THE 2006 ELECTION: What It Means for the Environment And What’s Not the Matter with Kansas

An extraordinary grassroots effort – led by Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, and other environmental groups – has resulted in the defeat of Richard Pombo, powerful chair of the House Resources Committee. Replacing the man who had set out to destroy most of our landmark environmental laws will be Jerry McNerney, a wind energy consultant.

The importance of Pombo’s defeat cannot be emphasized strongly enough. This means that the Endangered Species Act has a new lease on life, and that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (along with offshore areas) will be spared from oil and gas drilling. It means our national parks are safe from potentially being sold to private interests.

It all started with Pete McCloskey, the maverick Republican who came out of retirement at 78 to run against Pombo in the June primary (see my article “Revolt of the Elders,” for Mother Jones Magazine, for details). Although McCloskey did not defeat Pombo, he brought high-profile media attention to what the rancher from Tracy, California had been up to in Congress. This opened the door for McNerney – and the triumph of environmental activism.

The Sierra Club, for example, mobilized 312 volunteers and spent more than $500,000 seeking to oust Pombo in California’s 11th District. They also sent out nearly 400,000 mailers. The Defenders of Wildlife and its affiliates sent volunteers to knock on about 75,000 doors, and poured $1.2 million into its anti-Pombo campaign.

In fact, of the 13 Republican Congresspeople targeted by the League of Conservation Voters’ “Dirty Dozen” campaign, nine of them went down to defeat.

Meanwhile, in the American “heartland” of Kansas, came unexpected election results that indicate just how much the country is fed up with the Bush Administration and its policies. And may even signal the possibility of the return of the Democrats as a true national party, not just confined to the “blue states” of the Northeast and California.

In a Kansas district that covers most of the eastern part of the state, Nancy Boyda resoundingly defeated the famed miler, and arch-conservative Republican congressman, Jim Ryun. A strong supporter of “staying the course” in Iraq, Ryun was recently caught in a lie when he denied knowing page-chaser Thomas Foley. It turned out they had homes on the same block in Washington. Boyda called Ryun on this, and the voters liked what they saw of her.

I knew Ryun fairly well, as we were in the same class at the University of Kansas (1965-69) when I was covering sports for the Topeka paper and Sporting News. He was a shy kid who never felt comfortable in the spotlight after becoming the world record holder in the mile. By the end of the Sixties, he’d become, I felt, something of a radical and free thinker. Later, however, he became a born-again Christian and was urged to run for office by the right wing.

Kansas has always been a most interesting place, when it comes to politics. This was where the Populist movement first took shape and, in 1970, where two students in Lawrence were shot and killed in massive anti-Vietnam War protests. I was present in 1987 when eight thousand people turned out in Beloit to speak out against the possibility of a radioactive waste dump being foisted on central Kansas. On Earth Day 1989, I organized what was probably the biggest environmental demonstration in Kansas’ history – against a plant in Wichita that was pumping ozone-layer-destroying CFCs into the atmosphere.

Then came the Nineties and, starting with fervent anti-abortion protesters in Wichita, the state became a right-wing stronghold. Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, took a fascinating (and disturbing) look at how residents voted consistently against their own best interests on ideological grounds. This was when Jim Ryun got elected.

Now there’s been an apparent sea-change. Also in Kansas’ 2006 election, the notorious state attorney general Phil Kline got defeated. He made his name as an anti-abortion crusader who wanted to seize women’s records from abortion clinics. And a woman with a message of restoring honesty and integrity to government took on Ryun for a second time – after being trounced by him only two years ago – and won.

Steve Boyda, Nan’s husband, is a longtime friend of mine, a lawyer who’s successfully taken on the big railroad corporations like Union Pacific over their poor safety records – and gained huge settlements for accident victims. Steve created a new kind of campaign, steering his wife away from the D.C. consultants and toward the kind of populist activism that is Kansas at its best. It worked.

Another friend just sent me this quote:

“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt…If the game runs sometimes against us at home we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost, for this is a game where principles are at stake.”

– Thomas Jefferson, 1798, after the passage of the Sedition Act.