This essay is excerpted from Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance From the Heartland edited by Joshua Frank and JEFFREY ST. CLAIR (AK Press, 2008).
For thirty-five years the Democratic Party has enjoyed a nearly unquestioned hegemony over environmental politics, even though the greatest gains for the Earth were made during the Nixon administration.
In fact, environmentalists, along with civil rights and pro-abortion groups, have long constituted the activist core of the party: they have been its most effective organizers, most faithful (and forgiving) voters and most aggressive fundraisers.
But out in the American West there are signs that this long-standing relationship is heading for a crack-up. In several key western states, New Mexico, Montana, and Arizona, where the lines of separation between Republicans and Democrats have blurred to indistinction, have been launching independent and third party campaigns with the premeditated intent of evicting Democrats from seats they have long held. Encrusted incumbents, they call them.
The reason: mounting anger at the Democratic Party’s neglect and, in many instances, active subversion of pro-environmental policies, particularly regarding the forests and rivers on federal lands in the West.
The price of these independent campaigns may well be the election of more Republicans to federal and state offices. But this is an outcome that many greens are willing to accept as the down payment on building a new political movement—and as a just political punishment for past abuses.
“The Democrats now represent a far greater danger to the environment than Republicans,” asserts Tim Hermach, director of the Native Forest Council in Eugene, Oregon. “Clinton and Gore damaged our cause more in eight years, than the Republicans did in twelve.”
Similar sentiments course through the campfire conversations of environmental activists across the West, a region that has lacked a true environmental champion in the Congress since the defeat of Senator Frank Church in 1980.
Green activists aren’t alone in their disgust with the two-party system. A poll in the Los Angeles Times disclosed that 54 percent of American voters support the rise of a third party. The support is strongest among liberals (64 percent) and Westerners (60 percent).
Ironically, it took the end of divided government and the election to the presidency of a politician who came of age during the ascendancy of environmentalism as political force to fuel a discontent that had been smoldering for years.
Most greens greeted the election of Bill Clinton and Al Gore with a queasy optimism. While the Clinton/Gore campaign placed environmental protection and public lands reform near the top of the agenda, Bill Clinton was something of a known quantity. His record as governor of Arkansas, fused with his neo-liberal rhetoric, suggested a governmental posture that would sacrifice environmental quality for political expediency or the appeasement of corporate backers.
Even so, the pro-environment themes, expertly deployed during the 1992 campaign by Al Gore, played well across the country, particularly in the West, where Clinton captured seven crucial states. The Western Strategy, which proved pivotal to Clinton’s election, was decidedly green in tone. It appealed to the changing demographics of the New West: suburbanized, soft-tech, mobile and capitalizing on the environmental amenities, and not the extractable commodities, of the Western landscape.
Within months of taking office, the Clinton administration began to beat a hasty retreat from its commitment to environmental protection. In March 1993, at the first hint of opposition from old-style Democratic politicians in the West, the administration backed off of its already timid proposal to reform archaic mining, timber and livestock grazing policies. An agitated Jay Hair, the usually temperate director of the National Wildlife Federation, condemned the betrayal as a case of political “date rape.”
This was swiftly followed by a seriously compromised plan for the management of the national forests in the Pacific Northwest, home of the Northern Spotted Owl and endangered stocks of Pacific salmon and steelhead trout. Many long-time forest activists viewed the Clinton plan, known as Option 9, as worse than proposals offered during the first Bush administration that were deemed illegal by federal courts. Scientists predicted that Option 9 would not stop the spotted owl’s slide toward extinction. But Clinton, Gore and Bruce Babbitt pushed their plan forward, steamrolling their former allies in the big green groups, and in 1994 new timber sales in ancient forests were being offered for sale to timber companies for the first time in six years—a feat that had eluded Bush the Elder. These were Clinton-created clearcuts and his administration boasted proudly of them.
Further backsliding followed, including relaxed pesticide standards; weakened regulations for the Endangered Species Act; a plan for the Everglades tailored to meet the demands of the sugar barons and real estate moguls of South Florida; failure to take decisive action to protect Columbia River salmon due to opposition from Speaker of the House Tom Foley and the aluminum companies; and the political firing of Jim Baca from his position as director of the Bureau of Land Management for his determination to reform grazing practices on federal lands.
Most of these policy flip-flops were engineered at the behest of Western Democrats, whose prevailing political strategy could be summed up this way: ignore the environmentalists; distance yourself from their issues; they will vote for you regardless of what you do. This regressive behavior has been repeatedly reinforced by mainstream and corporate conservation organizations, who almost unilaterally endorse Democratic candidates, even those with stunted environmental records.
Thus, early into the Clinton administration, environmental activists found themselves in the position of the Christian right during the reign of Reagan and Bush the Father: all packed up, but nowhere to go. While some conservationists resigned themselves to another era of environmental mediocrity, others decided to make a decisive split from a party that incessantly talked environmental values, while doing the dirty work of the corporate polluters.
