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Thursday, October 7, 2010

What was missing at WCV's 2010 "Breakfast of Champions" in Seattle

This morning, shortly after daybreak, the Washington Conservation Voters held their annual autumn fundraising event at The Westin Seattle, which in recent years has become known as the "Breakfast of Champions" (a name that reminds me of General Mills' Wheaties cereal). I was asked to attend, and did so, even though I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about hearing from the political director of a national environmental organization that just indefensibly endorsed do-nothing Congressman Dave Reichert for reelection.

As I left the ballroom on the fourth floor following the conclusion of the program, I found myself ruminating over what was missing from the breakfast. Last year, I had the pleasure of hearing Governor Chris Gregoire deliver an impassioned speech against Tim Eyman's I-1033, which we transcribed and published here on The Advocate. There was no such highlight this year.

Which brings me to the first item on my list of what was missing.

Missing: A strong focus on ballot measures. Brendon Cechovic, who served as master of ceremonies, did mention Referendum 52 and Initiative 1053 at least once, and a video urging adoption of the former was played. But there should have been a stronger emphasis on defeating the five corporate initiatives on the ballots. WCV has also endorsed against Initiative 1107, but for some reason, it hasn't taken positions on I-1082, I-1100, or I-1105.

Each of those initiatives would also cause our state's budget deficit to go up, which has serious implications for our state's environmental health.

WCV also failed to take a position on Initiative 1098 (the proposal to levy an income tax on high-earners), which would strengthen Washington's common wealth. Now, it's true I-1098 doesn't dedicate any money explicitly to environmental protection, but any organization that considers itself progressive should be behind it, because it gives all of our policy directions a boost, even if only indirectly.

The keynote speaker, LCV's Tony Massaro, failed to say anything about our own ballot measures. Instead, he talked about reelecting "our champions" at the federal level and defeating Proposition 23 in California. He actually urged the room to call people in California and urge them to vote Prop 23 down.

It would have made a lot more sense for him to ask the room to work for the defeat of Tim Eyman and BP's I-1053.

Apparently, he doesn't realize that we have our own battles to fight. We at NPI want to see Prop 23 defeated too, but that's California's pigeon. Not ours.

Missing: Any mention of Suzan DelBene. No speaker recognized Suzan DelBene, who was in attendance along with Dave Reichert.

Patty Murray twice spoke Reichert's name during her remarks, but failed to say anything about Suzan's candidacy. Of course, the League of Conservation Voters (WCV's national equivalent) has endorsed Reichert, but I can't see how that precluded at least acknowledging that Suzan is running and shares the values that are so important to WCV's many members.

Another activist I was talking to alluded to some informal policy about not dropping challengers' names from the podium. If such a policy even exists, it was not universally followed, because Joe Fitzgibbon (who is running for Sharon Nelson's seat in the 34th) was recognized by two speakers.

Here's why I think failing to encourage and support Suzan matters: As we all know, this is a very volatile election cycle, and Republicans are competing aggressively. They want to take back Congress. It's not implausible that control of the House will come down to a few seats. If that's the case, Nancy Pelosi is going to need every vote she can get. Including Suzan DelBene's.

There are very few districts across the country where Democratic challengers are running strong against Republican incumbents. WA-08 is one of them. LCV and WCV are extremely shortsighted not to realize and appreciate that the most important vote that our representatives cast is for Speaker. Do LCV and WCV want John Boehner to be speaker? Do they want Joe Barton — the guy who apologized to BP — to be Chair of the Energy & Commerce Committee? I don't think so. But they are undercutting their own agenda by not supporting Suzan DelBene.

Reichert is basically a proxy vote for environmental destruction, regardless of whatever his own views are. (And speaking of his own views, Reichert has admitted to Republican PCOs that he only breaks ranks with his party to keep the environmental movement "out of the game").

Missing: A bold vision for the future. None of the speakers at the breakfast presented an uplifting, inspiring vision of what WCV or the broader environmental movement wants the future to look like. Nobody effectively answered the question, where do we want to be in ten, twenty years?

I would have liked to hear about specific projects that WCV is working on during the pitch for money, delivered by Valerie Reuther, who works in the "State Capacity Building Division" of the League of Conservation Voters.

("State Capacity Building Division", incidentally, sounds like an office in the Department of General Administration).

I would have liked to hear about specific objectives and priorities. I hear platitudes so often that they no longer resonate with me at all. I always listen for specifics.

I would have liked to have heard an overview of what WCV wants to achieve in the next year, how they hope to get there, and what they need to make it happen.

What I heard was (and I'm paraphrasing, a bit crudely), Picture your favorite place. Now, please give us money because WCV deserves it for all the great work it does. What work? What is WCV doing this month, this week, to raise our quality of life? What infrastructure are they building to sustain the movement long-term? What are they doing to defeat all those corporate initiatives? What are they doing to get ready for the 2011 legislative session? What outreach are they doing to discern what the environmental priorities should be for 2011?

These are all questions that savvy first-time donors might reasonably ask. If those questions had been creatively and thoughtfully answered, that would have given WCV both a more compelling pitch... and concrete specifics to serve as planks in the platform of a bold vision for the future.

Missing: A backup plan. Nobody addressed the potential fallout and consequences from a right wing victory on November 2nd.

I'll be the last one conceding that the other side has won before all the votes are counted, and I'll be the last one to spend valuable time bemoaning how grim election forecasts and polls look for progressives.

But, I don't think it's a bad idea to think ahead. Which leads me to wonder... If Democrats get routed, what is WCV's plan of action? What's their defensive strategy to prevent Republicans from squandering our natural resources and loosening regulations? What do they want their donors and members to help them do in case of an electoral catastrophe?

Conversely, how do we get back on offense if Democrats retain control? I didn't hear answers to those questions either.

I didn't hear even a semblance of a backup plan.

One final thought: I've come to the conclusion that "comprehensive energy reform" (which Patty Murray acknowledged failed to pass the Senate) is a bad idea.

I'm against the notion of doing a big, complicated bill with a zillion provisions because I fear that it will just get watered down to oblivion.

Rather than trying to enact "comprehensive energy reform", I think Congress should break the problem into smaller bits.

For instance, crafting a simple bill to end oil subsidies and redirect them to renewable energy development. Another bill could establish pollution penalties for dirty industries. Still another could appropriate additional money for high-speed rail projects. And so on. Such a strategy would put Republicans in a straitjacket. The opposition would have tougher time enforcing total party discipline, and Democrats could repeatedly blast congressional Republicans for being the Party of No every time they voted against progress en masse.

I don't know exactly how well the plan I just outlined would work. But what I do know is that we need a smarter strategy.

What's been tried to date obviously isn't working.


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