News and Features
Who says the good guys never win? California's new global warming law is
a bona fide big deal. Signed into law by Governor Gray Davis on July 22,
the global warming bill requires that the greenhouse gas emissions of
all passenger vehicles sold in the state be reduced to the "maximum"
economically feasible extent starting in model year 2009. It doesn't ban
sport utility vehicles, but it does the next best thing: It forces
automakers to design them as efficiently as possible. Hybrids and
hydrogen, here we come!
If the bill survives a promised legal challenge from the auto industry,
it will rank as the most significant official action against global
warming yet taken in the United States. It also ranks as the biggest
environmental victory of any sort scored during George W. Bush's
presidency. What's more, the behind-the-scenes story of the bill offers
valuable lessons for how environmentalists and progressives in general
can win more such victories in the future.
§ Lesson 1: Pick a target that matters. "Once the election
was decided and Bush and [Chief of Staff] Andrew Card were in the White
House, it was clear Washington was a dead end for progress on auto fuel
efficiency or global warming," says Russell Long, executive director of
the Bluewater Network, which initiated the California bill. "But
California is the fifth-biggest economy in the world." California is
also the single most important automotive market. It not only accounts
for 10 percent of all US new-auto sales, it has historically led the
nation in auto regulation. Unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters,
hybrid cars--all appeared first in the Golden State.
How so? In 1967 California's air quality was so noxious it was granted
the right to set its own air standards; other states have had the option
to choose California's (tougher) standards or the federal government's.
In short, change the law in California and you can tip the entire
national market. "You can't make one car for California and another car
for Washington, DC," explains Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Since transportation accounts for
33 percent of America's greenhouse gas emissions, the ultimate impact of
California's example could be huge.
§ Lesson 2: Embrace radical ends but flexible means.
Corporate lobbyists love to portray all environmental regulations as a
"command and control" form of economic dictatorship, as in the old
Soviet Union. That's a canard, of course, but the authors of the
California bill defanged that argument by omitting any specific
directions for how automakers are to achieve these unprecedented
greenhouse gas reductions. The bill empowers the California Air
Resources Board to decide what is feasible (by 2005, subject to the
legislature's review), but it explicitly prohibits such political
nonstarters as banning SUVs or raising gas or vehicle taxes. How to get
there from here will be left to the auto industry's engineers.
§ Lesson 3: Unite grassroots pressure with insider muscle and
celebrity clout. This part was tricky. Early backers of the bill
included the Bluewater Network and the Coalition for Clean Air, but
support from the larger national environmental groups only came later.
"They saw this bill as too extreme for their agenda, and they had other
things on their plate," said one legislative aide in Sacramento who
insisted on anonymity. "But once they saw it had traction, they got on
board and helped a lot." That traction came from dogged lobbying by the
bill's sponsor, freshman Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. A Democrat and
longtime activist from the Los Angeles area, Pavley apparently didn't
care that the bill was a long shot. Her aide Anne Baker says, "I've
worked in Sacramento a long time. If we hadn't had an outside group and
a freshman member, this [bill] probably wouldn't have been tried in the
What the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council
eventually brought to the fight was lobbying experience, vast membership
rolls and contacts with luminaries like Robert Redford and John McCain,
who telephoned wavering legislators at crucial moments. "The Latino
caucus also was a strong supporter," recalls NRDC lobbyist Ann Notthoff.
"We have cooperated with them on toxics and air pollution issues before,
and that gave us credibility on this issue."
§ Lesson 4: Remember, the bad guys make mistakes too. In the
end, the bill passed the Assembly without a single vote to spare, and
only because the industry overplayed its hand with a wildly misleading
million-dollar-plus advertising blitz. "They didn't think they could
lose," explains V. John White, a consultant who lobbies for the Sierra
Club. "We ended up splitting the business caucus, largely because the
auto industry was so shrill and arrogant. They wouldn't negotiate,
wouldn't compromise--they were just against the bill. So that left
members with a simple choice between the industry and us." Since polls
showed that 81 percent of Californians favored the bill, even
traditionally probusiness members felt safe bucking the auto industry.
It also didn't hurt that the bill was backed by a wide range of groups,
from city governments and water agencies to church leaders and Silicon
What's next? The automakers will sue, claiming that federal
fuel-efficiency law pre-empts the California measure. But that's the
lawyers. In their design and marketing departments most companies are
already accelerating their pursuit of green technologies. Thanks to
California, the writing is on the wall.
