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Testing the Environment 

Once a month, local environmentalists gather for a happy hour and debate just how to take back the White House in 2004.

Once a month at Cooter Brown's, Igor's or some other local restaurant, a group of environmental activists take a break from the eco-wars and party at the "tree huggers happy hour." In addition to the cuisine, the cocktails and the development of a general camaraderie, there is inevitably a conversation on the latest news, the state of the planet -- and green politics.

Since the presidential election of 2000, when the Green Party worked against Democratic candidate Al Gore and, some argue, helped elect George W. Bush, a visible split has emerged in the environmental left. And it's not just in New Orleans. The national Green Party is currently battling with the decision of whether to run a presidential candidate again in 2004 or to support a Democrat, according to The Washington Post.

"The presidency of George W. Bush is diametrically opposed to every value that the Greens say they're promoting, and a second term will be even more destructive to those values," says Doug Daigle, a prominent local environmental leader who supports reforms within the Democratic Party.

Although foreign policy and the economy occupy most headlines, the environment is poised to become an issue in the 2004 race. In a Gallup Poll taken in April, 61 percent of American respondents say they are active participants in the environmental movement or sympathize with the movement's positions. A large majority, 80 percent, favor stricter emission standards for business, while only 7 percent agree with the Bush-Cheney position that government regulates too much, the poll reported.

Aaron Viles, the Gulf States field organizer for U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and organizer of the local environmental happy hours for the past three years, says it is critical that "everyone who really disagrees with Bush needs to work together to get rid of him. The environmental left could play a very major role."

Activists may disagree about how to solve the political problems, but there is general consensus on many of the issues at stake. Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is universally opposed, and everyone worries about the plight of wetlands, especially with the latest studies coming out on sea levels rising due to global warming. There's concern about the effect of Bush administration policies on critical habitat for ducks and other wildlife. Another hot topic is tougher CAFE standards for SUVs and trucks.

But these issues do not seem to hold enough sway to unite the environmental community politically. Viles was among the supporters of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election -- a candidacy that critics say siphoned votes from Gore and ensured Bush's election.

"The Republicans are going to do the damage they are going to do, with or without the Green Party," argues Loyola sociology professor Tony Ladd. He supports the Green Party in part for the progress it can make on local issues and in state and congressional races. "If today the Green Party did not exist or if there was no serious third party effort, then you would have the continuing dominance of two sides of the same corporate alliance," he says.

But Daigle says the first two years of this Bush administration has already been a major setback from the environmental progress of the past 30 years. "It's hard to believe that the election of 2000 was anything other than a disaster," Daigle says. "They've already changed the whole world in two years. For some of us who thought we were moving toward a more sustainable society, obviously something is not working."

History shows that third party movements are generally successful in the United States only to the degree that one of the two major parties adopts their issues. Only the Republican Party in the 1800s and the old Socialist Party in the early 1900s survived for more than two consecutive presidential campaigns. More successful movements in American politics worked within the two-party system, bringing pressure to bear through protests, fundraising or grass roots activism.

The civil rights movement, for instance, forced the Democratic Party to pass voting rights legislation in the 1960s. On the other side of the political spectrum, the Christian right in the 1980s didn't splinter into a third party. When it wanted a more prominent role in national politics, members got involved in the Republican Party and helped rewrite the platform.

For local and national environmentalists, there are crucial questions to decide before 2004. Did Green Party candidate Ralph Nader really help elect George W. Bush? Will the Green Party grassroots continue to organize against the Democratic Party in 2004? Or will they learn from the lessons of history?

"You have to wonder what the Greens accomplished in 2000," Daigle says. "They helped elect Bush, and failed to get the 5 percent of the national vote needed to receive federal matching funds. This makes a Green presidential candidate even more untenable than before."

"I'm not one of those who thinks that Ralph Nader cost Al Gore that election," counters lawyer and activist Mark Davis. "Al Gore handled that nicely enough on his own. More importantly, the major parties did a nice enough job leaving a huge number of people so uninspired that they stayed home." Environmental policy consultant Darryl Malek-Wiley agrees. "George Bush was talking more about the environment than Gore was," he says.

Some money for Green Party campaign ads came directly as soft money from the Republican Party, a particularly galling point for some environmentalists. "The Greens want us to forget that one of Nader's main goals was to defeat Gore, not Bush," Daigle says. "He hates Gore. So what we've got now is what Nader wanted. It's just not playing out the way he said it would."

According to Loyola professor John Clark, even the Greens on campus are divided this time around. "Some people will probably quit the Green Party and join the Democratic Party," he says.

Malek-Wiley says he is unsure if he will support the Green Party or the Democratic nominee in the 2004 election, but he believes in a strategy on two fronts. "First, you have those inside trying to move the Democratic Party to the left," he says. "But there needs to be Green Party out there that's even farther left so that they won't marginalize us as liberals."

Davis contends the environmental movement has been playing defense for too long. He says he finds it promising to see Ducks Unlimited, a conservation group with supporters on both the right and left, running television commercials on the importance of preserving wetlands. "It tells you that constituencies are starting to recognize that this isn't a political issue, this is a stewardship issue," he says. "If you wait for your politicians to be your champions, you're waiting for a train that's never going to come to the station."

Looking back to the 2002 mid-term Congressional elections, Daigle says the environmental left in New Orleans turned out in the last minute to vote for Sen. Mary Landrieu, in spite of her support for oil drilling in Alaska. Daigle, who made phone calls for the Democratic Party in the final two weeks of the runoff, says environmentalists -- in addition to the African-American vote -- helped Landrieu carry the day.

Could there be a similar push for the 2004 Democratic candidate for president? Following Al Gore's announcement that he will not run for president in 2004, the League of Conservation Voters says on its Web site, "the door is open for other candidates to keep the environment a top issue for 2004." If the League's National Environmental Scorecard is a good indicator, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts may get much environmentalist support. His lifetime score of 96 percent is the highest of all the Democratic candidates who have indicated they will run for the party's nomination. Next is Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (93 percent), followed by Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware (82 percent), Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio (90 percent), and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida at 81 percent. (Complete scores are available at www.lcv.org.)

Since announcing his candidacy for president, Kerry has made the environment a centerpiece of his campaign and openly criticized the Bush administration's policies. "Under President Bush, I believe that America's environment has become more threatened, not less, more endangered, not less, and more imperiled," he said in a campaign speech reported by the Associated Press from New Hampshire. Kerry has proposed creating "environmental empowerment zones" and a national health tracking system for asthma and other diseases linked to environmental hazards.

In a telling leak to The New York Times from top GOP strategist Frank Luntz last week, Christie Todd Whitman's resignation as Environmental Protection Agency administrator and support for the environment among swing suburban female voters may be "the single biggest vulnerability for Republicans and especially for George Bush."

Meanwhile, at the happy hour, Daigle says he isn't choosy -- just about any Democratic candidate in would be better than Bush for the environment. "And there's no time to lose," he says. "We know who the Republican nominee will be."

click to enlarge CHRIS CORDER/UPI PHOTO SERVICE
  • Chris Corder/UPI Photo Service
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