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Grrr! State Greens Have Savvy, Plus Sharp Teeth and Claws

2002 Michigan election is a model for environmental defense

January 13, 2003 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Patrick Owen
  Voters rewarded new Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm because of her activist record as attorney general, and punished her opponent because of his close ties to the anti-environmental policies of former Governor John Engler.

It’s been more than two months since the November election, and the White House has apparently used nearly every moment to do more than covertly plan a war against Iraq, propose a giant new tax break, and orchestrate Mississippi Senator Trent Lott’s dismissal as majority leader. Citizens of Michigan, and every other state for that matter, also need to know that the Bush administration is waging a quiet, but extraordinarily aggressive assault on America's environment.

What’s more, the White House is following a story line that Michigan residents should recognize:  A determined chief executive whose party controls both houses of the legislature mounts a stealthy attack on popular laws that safeguard forests, water, air, and public health. His right wing advisors, who view their top priority as advancing the economic prospects of select industries that also are top campaign donors, zealously pursue the mission.

Engler and Bush: More Waste Acceptable
It's familiar because the steps President George W. Bush is taking to allow factories to pour more pollution in rivers and lakes, accelerate logging in national forests, encourage old factories to put more contamination in the air, and remove the barriers that now prevent developers from ruining wetlands, are remarkably similar to those attempted by former Republican Governor John Engler to weaken Michigan's environmental, public health, and land use protections.

President Bush, though, would be wise to heed what Mr. Engler encountered at the story's end. Instead of weakening safeguards, public interest organizations in Michigan rushed to their defense.

Mr. Engler's dismal stewardship of the state's air, water, land, and communities became a priority in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign and was a factor in crushing the election chances of Lieutenant Governor Dick Posthumus, his hand-picked successor. Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, the Democrat, swept into the executive office in part because of her strident promise to enforce environmental laws and advance new policies to rein in sprawl. And moderate Republicans with decent environmental and land use records took command of the House and Senate.

Ignoring Facts of Life: Political Peril
Indeed, the biggest casualty of the President's strike at the environment and the federal laws that protect open space and  wetlands could well be serious political damage to Mr. Bush's standing in 2004. That fate has befallen other capable conservative leaders, starting with President Ronald Reagan, who clumsily try to avoid two facts of modern cultural life.

The first is that the vast majority of Americans - 70 percent and more in most polls -- want their air and water to get cleaner, they want forests to remain standing, and they want their communities to be orderly, safe, and unpolluted.

Polls consistently show that Americans understand the value of environmental, public health, and land use laws not only in protecting themselves and their families, but also in improving the quality of life that is essential to economic competitiveness.

The second fact is that right wing conservatives underestimate the capacity and savvy of environmental and Smart Growth organizations to galvanize citizen action.

2002 Michigan Campaign: Voters Rejected Strike at Nature
In 1998, for instance, Mr. Engler and militant Republicans took control of state government and mounted a broad, multi-front campaign to diminish the reach of Michigan's environmental and land use statutes, as well as state enforcement programs. In response state environmental groups collaborated as they never had before. They focused on identifying environmental skirmishes that people could easily understand, framed their significance, and elevated those disputes to statewide prominence through the Internet, email, and the media. The large organizations also worked closely with dozens of small community environmental groups to build a larger grassroots constituency and again make environmental protection an electoral priority in Michigan.

Several statewide organizations, including this one, worked with the Sierra Club to describe the Engler administration's insistence on letting factory farms pour manure into the state's rivers. The Institute also collaborated with the Lake Michigan Federation and other organizations to challenge the administration's bid to open the state's towering sand dunes to more mining and to drill for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes. More than a dozen organizations contributed to widely-read reports prepared by the Michigan Environmental Council that detailed how pollution, flooding, fecal contamination in water, exposure to toxic substances, and other risks were increasing because state government did not aggressively enforce environmental laws. And from battling the Nestle Company's plan to divert Great Lakes water for bottling in Mecosta County, to upholding local zoning to protect farmland from sprawl in Monroe County, local citizen organizations received technical and communications support.

The 2002 gubernatorial campaign reflected the influence of this work. Michigan residents gradually overcame their natural skepticism and embraced the overwhelming evidence that the governor and his aides were responsible for a willful retreat from their duty to protect the best things about this state: clean rivers and lakes, magnificent stands of forest, miles of public land, and the Great Lakes shoreline that has no equal on earth. Voters rewarded Ms. Granholm because of her activist record as attorney general, and punished Mr. Posthumus because of his close ties to Mr. Engler.

National Challenge: Turn Domestic Consequences Into Priority
President Bush will face similar problems if he and the Republican House and Senate leaders try to rewrite the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other laws as they have promised. There are more than 30 prominent national environmental organizations representing millions of Americans. They are better financed, more technically qualified, and more capable of influencing public views on the Internet and in the popular media than ever before.

They know that when they work together to challenge the White House, they can prevail. You may recall that in 2001 Mr. Bush reneged on a campaign promise to reduce pollution that causes global warming, tried to strike down new limits on arsenic in drinking water and attempted to drill in the Arctic wildlife refuge, among other strikes at the environment. National green groups were the first to report each action, explain its significance and elevate it to political prominence.

The result: The President lost control of the Senate and his public approval rating dived prior to Sept. 11, 2001.

It's no secret that whenever domestic issues command the nation’s attention, President Bush's standing fades dramatically. The question is whether national environmental groups have the capability, even during a war, to transform the White House's bid to exploit America's resources into a prominent domestic dispute. My bet is they do and they will. Judging from Governor Engler's experience in Michigan, the political cost to the President and his party could be higher than Mr. Bush ever imagined.

Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to the New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Gristmagazine.com, and the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, is program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. The Institute’s investigative journalism, commentary, communications, strategic planning, grassroots organizing, technical know-how, and coalition building played an essential role in helping to elevate the environment and Smart Growth as political priorities in the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial campaign.  Reach him at keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published in the January 2, 2003 edition of the Detroit Free Press.

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