The first shot in this rebellion was fired in Montana in the spring of 1994 by an unlikely candidate at an equally unlikely, but extremely vulnerable, incumbent. Steve Kelly, an artist and hard-core environmental organizer from Bozeman, launched an independent campaign against eight-term incumbent Pat Williams, a liberal Democrat, for Montana’s sole congressional seat. Williams, who won his last election by the slimmest margin in the House, was majority whip and was viewed by the Clinton administration as a key player on health care and environmental matters.
Correctly fearing that any attrition of votes from the left might doom Williams, the Democrats desperately tried to knock Kelly off the ballot, a tactic they would later use against Ralph Nader. But Kelly fought them off. Even though Kelly was a political novice who had never before run for public office and was so cash-strapped that his campaign couldn’t even print bumperstickers or yard signs, early polling showed that he had won the support of nearly 10 percent of Montana voters. This showing prompted the Rothenberg Political Report, viewed as a something akin to Biblical prophecy by Beltway savants, to suggest that Kelly’s campaign might tilt the Montana race toward the Republican challenger, Cy Jamison. Jamison, an ideological clone of James Watt, became notorious as Bush’s Bureau of Land Management chief for his numerous attempts to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act, actions which incurred repeated reprimands from federal courts.
The national Democratic Party and Clinton took the threat to Williams’s seat seriously. In an effort to redeem the congressman’s reputation as true green, the Administration deployed Al Gore to Missoula for a public booster session. This was a risky mission for the Ozone Man, because the more tightly the White House was seen to embrace Williams, the more the congressman tended to squirm to the right of the administration. Shortly after Gore’s pit-stop in Montana, Williams told the Seattle Times that he believed the Clinton administration “was making the same mistakes in trying to protect the land under Bruce Babbitt that the Reagan admininstration made early on in trying to use up the land under James Watt. Both came at it ideologically and went too far.” With progressive congressmen like this, Kelly asked, who misses the likes of Ron Marlenee?
Montana and Idaho contain more than 15 million acres of federally-owned wildlands, the last refuge of the grizzly bear, gray wolf and bull trout. This is the largest swath of unprotected wild forest land outside of Alaska, but much of it, indeed most of it, is threatened by clearcut logging, roadbuilding and gold mining. In 1989, Kelly co-founded the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, a hard-nosed environmental group based in Missoula that developed the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), a visionary piece of legislation that would protect all of these wildlands as either federal wilderness areas or national parks. While NREPA, probably the last hope of keeping the grizzly from going extinct, steadily gained support in Congress, serious consideration of the bill’s merits was obstructed by Williams, who used his leadership position in the House to deny hearings on NREPA and push forward his own bill, which would have opened 4 million acres of wildland in Montana alone to clearcutting by timber giants such as Plum Creek and Champion International.
Kelly’s anger at the anti-environmental policies of Williams, Jamison and the Clinton administration spurred his decision to run for Congress. “The Clinton administration was retreating from its campaign pledges to protect our public lands and Pat Williams played a key role in pushing them in that direction,” Kelly told me. “Williams repeatedly voted against mining reform, grazing reform and measures to end subsidies to multinational timber companies. Worst of all, from my point of view here in Bozeman, Williams sponsored anti-wilderness legislation that condemns 4 million acres in Montana to logging and mining. Cy Jaminson’s record spoke for itself. He never pretended to be anything but what he was: a voice for pillage.”
As it turned out, Kelly was far from a single issue candidate. He was pro-choice, anti-nuke, an advocate for campaign finance reform and a single-payer health care system. But the issue that drove him to make his decision bolt from the Democratic Party was the party’s environmental betrayals.
Polls in Montana showed that Kelly was on to something. A few weeks prior to the election, a poll conducted by Lee Newspapers (a statewide chain in Montana) showed that 32 percent of Montanans supported passage of NREPA, a bill Kelly helped to write. By contrast, only 14 percent of Montana voters backed Williams’s timber-industry oriented bill.
He didn’t shy away from being labeled a spoiler, either. “I ran to win,” Kelly said. “But if Williams and I had both lost and Jamison had won, it would have been a victory for Montana wildlands. Jamison never would have wielded the kind of power that Williams did.”
This kind of unrepentant attitude earned Kelly the enmity of many liberals and prompted a testy rebuke from The Missoulian, a long-time backer of Williams. The paper’s editorial writers carped at Kelly for “waging an environmental jihad—a holy war in which anyone opposed to NREPA is an expendable infidel.”
For his part, Pat Williams sniped that Kelly’s campaign threatened to wreck “the carefully constructed coalition between labor and conservationists. It will be a generation before it comes back.”
But the marriage of labor and greens was chimerical at best, made up of labor leaders who had sold our workers to maintain a cordial relationship with transnationals such as Plum Creek Timber and professional conservationists who have traded off millions of acres of wildlands to secure ready access to politicians.
