Now that it’s safe again to watch The Daily Show without being barraged by the negative advertising of the oil and tobacco companies, what do Tuesday’s results tell us about environmental politics in the Golden State?
Lesson one: If you want to win statewide office in California, you need to have at least a credible environmental record and platform. Right-wing Republicans like McClintock, Poochigian, Strickland and Mountjoy, who voted in the Legislature against virtually every significant measure to clean our air and water and preserve wildlands, are simply too extreme for California voters.
Gov. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, campaigned hard (in a green bus, no less) on his genuine accomplishments in addressing global warming and the pollution of our air and oceans. While the father of the Hummer does not have a stellar environmental record overall (Sierra Club has assessed it as mixed), he is light-years ahead of the legislative Republicans, who continue to cast their lot with big oil, chemical and development companies. His willingness to take on the global-warming issue effectively distanced Schwarzenegger from the deeply unpopular fiddle-while-the-world-warms crowd of Bush-Pombo Republicans, who were so badly beaten on Tuesday.
In addition, while no one would claim that an insurance commissioner race is decided by environmental issues, it is clear that Steve Poizner is a moderate Republican who, though he has not previously held public office, has engaged in a dialogue with green groups and seems willing to support clean energy and conservation. These positions place him in the mainstream of California’s voters, but distinguish him from the Republican caucuses in both the Senate and Assembly, which routinely oppose environmental bills passed by Democrats (and sometimes signed by Schwarzenegger).
The statewide Democratic candidates all had built solid environmental records in public office. Incoming Attorney General Jerry Brown and lieutenant governor winner John Garamendi, in particular, both made environmental issues key pillars in their campaign platforms, and effectively contrasted their green views with the Bush-like records of opponents Poochigian and McClintock. Garamendi and Controller-elect John Chiang, who also carried the Sierra Club endorsement, will form a green majority on the State Lands Commission, allowing them to defend our coastline against attempts to increase offshore oil drilling.
Lesson two: The initiative process is a difficult arena for changing environmental policy on controversial issues. The success of Proposition 84, a bond measure to fund water quality, parks and land conservation, proves once again that Californians are willing to pay for important resources programs. But the oil companies’ ability to defeat Proposition 87, the Clean Energy initiative, along with the failure of Proposition 90, a radical property-owners’ power grab that was opposed by a large and diverse coalition of local governments, businesses and environmentalists, demonstrates that well-funded opposition campaigns usually doom the prospects of initiatives, no matter what end of the spectrum they originate from. Faced with a weighty ballot of complex measures, and barraged by a stream of often-deceptive advertising, a majority of voters reacted by voting “no.” With enough money, opposition campaigns can create enough confusion and doubt to turn voters against initiatives.
Fortunately, the defeat of Proposition 87 does not signify opposition to the cause of clean energy. Opinion polls show that Californians are concerned about oil dependence and want to have more choices when it comes to purchasing motor vehicles and fuels. In fact, opponents of Proposition 87 took pains to pronounce that they agree with the need to move toward cleaner fuels–they just opposed the proposal to fund the transition with a tax on oil extraction. The governor and Legislature should work together to find an alternative means of providing resources for reducing our oil addiction. A good place to start would be the administration’s proposal, in its Climate Action Team report, for a “public goods charge” on petroleum.
Bill Magavern is
for Sierra Club