George W. Bush was the President of the United States. Fran Pavley was a freshman member of the California State Assembly. On the surface, it did not look like a fair fight. But when Bush decided in March 2001 that the United States would reject the Kyoto Protocol’s requirement for cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases by industrialized nations, the Democratic legislator recalls thinking, “If Washington isn’t going to take a stand against global warming, then California is going to have to.” So the great-granddaughter of populist orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan penned a piece of legislation ordering the state’s Air Resources Board to adopt regulations to achieve “the maximum feasible reduction” in emissions of greenhouse gases emitted from cars and sport utility vehicles. Overcoming a $5 million campaign by the auto industry and its allies–and the taunts of Republican legislators who described her as an “environmental extremist”–Pavley shepherded the bill through the legislature, onto Governor Gray Davis’s desk and into law. That was no small accomplishment, but it was only the beginning of Pavley’s challenge to Bush’s anti-environment agenda.
Pavley’s California bill was embraced by the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, a low-budget, high-energy coalition of more than 200 lawmakers in forty-nine states, as a model–and an inspiration–for a state-based challenge to the President and the polluters whose side he has taken in the fight over global warming. “I took the information that she came up with in relation to California and reworked it so it would fit in the Maryland context. Then I introduced a bill that would have us set similar emissions standards and compliance requirements here,” says Maryland Delegate James Hubbard, a Democrat who heads NCEL. Democratic and GOP legislators who are NCEL participants have introduced related legislation in New Jersey, Connecticut and Hawaii, and Hubbard says he is fielding calls from legislators across the country who want their states to follow California’s lead. “It’s a grassroots kick in the butt to Congress and the Bush Administration,” says Hubbard. “Legislators are saying: Look, if you can’t get on top of these global-warming issues, we will. And we’re forcing the corporations to recognize that just because they’ve got the federal government, that doesn’t mean they’re off the hook. That’s what NCEL is all about–influencing the legislative process at the state level in a way that has national implications.”
Established as a response to 1994 election results that put Republican conservatives in charge not just of Congress but of legislatures that had not been in GOP hands for decades, and to the coordinated assaults on environmental protection in Washington and state capitals across the country that followed those political shifts, NCEL is one of a growing number of organizations that help progressive legislators–and activists who work on state issues–to link up across state lines. While legislators have long shared ideas through nonpartisan groups like the Council of State Governments and the National Conference of State Legislatures, the forging of progressive issue-based and ideologically driven groups of legislators is a newer phenomenon. “It always made sense for us to work together, but that didn’t necessarily happen,” says Wisconsin State Representative Mark Pocan, a Democrat who co-chairs the Midwest Progressive Elected Officials Network, members of which have been in the forefront of promoting legislation to require more accountability from corporations. “What really caused a lot of us to recognize the need for this kind of organizing was the recognition that we were going to have to build some networks of our own to block ALEC.”
ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a thirty-year-old conservative powerhouse that bills itself as the “largest bipartisan, individual membership association of state legislators.” Formed by conservative activist Paul Weyrich with early backing from John Birch Society member Joseph Coors, ALEC was once a relatively sincere if extreme right-wing group that opposed abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and the codification of advances made by the civil rights movement. In the 1980s and ’90s, however, ALEC was remolded by corporate lobbyists to implement their agenda. Flush with $6 million a year in funding from Amoco, Chevron, Texaco, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Cargill, AT&T, Wackenhut Corrections, the American Nuclear Energy Council, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and, until recently, Enron, ALEC has drawn a membership of 2,400 legislators–one-third of the nation’s total–with “junkets and other largesse,” according to “Corporate America’s Trojan Horse in the States: The Untold Story Behind the American Legislative Exchange Council,” a study released last year by the Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.