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It’s not easy being a token green: Christie Todd Whitman. Photo by Joe Putrock

Having Your Wilderness and Drilling It Too
Chances are, the EPA vacancy left by Christie Todd Whitman will be filled with an even more aggressively pro-business appointee—all under a cover of green
By Mark Hertsgaard

Christie Todd Whitman has resigned as EPA administrator at a time when Republicans themselves recognize the environmental issue as “the single biggest vulnerability for the Republicans and especially for George Bush.” Bush’s choice to replace Whitman will offer a clear indication of how the White House plans to handle this vulnerability as it approaches the 2004 election—and of how the president’s opponents might exploit it.

The quote in the preceding paragraph comes from Frank Luntz, a top GOP strategist; his specialty is crafting messages that sell a political candidate or ideology to the voters. In a memo leaked earlier this year to The New York Times, Luntz further warned that the Republicans “risk losing the swing vote . . . [and that] our suburban female base could abandon us.” Since the swing vote—those middle-of-the-road voters with no great loyalty to either of the two major parties—is where the 2004 election is likely to be decided, the environment promises to be a crucial battleground over the coming 18 months.

It’s not hard to see why Republicans are in trouble on the environmental front. The environment has become a mom-and-apple-pie issue in the United States, and the Republicans are on the wrong side of it. According to a Gallup poll released in April, 61 percent of Americans say they are either active participants in or sympathizers with the environmental movement. Eighty percent favor stricter emissions standards for business. Only 7 percent endorse the Bush-Cheney view that government is regulating too much.

But that hasn’t stopped the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress from doing all they can to relax environmental regulations. Whether it’s more arsenic in drinking water, killing the Kyoto protocol, pushing for expanded logging and limited wilderness, or putting industry executives in charge of dozens of regulatory agencies, Bush has pursued the most nakedly pro-corporate agenda in memory.

Whitman was the supposedly moderate Republican whose job it was to make these policies appear reasonable. Mainstream green groups unwittingly played along with the ruse, talking as if Whitman were genuinely committed to the environment and repeatedly expressing their disappointment at her failure to stand up to the White House’s slash-and-burn approach.

But Whitman was never as green as enviros liked to think. During her tenure as New Jersey governor, she had instituted many of the policies that Bush has pursued as president, including corporate self-audits and drastically reduced oversight and fines of industrial polluters. As EPA administrator, she continued to work against meaningful environmental regulation while running afoul of conflict-of-interest laws.

On Earth Day 2002, the EPA’s former public-interest advocate, Robert J. Martin, resigned as EPA ombudsman after clashing with Whitman over a Superfund cleanup agreement that would have saved Citigroup—a principal investor in Whitman’s husband’s venture-capital firm—up to $93 million. Martin alleged that Whitman ordered his office reassigned within the EPA bureaucracy and stripped of its independence after he opposed a nuclear-waste cleanup settlement with Citigroup that would limit the firm’s liability to a fraction of the true cleanup cost. Whitman denied the charges, but has been dogged by a continuing investigation of the matter. That investigation has also focused on Whitman’s questionable statements after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when she assured residents that the air of Manhattan was safe, even though the EPA had not done adequate testing to support such claims.

So, with Whitman gone, what’s next? For his part, Frank Luntz doesn’t want Republicans to change their environmental policies—just how they talk about them. He advises them to use words like “common sense,” “sound science,” and “balance.” Republican candidates should call themselves “conservationists.” They should stress how much they love national parks. They should assure voters that they favor environmental protection but simply believe that local people, not Washington bureaucrats, should be in charge.

Luntz’s message seems to be getting through. The White House included a pitch for hydrogen-fueled cars in this year’s State of the Union address. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain pointing out that the hydrogen in question would be generated by burning more fossil fuels.) And in April, just in time for Earth Day, came the birth of an environmental alliance between a Republican advocacy group and one of the nation’s largest labor unions.

The new organization’s name, the Labor Environment Alliance, sounds positively left-wing. It brings together the International Brotherhood of Teamsters with the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, and it promises to lobby for “responsible environmentalism that walks hand in hand with job creation.” Specifically, the alliance says it supports reduced emissions, brownfields redevelopment, more highway construction, and increased domestic-energy production. As such, it enthusiastically backs the Bush-Cheney energy plan, with its overwhelming bias towards fossil-fuel and nuclear production. In words that would doubtless please Luntz, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy praised the plan as “balanced, comprehensive and environmentally responsible.”

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that the Teamsters were marching arm in arm with environmentalists and other progressives in the historic globalization demonstrations in Seattle in 1999. But the romance of Turtles and Teamsters was never consolidated into a real working marriage. The modern Teamsters have always been conservative, and they were early endorsers of the Bush-Cheney energy plan. The rupture with enviros now seems final. Meanwhile, most other unions still maintain at least cordial relations with the big environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, even if the so-called Blue-Green Alliance sought by numerous union and environmental leaders has yet to jell into the powerhouse initially envisioned.

At the same time, parts of Bush’s right-wing base will remain resistant to even talking green. Many on the right disdain environmentalism as today’s equivalent to socialism. For them, global warming is still liberal hokum, and drilling for oil and gas in Alaska is imperative—not so much for the resources themselves as for asserting the principle that nothing should be off-limits to the market’s appetites. With their ideological biases, they don’t see the political risk in Bush’s environmental policies. Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation, has argued that Republican electoral prospects should be fine as long as the body count doesn’t get too high: “There’s a risk with some of the swing voters, but unless something happens where lots of people turn up dead before the election, these issues are not going to resonate with lots of voters.”