Governer Davis may win re-election only because the GOP's Simon is such
After two decades of visiting political nightmares on the state--from
the infamous Prop 13 to the immigrant-bashing Prop 187--California's
notorious initiative and referendum system finally promises to deliver a
welcome gift this November. Enough signatures have been gathered to
qualify the Election Day Voter Registration initiative (EDR) for this
fall's ballot. The measure, which would allow citizens to both register
and vote on Election Day, is seen by many as the most significant
election reform possible at this time.
Since the 2000 presidential debacle in Florida, reformers have mostly
concentrated on improving the logistics of balloting. "But that isn't
the problem," says Cal Tech Professor Mike Alvarez, co-author of a new
report analyzing EDR. "The problem in American elections isn't voting
machines. The biggest problem is voter registration."
Voter participation both across the United States and within California
has plummeted steadily over the past three decades, constantly setting
new records of anemic turnout. "Worse, the higher your income and the
older you are, the more likely you are one of those left voting," says
former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, now the head of
the Demos organization, which commissioned Alvarez's study.
Supporters of EDR say it's the perfect prescription for reversing the
downward trend. In most states voters must register some weeks or even
months in advance of actual balloting, and the process is often
cumbersome and confusing. There are currently six states that have moved
to EDR, and the increase in turnout has been an immediate 3-6 percent.
Voting among young people and those who have moved in the previous six
months runs some 15 percent higher in states that have adopted EDR.
Similar reforms, like "motor voter," which allows registration at the
time of driver's-license renewal, have not been as effective.
Motor-voter does bring in a lot of registrations, but many of the new
potential voters don't show up on Election Day.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of EDR was in Minnesota's 1998
gubernatorial election. More than 330,000 last-minute, previously
unregistered voters were swept to the polls by the enthusiasm around
independent candidate Jesse Ventura and were the decisive margin in his
victory over the two traditional parties. EDR is also credited with
boosting liberal Senator Paul Wellstone into office during his first
run, in 1990.
Alvarez thinks that if EDR is adopted in California--where the
electorate has been disproportionately white, suburban and elderly--an
increase of up to 9 percent in turnout can be anticipated. "That's
something like 1.9 million additional voters in a presidential
election," he says. And that increase would contribute to greater
ethnic, class and age equity. Increases in voters aged 18-25 would
increase by a projected 12 percent, Latino voters by 11 percent and
African-American voters by 7 percent. A 10 percent increase could be
expected from those with a grade-school education or less, an equal
increase from those who have lived at their address for less than six
months and a 12 percent increase from new-citizen voters.
The measure is endorsed by a plethora of nonprofit activist groups and
has also gotten support from top moderate Republicans, including former
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former US Representative Tom
Campbell. No organized opposition to EDR has yet emerged, though
nativist groups are expected to charge that it opens the door to
fraudulent voting by undocumented aliens.
But backers of the measure are taking no chances. The gathering of about 700,000 signatures was financed with $1 million from California businessman and philanthropist Rob McKay,
whose McKay Foundation has an established track record in backing social
justice issues. And plans are to spend another $7 million to see the
initiative through to victory in November. During the 2001-02
legislative session, a dozen other states are expected to take up
"We have to lower the barriers to voting every way we can," says McKay.
"We are no longer dealing with just voter apathy. Now we are dealing
with outright voter alienation. With this measure we are trying to draw
the line in the sand."
John Dingell and Lynn Rivers are locked in a battle caused by
Packing the judiciary with right-wingers like Priscilla Owen.
Minnesota can be considered a veritable mecca for insurgent third parties. Its governor is maverick independent Jesse Ventura.
When Donna Brazile learned in late May that the Justice Department might
sue three Florida counties over voting rights violations that
disfranchised minority citizens in the 2000 presidential election, the
woman who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign called her sister in
Florida's Seminole County. In one of the milder examples of the
harassment suffered by thousands of African-American and Latino voters
in the disputed election, Brazile's sister had been forced to produce
three forms of identification--instead of the one required under Florida
law--before she could cast her ballot.
