terrorism and Iraq.

Now, the administration will enjoy less congressional resistance to its agenda, which includes developing oil and gas on public land and appointing federal judges who don't like regulations. Yet all did not go dark for Western environmentalists, even for those who depend on Democrats.

Every Democratic congressperson up for re-election in the West won. Though some wins were very close, Democrats also took at least two of the West's five new congressional seats; a week and a half after the election, the vote for Colorado's new seat was still too close to call. And Democrats gained three governorships - those of New Mexico, Wyoming and Arizona, where Governor-elect Janet Napolitano vows to preserve patches of desert from runaway development (HCN, 10/14/02: The politics of growth).

In fact, the more local the focus, the better the results. As Zuckerman puts it, "This was a huge election for grassroots conservation electoral action in the West."

Imitating the Christian Coalition

Zuckerman has a unique perspective, because he's director of the Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues - statewide groups that are quietly building environmental politics from the ground up.

Ten Western states now have conservation voter groups. The strategy started as far back as 30 years ago, but it's ramping up now. The Colorado, Idaho and Montana groups started only three or four years ago. The Nevada and Wyoming groups just worked their first elections.

The state groups work independently of the national League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that rates congressional and presidential candidates on their environmental records. The groups concentrate on campaigns for state offices and legislative districts, down to county and city offices. Many set records this year for the money and effort they put into campaigns - and they report good results.

"We took it to a new level," says Randy Serraglio, political director of the Arizona League of Conservation Voters. "No question about it, we put (Napolitano) over the top" to win the governorship.

The Arizona League has grown to about 9,000 members, coordinated by four staffers, and Napolitano won by only about 11,000 votes. Her strongest support came in metro Tucson, home base of the Arizona League.

The state groups use tactics that other causes, such as the Christian Coalition, have perfected - including mailings that target likely supporters, phone banks and laborious door-to-door contacts.

They gather membership lists of other environmental groups and give all those people a nudge (20 percent or more of all dues-paying environmentalists don't vote, according to Theresa Keaveny, director of Montana Conservation Voters).

The state groups also target potential sympathizers, such as Republican women, Hispanics and independents. They buy ads, organize legions of volunteers, and sometimes make direct campaign contributions or assign campaign workers to candidates. They worked primaries, and helped replace anti-environment Republicans with moderate Republicans in legislatures in Arizona, Idaho and Wyoming. In Colorado and California, they worked against Democrats considered not green enough.

"We look for the stronger environmental candidate, regardless of party affiliation," says Christina Sanchez, program director of Colorado Conservation Voters, whose political action committee (PAC) spent a record $100,000 on seven legislative races. "We won three of seven," Sanchez says, "but we took on the toughest races." Those races were decided by a relative handful of votes, so if the group had any influence at all, it was a deciding factor.

How to make a phone call

The Oregon League of Conservation Voters, with seven staffers, two dozen temps and a thousand volunteers working in the homestretch, also set a record, with its PAC spending $290,000, helping backpacker Ted Kulongoski win the governor's office in a squeaker.

On a more local level, the Oregon League worked against Ric Holt, a Republican county commissioner in a Republican stronghold, the Medford-Ashland area. Holt called for shrinking a new national monument, and has been "one of the most outspoken local officials in Oregon against the environment," says Jonathan Poisner, director of the Oregon League. But with the League sending mailings to 4,500 voters in Holt's county, and two rounds of targeted phone calls, Holt was narrowly upset by Democrat David Gilmour.

Months in advance, Voters for Outdoor Idaho trained political novices in how to run for office, including Audubon Society member George Sayler of Coeur d'Alene, who then put together a 20-person campaign team and beat an incumbent Republican representative by 69 votes.

"Our training session took three days," says Darci Yarrington, director of the Idaho group. "We train candidates in all the steps, (including) how to write a fund-raising letter, and how to ask for money on the phone. We rehearse knocking on doors."

The groups admit victories tend to come in small steps. Many legislatures and some governorships are still run by interests not in the conservation camp. But "clearly the environmental movement realizes now, we can't just work on policy," says Keaveny, whose Montana group helped defeat eight legislators considered bad on the environment. "We have to work on electing people and holding them accountable."

Ray Ring is HCN's editor in the field, based in Bozeman, Montana.

You can contact ...

  • Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues, in Seattle, 206/441-3137;
  • Or, see the national League of Conservation Voters Web site,, which links to the state groups.
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