These are the same right-wing voices who carped at Christie Todd Whitman throughout her tenure, accusing her of doing too much to please the green lobby. Now, expect them to pressure the White House to appoint a replacement more to their liking. One name circulating in the capital’s rumor mill is Josephine Cooper, chief operating officer of the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers. Just what America needs: a SUV lobbyist setting environmental policy.

But White House strategists may prove smarter than that. Frank Luntz is right: Republicans do need political cover against the public perception that they’re in bed with corporate polluters. So as the 2004 campaign heats up, expect to hear lots of green rhetoric from Bush and his fellow Republicans. They will proclaim their love of the great outdoors and pledge to preserve and protect it. They will invoke the need for a common-sense approach to the environment and economics, and they will thank their labor union allies for showing that good jobs and clean air and water go together.

In short, Republicans will show they understand that in modern America any politician who sounds indifferent to the environment invites defeat on Election Day. But to talk the talk on the environment is one thing; walking the walk is quite another.

Mark Hertsgaard, a commentator for National Public Radio’s Living on Earth show, is the author most recently of The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World and Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future.

To Build or Not to Build?
The future of the Albany City School District’s facilities plan hinges on Tuesday’s vote
By Travis Durfee

It’s easy to get sidetracked by the hype and politicking that continue to lead up to the Albany City School District’s June 3 vote.

Over the past five months, the mayor and the district have engaged in a pitched battle over who should run Albany’s public schools, and it has been colorful: Lawsuits have been flying left and right, the mayor has excoriated the facilities plan on his weekly radio show, and both parties reportedly are trying to woo black churchgoers to the polls Tuesday.

But according to district officials, the focus shouldn’t be on political melodrama, but on how any further delays to the construction of the city’s third middle school will affect the district’s $176 million, voter-approved facilities-renovation plan.

On Tuesday (June 3), voters citywide will be asked to grant the district $6.1 million to purchase roughly 19 acres of land between Kelton and Marlborough courts off of Whitehall Road and begin construction of the city’s third middle school. According to Ken Gifford, director of facility planning for the Albany City School District, without the voter permission to begin construction this summer, the remainder of the facilities plan will be in jeopardy.

“This is not a planning exercise anymore; we’re in the middle of construction,” Gifford said. “We have 48 percent of our school plan in progress—either in construction or finishing design—and so it isn’t like we can cay, ‘Let’s try a new idea,’ and run off in this direction.”

Along with the facilities plan, the district is reconfiguring its middle-school structure; middle schools currently house students in grades seven and eight, but the district is looking to expand them to include sixth-graders. All of the district’s elementary schools will be renovated to house students in grades k-5. The entire facilities plan is to be carried out over a six-year time frame, Gifford explained, and without an additional middle school to handle the surge of sixth graders, it can only go so far.

“We can do three more elementary schools [without the new middle school], and then we’re dead,” Gifford said. “We can’t [rehab] any of the middle schools, we can’t rehab Sunshine, we can’t rehab TOAST, we can’t rehab Arbor Hill Elementary. We’ve got to put the sixth-graders someplace.”

If the proposition is voted down, Gifford said it would end up costing the district millions trying to redraft another proposal for a third middle school in Albany.

It’s been a long road for district officials trying to find a home for the most crucial and expensive aspect of the facilities plan. The site off of Kelton Court was initially pegged as the home for the new middle school, but neighborhood opposition led the district to abandon it. The district then considered a site in Westland Hills Park, but it too was abandoned due to a lengthy environmental review process. The Kelton Court site has once again been targeted as the home for the new school, and awaits voter approval on June 3.

Though public opposition to constructing the middle school off of Kelton Court still exists, it is much less than the first time around. This most likely results from a developer’s interest in constructing 70 or so single-family homes on the very same plot.

In his State of the City address in January, Mayor Jerry Jennings issued his own school proposal: razing all of the district’s existing elementary schools to build 11 cookie-cutter schools, consolidating the two middle schools into one, and building a new high school. While the mayor’s proposal seems much different from the district’s, he has yet to issue a concrete plan to show exactly how it would benefit the city. Jennings did not return a phone call for this story.

The second proposition on Tuesday, dependent on the first, asks city residents to grant the district an additional $2.84 million to construct athletic fields at the Kelton Court site. Should the voters accept both propositions, school officials say the impact on the taxpayers would be minimal.

The additional $8.75 million would be tacked on to the existing total for the facilities plan and would result in an increase of approximately $9.40 annually for the next 30 years on a home assessed at $100,000, according to figures provided by the school district.

“One of the residents at our budget hearings last week looked at the numbers and said, ‘That’s less than a pizza,’” said district spokeswoman Tara Mitchell.

Voters also will be asked to consider the sale of the deteriorated School 17, which has been vacant since 1975, for no less than $6,000.

Polls will be open Tuesday from 7 AM to 9 PM, and information on where to vote can be obtained from the district’s Web site, www.albany.k12.ny.us, or by calling the district clerk at 462-7200 or the County Board of Elections at 487-5060.


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