When people vote, the environment is not always at the top of their minds.
But behind the scenes, the environment is a big part of this year’s election.
Environmental groups have emerged as some of the top spenders in elections in the Northwest - thanks to the help of California Billionaire, Tom Steyer.
It’s about 8AM. I’m in Bellingham about to go mall walking.
Doug Ericksen: "Hey are you Ashley? Alright let’s roll. We’re on the clock."
Senator Doug Ericksen gently coaxes his aging father, Len, on his morning walk around the Bellis Fair Mall.
Doug Ericksen: "Bigger steps dad. You don’t have to go fast, just bigger steps."
Ericksen has been representing this part of Northwestern Washington in the state house and senate for more than 15 years.
He’s a Republican and the chair of the senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee. He’s also one of three Republicans environmental groups are trying to unseat in this election. And they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it.
The majority of that money is coming from California Billionaire climate activist, Tom Steyer. His organization - NextGen Climate - gave the Washington Conservation Voters $750,000.
Doug Ericksen: "I think the people of Whatcom Co. can see past out of state billionaires trying to buy elections. I think they’re smarter than that."
NextGen Climate is supporting three Democrats running for the Washington Senate. Tami Green is running in the south Puget Sound area. Matt Isenhower is campaigning for a district in King County’s East Side. And in Whatcom County, Seth Fleetwood is challenging Doug Ericksen for his seat.
Tom Steyer has made it clear that he’s out to defeat politicians who aren’t taking a stand on climate change. That raises a question for Senator Ericksen:
"Do you believe that human beings are contributing to global climate change, our CO2 emissions?"
Doug Ericksen: "You know, Washington state has some of the lowest carbon emissions in the world. So I think if the rest of the world was more like Washington state we could address that issue."
"But you didn’t answer my question, Senator."
Doug Ericksen: "Washington State has some of the lowest carbon emissions in the world. We should be selling that and saying if you want to make a widget you can be making it with a lower carbon footprint than anywhere else in the world."
"By burning fossil fuels though, are we contributing to global climate change?"
Doug Ericksen: "Washington State has some of the lowest carbon emissions in the world. We’re a hydro state. We’re a nuclear state, and that’s something where, if the rest of the world if they want to reduce carbon emissions and be like Washington state, that should be their goal."
Todd Donovan: “In most of WA, particularly Western Washington, to be a climate denier or even on the fence is not particularly popular.”
Todd Donovan is a political science professor at Western Washington University. He’s been following politics in Ericksen’s district for 20 years.
This district is not one of Western Washington’s liberal bastions. It’s largely rural - home to oil refineries, agriculture and timber interests. Donovan says that can make “California Billionaire Environmentalist” a bit of a toxic phrase.
Todd Donovan: “So there is maybe a political cost to having an association with Tom Steyer’s money and the candidates that are going to be benefiting from it, might not want to say that they are.”
Seth Fleetwood: “I have received nothing personal from Tom Steyer. I’ve never met the man and received not a penny.”
Seth Fleetwood is the Democratic challenger for Doug Ericksen’s senate seat - and he’s the underdog in this race. Money from Tom Steyer, channeled through Washington Conservation Voters, has been key to keeping him competitive. Fleetwood says Republicans are also being aided by billionaire donors, like the Koch brothers. The family owns oil refineries, natural gas pipelines and coal operations - and spends heavily on elections.
Seth Fleetwood: “When they do it to Republicans you don’t hear republicans complaining one bit. When another rich fellow who happens to support environmental causes they cry foul. So I think there’s a degree of hypocrisy in it.”
Environmental groups say Steyer’s money is leveling the playing field.
Doug Moore is the executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters.
Doug Moore: “I think it’s a sign of maturity in the environmental community because the reality is that until there’s a political price to pay for opposition or inaction on the environment and on climate, candidates aren’t going to take us as seriously as they should.”
Environmental Groups in Oregon and Washington are upfront about their shared objective: secure control for Democrats in both state’s legislatures.
Republican Senator Doug Ericksen says that this election isn’t about the environment. He says the Washington Conservation Voters are funding a power grab for the Democrats.
Doug Ericksen: “They only support dems so they are no longer an environmental group, they are now a wing of the democrat party.”
If the Democratic party has aligned itself with environmentalists, the opposite could be said of the Republican Party, at least in Senator Ericksen’s race. Contributions to his campaign came from oil refineries and companies that support the construction of the Gateway Pacific Terminal - a controversial coal shipping terminal that could be built in Ericksen’s district.
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