Informed that the Feds were riding to the rescue eighteen months after
the fact, Brazile's sister asked, "What took 'em so long?" When the
Justice Department finishes its tepid intervention, the question likely
to be asked is, Why did they bother?
When it comes to missing signs of serious trouble, failing to respond to
clear threats and then botching the cleanup of the mess, the Justice
Department's response to the 2000 election crisis has been at least as
inept as the much-criticized terrorist-tracking performance of the FBI
and the CIA. Although it is charged with enforcing Voting Rights Act
protections, Justice was nowhere to be found when its presence could
have made a difference--not just for Florida but for a nation that had
its presidential election settled by a 5-to-4 decision of the US Supreme
Immediately after the November 7, 2000, election, minority voters who
had never committed crimes complained of having had their names removed
from voting rolls in a purge of "ex-felons," of being denied translation
services required by law, of seriously flawed ballots, of polling places
that lacked adequate resources and competent personnel, and of
harassment by poll workers and law-enforcement officials [see Gregory
Palast, "Florida's 'Disappeared Voters,'" February 5, 2001, and John
Lantigua, "How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida," April 30, 2001].
But after newspaper analyses uncovered evidence of disproportional
disfranchisement of minority voters, and even after a US Commission on
Civil Rights review condemned Florida's Governor, Jeb Bush, and its
Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, for running an election marked by
"injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency," another year passed before
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd told the Senate Judiciary
Committee in May that the civil rights division was preparing to act.
"Act" is a generous characterization. Eleven thousand election-related
complaints have been whittled down to five potential lawsuits--targeting
three Florida counties, along with St. Louis and Nashville. The Florida
suits focus on the failure of Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola county
officials to provide Spanish- and Creole-language assistance to voters.
Issues of accessibility for the disabled and flawed registration
procedures are also likely to be addressed. And, encouragingly, Boyd
told the Judiciary Committee that his department would examine the
purging of eligible voters from election rolls in a process overseen by
But don't expect to see Harris--now a Congressional candidate--in court
anytime soon. Boyd wants to settle his suits before they are filed,
through negotiations with local officials. That will bring limited
reform to three of Florida's sixty-seven counties and perhaps a bit more
restraint on the part of the Republican-controlled Secretary of State's
office. There is no real evidence, however, that John Ashcroft's Justice
Department is going to call anyone in Florida--least of all the
President's brother or his political allies--to account for the
widespread disfranchisement of minority voters.
Justice Department attorneys continue to limit the scope of an
investigation that should be examining the collapse of voting rights
protections in all Florida counties, from Palm Beach in the south to
Duval in the north and Gadsden in the west--where as many as one in
eight ballots cast by minority voters was discarded. In addition, Jeb
Bush and the Florida legislature continue to reject needed reforms and
to stall the allocation of sufficient funds to bring voting machinery in
predominantly minority precincts up to par with equipment in
predominantly white precincts. And the US House and Senate remain
deadlocked over legislation that would promote and fund reforms in other
states--like Illinois, which had a higher rate of ballot spoilage than
Florida. Until the Justice Department and state and federal legislators
get serious about making real reforms, the 2002 and 2004 elections won't
be any more fair or functional than the flawed election of 2000.
Greens running against Democrats, and maybe giving Republicans the edge?
Anyone who thinks we'll have to wait till the Bush-Gore rematch in 2004
to get into that can of worms had better look at Minnesota this year.
Here's Senator Paul Wellstone bidding for a third term, with the tiny
Democratic majority in the Senate as the stake. Writing in The
Nation, John Nichols sets the bar even higher. "His race," Nichols
wrote tremulously this spring, "is being read as a measure of the
potency of progressive politics in America."
Wellstone's opponent is Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul and
enjoying all the endorsements and swag the RNC can throw in his
direction. The odds are against Wellstone. Coleman is a lot tougher than
the senile Rudy Boschwitz, whom Wellstone beat in 1996, and many
Minnesotans aren't enchanted about his breach of a pledge that year to
hold himself to two terms.
But ignoring Wellstone's dubious future, liberals are now screaming
about "the spoiler," who takes the form of Ed McGaa, a Sioux born on the
Pine Ridge Reservation, a Marine Corps vet of the wars in both Korea and
Vietnam, an attorney and author of numerous books on Native American
religion. The Minnesota Green Party picked him as its candidate on May
18 at a convention of some 600, a lively affair in which real politics
actually took place in the form of debates, resolutions, nomination
fights and the kindred impedimenta of democracy.