“If these independent political campaigns cause some conservative Republicans to get elected, well at least we don’t have to guess where they are on an issue,” said Larry Tuttle, director of the Portland-based Center for Environmental Equity. “Frankly, when it comes to changing the incentives that lead to environmental destruction, evironmentalists often have more in common with the National Taxpayers Union than with many incumbent Democrats.”
Tuttle, who formerly headed the Wilderness Society’s office in Portland and ran for congress as a Democrat in 1986 and 1988, points to the fact that the Democrat-controlled Congress annually awards nearly a billion dollars worth of subsidies for logging, mining and grazing on public lands. These subsidies are a legacy of the progressive “job creation” policies from the Great Depression (and earlier), which have long since been captured and perverted by multinational corporations, such as Louisiana-Pacific, Chevron and Noranda Gold, that feed off the public lands and the federal treasury.
Kelly and other independent greens hope to forge a new kind of politics in the West, mining regional veins of anarchism, anti-authoritarianism and libertarianism. “I told people I was running to the right of Jamison on fiscal issues and to the left of Pat Williams on most social issues and the environment.”
Meanwhile, down in New Mexico, the spirited uprising of El Partido Verde, which ran a slate of candidates for local, state and federal offices beginning in 1994, threatens to topple the Democrats’ long-standing stranglehold on the state house and establish a permanent and powerful new presence on the political landscape across the Southwest.
“El Partido Verde is a coming together of various people’s movements, which have been disenfranchised by the pro-business policies of the Democratic Party: environmentalists, Hispanics, Native Americans and social justice groups,” Pat Wolff told me. Wolff is a Santa Fe environmentalist and animal rights organizer who ran as a green candidate for state land commissioner, a position once held by Jim Baca. She was the first woman to seek that office.
A kind of Southwest Rainbow Coalition, El Partido Verde is a potentially explosive mix that is being emulated across the West. Hispanics and Native Americans alone account for more than 50 percent of the population of New Mexico, who have long been treated as electoral chattel by the Democratic Party. The initial platform statement of El Partido Verde called for campaign finance reform, assistance for community-based businesses, property tax relief for homeowners and small farmers, single-payer health care and strong environmental protection standards. “This is what the Democratic Party should have been about all along,” Roberto Mondragón told me.
Mondragón is a Hispanic radio commentator and publisher of bi-lingual books, who served two terms as the Lt. Governor of New Mexico in the 1970s and 1980s. He ran on the El Partido Verde ticket for governor, challenging three-term Democratic incumbent Bruce King, a multi-millionaire rancher with a dismal environmental record, which includes support for a large nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad. King also vetoed numerous bills attempting to reform grazing, logging and mining on state lands. In that first election cycle, the candidates in El Partido Verde garnered between 10 and 30 percent of the vote, despite running on a miniscule campaign budget. “Look out,” said party chairman Abraham Gutmann of Taos. “We are the third force in Western politics.”
The environmental establishment and other Democratic Party loyalists were not amused. They hissed that such defections only throw elections to right-wing conservatives, viciously hostile to all that the liberal elites hold dear. Jim Baca, for example, who narrowly lost a primary challenge to Bruce King, refused to support the candidacy of his friend Mondragón, saying such campaigns “balkanize the political process.”
Of course, that’s precisely the goal of many of the new crop of greens, who see the two-party system as corrupt and undemocratic duopoly controlled by financial elites, imperialists and corporations. It was past time for a break up.
In 1994, I wrote a profile of Steve Kelly’s Montana campaign for the Sunday Outlook Section of the Washington Post. Two days later the Sierra Club, which has long engaged in an incestuous relationship with the national Democratic Party, lashed out, trashing Kelly and other Greens, in a sad attempt to salvage the pitiful campaigns of their pseudo-environmentalists bosses in Congress.
“Green Party candidates support radical environmental change, and in some cases that’s good and necessary, but they have zero chance of winning,” chirped Daniel Weiss, the Sierra Club’s national political director. Weiss delivered this strange assessment shortly after announcing his organization’s unequivocal support for Kelly’s opponent, Pat Williams, despite the fact that the Montana congressman rated a mere 54 percent (out of 100) on the Sierra Club’s own political scorecard. This is how the Beltway Green became the mavens of mediocrity.
More and more environmentalists, however, are ignoring the ultimatums of Gang Green. They have concluded that the demolition of the Democratic Party’s ruling superstructure is the only real hope for saving what remains of the Western ecosystems. “The legacy of electing candidates who are only marginally better than their opponents is readily apparent from the West’s continuing loss of salmon, forests and natural deserts,” says Larry Tuttle.
The green uprising spreading across the West represents a permanent renunciation of the pro-business policies enacted by the neo-liberals who have dominated the Democratic Party for the last two decades. It also signals the birth of a vigorous and principled new political movement that finds its most vibrant expression in the independent and third party campaigns.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.