(A version of this article first appeared in the Sierra Club Bay Chapter Yodeler in May 2007)
If you’ve worked as a volunteer on practically any conservation concern, you’ve probably had occasion to contact public officials and even to put your volunteer spirit to work helping get environmental candidates elected to office. It’s just a hop, skip, and short hike on Mount Tam to go from volunteering for a candidate to becoming one yourself. I spoke with several local Sierrans who’ve taken that hike to the top of the mountain and discovered several common themes.Sierra Club issues made them into candidates
Some people run for office because they want power. Others are frustrated over the lack of response from their elected representatives on an issue of importance to them and decide they can do better. For this article, I talked to Sierra Club leaders whose interest in running for office began with activism on particular issues. But if you are active in any local organization, your child’s school or ad hoc neighborhood committee, the same principles apply.
Take Helen Burke, the first Bay Chapter leader to get elected to public office, who after years of advocating on behalf of the Sierra Club, was urged by her fellow Club leaders and other environmental activists to run for the Board of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Volunteering 40 - 60 hours a week on the Conservation Committee wasn’t enough for Helen, so she took her friends up on their offer to help her win the seat from the newly created Fourth Ward. She ran on a platform of water conservation and reform and won in a landslide, becoming the first woman and first environmentalist to serve on the EBMUD.
Helen went on to mentor other activists whom she encouraged to take their volunteerism to new levels. Andy Katz, a member of the Northern Alameda Group Executive Committee and newly elected to the EBMUD seat that Helen used to hold, credits her with inspiring him to jump in the race. Andy finds that “Serving in public office is an opportunity to put environmental goals into action.”For some, a single issue sparks the decision to run. A long-time activist on Hayward planning issues as well as chair of Sierra Club California in 1991 - 92, Sherman Lewis was inspired to run for the BART Board to stop a parking structure proposed for the Hayward BART station.
In Marin County, long-time Political Committee member Alex Forman was motivated by his concern about a proposed pipeline to bring water from Sonoma to Marin. This pipeline would have had a devastating effect on the flows of the Russian and Eel Rivers and on their salmon fisheries. This issue came to a head during the campaign, when his much better-funded opponent took the opposite position.
In looking for the right office, don’t think only of obviously environmental positions. You can put your environmental principles to work in a number of local offices. John Rizzo had long dreamed of developing a program in green technologies and environmental sciences at the community-college level. As a Club activist and chair (2005 - 06) of the Bay Chapter, John Rizzo decided to run for the Board of San Francisco City College. A strong environmental message and the help of active Sierrans, helped put him in a position to make those dreams a reality.
Building coalitions—the key to winning public office
An important building block of any campaign is bringing together people from various backgrounds and interest groups. In running for MMWD Alex Forman realized that not only environmentalists were lining up behind him for his stand against the pipeline, but also a host of tax-reform advocates, because the pipeline would cost the ratepayers more than Alex’ alternative of expanding conservation measures. This coalition of “unlikely allies” won Alex unexpected support from more conservative voters for sailing to an easy victory. Alex still serves on both the MMWD Board and the Marin Group, where he is the political co-chair. He also continues his work on the Political Committee of the Bay Chapter.
Veteran Berkeley Councilmember Kriss Worthington has become a champion coalition builder over his years in office. Even before his involvement as a Sierra Club activist and Bay Chapter ExComm member, Kriss had worked for years with the student community. Building a labor/environmental coalition worked well for Andy Katz as well. Having coalition partners on board with your campaign can help with other endorsements and donations, which can make the difference in getting your environmental message out to the voters.
John Rizzo’s win shows how a strong progressive message can transcend party lines. Although he is a proud Green Party member, John earned the support of influential Democratic Clubs in his San Francisco City College bid, including the liberal Harvey Milk Club.
And of course, that all-important Sierra Club endorsement can not be over-emphasized.
Getting Your Issues on the Table as a Newly Elected Official
Transitioning from Club volunteer to elected official is not always easy. It helps if the environmental activists who helped you to get into office stick around for the heavy lifting. Keep those volunteers involved, advises EBMUD’s Andy Katz. Their voice at meetings and on advisory committees can be invaluable in helping the office-holder keep the environmental issues on the table and “provide an elected environmental advocate the ability to translate that perspective into real policy.” It also can boost the morale of an outvoted environmental office-holder to be surrounded by supporters, who will keep them energized and focused on the task at hand.
When you work strictly as a volunteer, you have the luxury of taking firm positions and stating them unwaveringly. As an elected official, you must work with others to accomplish your goals. Helen Burke calls this “boring from within”.Starting out as a lone voice for the environment, Helen started making a difference right away, finding support for her ideas of instituting tiered water rates. Her lively campaign and new ideas transformed EBMUD meetings from dull to delightful and attracted local press as well to see what this energetic woman could do.
Some tasks take longer than others. One of Helen’s proudest achievements was an end to the practice of subsidizing developers for the cost of the water infrastructure for their projects. “It took 12 years and getting a second vote on the Board, but eventually that subsidy was eliminated!” says Helen. Dennis Waespi, first elected in 1999, today serves as president of the Board of the Castro Valley Sanitary District. He is proud of the innovative environmental programs his Board has instituted, including making Castro Valley a leader in recycling and recently instituting a pilot program in the schools to collect and compost food waste. Castro Valley was the first town in Alameda County to successfully integrate food-waste collection into its green-waste recycling. Waespi urges other Club members and activists to run, saying “We need more environmentalists involved in the political process. And the time is now.”
Are you next?
Running for office isn’t for everybody. But it is one way to extend your environmental volunteerism. One intermediate step is to get appointed to an advisory board or commission. And we all can volunteer to help the environmental leaders who do run.
Dotty Le Mieux
Dotty LeMieux first ran for office when her never-to-be-named coastal Marin town was threatened with overdevelopment. The only local body that dealt with issues related to growth was the Public Utilities District, which had for years maintained a moratorium on water hookups due to shortage of storage capacity.
She ran for that seat and won in 1981; later she was encouraged to run for county supervisor, receiving Club support against an incumbent whose environmental rating had slipped over his years in office. Although she didn’t win that one, her campaign brought environmental and social issues to the forefront, prompting the incumbent not to seek another term.
Dotty went on to serve on the Sierra Club Marin Group Executive Committee, serving as chair for four years.
Today she runs a campaign-consulting firm in Marin, Green Dog Campaigns and Communications. Alex Forman was her first successful client. She has since helped many Club-supported candidates win tough races, including Marin County Supervisor Susan Adams and Fairfax Councilmember Mary Ann Maggiore. Her most recent victory was the election of Lake County Supervisor Denise Rushing, who, with the Club’s support, was able to defeat a long time incumbent.
For more information, contact Dotty at:firstname.lastname@example.org or check her web site:www.greendogcampaigns.com