Aghast progressives are claiming that even a handful of votes for McGaa
could cost Wellstone the race. Remember, in 2000 Ralph Nader got 127,000
in Minnesota, more than 5 percent. Some national Greens, like Winona
LaDuke, Nader's vice-presidential running mate, didn't want a Green to
run. Some timid Greens in Minnesota are already having second thoughts,
For his part, McGaa confronts the "you're just helping the Republicans"
charge forthrightly: "Let's just let the cards fall where they're at,"
he recently told Ruth Conniff of The Progressive. "It will be a
shame if the Republicans get in. On that I have to agree with you. I'm
not enamored by George Bush's policies." But McGaa says he'll probably
get a slice of Jesse Ventura's Independent Party vote too: "So you
Wellstone people can just calm down."
McGaa's own amiable stance contrasts markedly with liberal Democratic
hysteria. Wellstone is now being pitched as the last bulwark against
fascism, whose defeat would lead swiftly to back-alley abortions, with
the entire government in the permanent grip of the Bush Republicans.
A sense of perspective, please. Start with Wellstone. This was the guy,
remember, who promised back in 1991 that he'd go to Washington with his
chief role as Senator being to work "with a lot of people around the
country--progressive grassroots people, social-action activists--to
extend the limits of what's considered politically realistic."
So what happened? Steve Perry, a journalist with a truly Minnesotan
regard for gentility and good manners, wrote in Mother Jones last
year the following bleak assessment: "10 years after he took his Senate
seat, Wellstone has disappeared from the national consciousness. He
never emerged as the left's national spokesman for reforms in health
care, campaign finance, or anything else."
Early on, Wellstone took a dive on the biggest organizing issue for
reformers in 1993. He abandoned his support for single-payer health
insurance in the face of blandishments from Hillary Clinton.
No need to go overboard here. As with all liberal senators, Wellstone
has had some lousy votes (yes to an early crime bill, no on recognition
of Vietnam) and some honorable ones. He denounced the Gulf War in 1991
but in 2001 endorsed Ashcroft's war on terror, when Russell Feingold was
the only senator to vote no. Wellstone has been good on Colombia but, in
common with ninety-eight other senators, craven on Israel. (McGaa has
spoken up for justice for Palestinians and is now being denounced as an
anti-Semite for his pains. Imagine, a Sioux having the nerve to find
something in common with Palestinians!)
So one can dig and delve in Wellstone's senatorial career across twelve
years and find grounds for reproach and applause, but one thing is plain
enough; he's not shifted the political idiom one centimeter to the left,
even within his own party, let alone on the overall national stage. In
the Clinton years, when he could have tried to build a national
coalition against the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council, he
mostly opted for a compliant insider role.
You don't have to be in the Senate as long as Bobby Byrd to put together
an impressive résumé. There are examples of heroic
one-term stints. Look at what Jim Abourezk of South Dakota achieved in
his one term, between 1972 and 1978. Within a year of getting into the
Senate he was taking on the oil cartel. In one of the most astounding
efforts of that decade, he pushed a bill to break up the oil companies
to within three votes of passage in the Senate.
Abourezk and Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio thwarted one boondoggle after
another by all-night sentry duty on the floor of the Senate in final
sessions, when the barons of pork tried to smuggle through such treats
as a $3 billion handout to the airline industry, which Abourezk killed.
He and Phil Burton managed an epoch-making expansion of Redwood National
Park. Abourezk worked with radical public interest groups and was a
lone, brave voice on Palestinian issues.
The suggestion that progressive politics will now stand or fall in sync
with Wellstone's future is offensive. Suppose he were to lose of his own
accord, without a Green Party third candidate? Would it then be
appropriate to sound the death knell of progressive politics in America?
Of course not. Even the most ardent Wellstone supporters acknowledge
that Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is moribund. Hence
Ventura's triumph. The Greens have every right to hold Wellstone
accountable, and if they have the capacity to send him into retirement,
then it will be a verdict on Wellstone's failures rather than some
supposed Green irresponsibility.
Fear still haunts the Arab and Muslim communities of Southern
September 11 is being used as a reason to build up police intelligence
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