Green and mean

Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund builds on anti-Pombo election strategy

  • "Stop being hysterical‚" about global warming, an animated Congressman Steve Pearce tells a young girl as the oceans rise in an ad that's part of Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund's campaign to unseat anti-environment members of congress. COURTESY DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE ACTION FUND


Little girl: This is my congressman, Steve Pearce. (points to man with head stuck into the ground) He cares so much about my future he's going to get his head out of the sand and help stop global warming.

Pearce: (pulls his head out with a "thwok" sound) No, I'm not. Little girl, we don't need to do anything about global warming.

Little girl: Then why are you melting?

Pearce: I'm not melting. I feel fantastic. It's not hot.

Little girl: (as the sea begins to engulf them) That's because the sea level is rising around us.

Pearce: No, it's not. Prove it. Stop being hysterical. The rising sea stuff, that's a theory. Like the theory of gravity.

Little girl: You don't believe in gravity?

Pearce: Is all the evidence in? I don't think so.

This 60-second animation was the first salvo fired by the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund in its battle against New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce and five other Republican lawmakers, over their support for carbon-intensive fossil fuel industries. Typical of the Action Fund's aggressive strategy, the ad pulls no punches. And Pearce is still in the Fund's sights: It is now running "Flip of the coin" ads portraying Pearce and fellow Republican Rep. Heather Wilson as anti-environment big-oil supporters -- heads and tails of the same bad penny. Both are vying for the chance to run against Democrat Tom Udall for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican Pete Domenici this fall. "We've found over the past seven years that science, law and policy analysis are not enough -- we have to change the decision-makers. So we're focusing on members of committees that matter," says Fund director Rodger Schlickeisen, who hopes to tip the balance in Congress toward "a significant piece of legislation that redirects our energy policy away from fossil fuels."

The Fund used similar tactics two years ago, when it led an attack against the "unbeatable" seven-term California Congressman Richard Pombo, pro-energy chair of the House Resources Committee, who was notorious for wanting to privatize national parks, drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and gut the Endangered Species Act. Despite an eleventh-hour injection of more than a million dollars into the campaign and appearances on his behalf by Vice President Cheney and President Bush, Pombo lost by more than 13,000 votes to wind-energy consultant Jerry McNerney.

Environmentalists had a new ally in Congress -- and the Action Fund had won its first David-and-Goliath victory.

The Fund's campaigns are characterized by an early entry into the races, a small core staff, and engagement on all fronts: research and polling to uncover candidate weaknesses; voter targeting through door-to-door canvassing, phone calls and mail; grassroots organizing with members; and TV, radio and Internet ads. Targeting vulnerable members of key environmental committees is "the unique element" of the Fund's strategy, says Bob Duffy, author of The Green Agenda in American Politics: New Strategies for the 21st Century.

 In the past, says Duffy, the Action Fund and other enviro groups diluted their potency by not working together. But since 2006, the Action Fund -- the political arm of the 60-year-old nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife -- has been collaborating with the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the Clean Water Action Fund and Environment America in integrated, sophisticated campaigns that increased the groups' collective clout. In the Pombo campaign, for example, the Fund's field director and four staffers worked with the other conservation groups to recruit 300 volunteers, who ran a phone bank and knocked on 75,000 doors to ensure voter participation.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the Fund's tactics. Starting the campaign early -- in the case of Pearce and Wilson, during the primary race -- is a questionable strategy, says Lonna Atkeson, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico. "They're playing to an electorate that isn't paying attention," she says.

But Schlickeisen believes that getting out "before the media clutter and clatter, when people are still listening" is the best way to "define the candidates."

Schlickeisen views the campaign "through two lenses: We're always concerned about the committees, and we know that no matter how good the legislation is in the House, the Senate can't get past the 60-vote filibuster. We have to be able to pass that threshold."

Electing pro-conservation folks to Congress could swing the vote toward cap-and-trade legislation and renewable energy initiatives, agrees Tony Massaro, political director for the League of Conservation Voters. The League was able to help defeat nine of 13 legislators with abysmal conservation records in 2006, he notes, "and for the first time in 32 years, Congress passed new fuel-economy standards."

This election cycle, the Fund and its allies are also taking aim at Colorado's Bob Schaffer, the likely Republican candidate against Democrat Mark Udall for the Senate seat now held by Wayne Allard, R; and first-term New Hampshire Republican Sen. John Sununu, who will run against former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen for the Senate.

The Fund spent about $2.5 million in the 2006 election cycle, $1.5 million on the Pombo race alone. Schlickeisen predicts the Fund will receive about $3 million this year, from 30,000 individual donors. Because it accepts no funding from corporations or labor organizations, the Fund is able to use its money to directly oppose and support ballot initiatives. (In 2006, five of six takings initiatives were defeated in the West, partly because of the Fund's efforts.)

"There are 435 congressional races every two years, and 33 Senate races," says Schlickeisen. "We don't lower our head and run at the wall. We choose a handful of key races we think we can win."

The author is HCN's online editor.

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