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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Candidate Profile: Bill Bradley

Air Date: Week of

The former New Jersey senator’s voting record on pro-environmental bills is 20 points higher than Vice President Al Gore’s record. Some environmentalists think he might do a better job of promoting environmental issues as president. Pippin Ross profiles the candidate.


CURWOOD: Most voters know the environment has been a key issue throughout the career of Vice President Gore. But his challenger in the Democratic presidential primaries, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, is also widely regarded to be a champion of environmental protection. Mr. Bradley spent 18 years on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he was instrumental in crafting key environmental laws. He is currently proposing an end to billions of dollars worth of tax shelters, loopholes, and subsidies that support environmentally-destructive practices in the mining, cattle, chemical, and oil industries. This has left many voters in a bit of a quandary, wondering which Democrat is the better candidate on the environment. Reporter Pippin Ross has been looking into Mr. Bradley's background and his environmental credentials. She prepared this report.

(Cheering crowd)

ROSS: Madison Square Garden. Home of the New York Knicks. This is where Bill Bradley, fresh from the ivory towers of Oxford University, first found himself taking a shot at professional competition.

ANNOUNCER: It's now time to announce the winner of tonight's ...

ROSS: As a basketball rookie in 1967, former teammate and Garden commentator Walt Frazier says Mr. Bradley seemed awkward in the public spotlight and uncomfortable in the slick world of professional sports.

FRAZIER: You know, we used to steal the shoestrings out of his shoes on the plane. He'd be walking through the airport with no shoestrings. But he liked that, because he felt like a part of the team, you know. So he was sort of the fall guy early on in his career.

ROSS: With legendary discipline, including a ritual of listening to the song Climb Every Mountain before each game, Mr. Bradley transformed himself, building a reputation as a confident and thoughtful player. Mr. Frazier thought it odd that his teammate refused to do product endorsements, but was impressed that he took time to teach basketball clinics to kids in Harlem. Mr. Bradley spent 10 years in sports before retiring to run for the U.S. Senate. Along the way he earned the lasting respect of his teammates, so much so that today Walt Frazier is both a Bradley campaign contributor and volunteer.

FRAZIER: If I do that, I really like somebody. (Laughs) Give him my money and my time. I guess that he's a family man, team-oriented, all the things that you would want in a person in the White House as the president.

ROSS: The environment isn't the issue that prompted Walt Frazier's support, but among those who do judge candidates on their environmental record, Bill Bradley is winning praise.

WOMAN: A long-time friend of the League of Conservation Voters and now, presidential candidate, Senator Bill Bradley.

(Audience applause)

ROSS: At last fall's annual fundraising dinner for the League of Conservation Voters, Mr. Bradley was honored for his accomplishments before leaving Congress in 1996.

BRADLEY: One of the important jobs is cleaning up that which has already been polluted.

ROSS: Although considered a quiet, behind-the-scenes politician, during the dinner Mr. Bradley uncharacteristically promoted his contribution to the Superfund, the reauthorization of the Clean Air and Water Acts, wilderness protection, and the massive clean-up of the New Jersey shore. On the League's tally of congressional votes, Mr. Bradley has an 84 percent, one of the highest lifetime pro-environment scores. Mr. Bradley also promised what he'd do as president, such as removing tons of industrial pollutants from America's air.

BRADLEY: I think it's time to be prudent and stop talking about taking tons out of the atmosphere and start actually taking tons out of the atmosphere.


ROSS: Some activists say that in a side-by-side comparison, Bill Bradley looks better on the environment than Al Gore. Mr. Bradley's voting score is 20 points higher than Mr. Gore's record during his years in the Senate. This has prompted one group, Friends of the Earth, to take the unusual step of formally endorsing Bill Bradley in the primaries, while openly attacking Al Gore. Brent Blackwelder is the group's president.

BLACKWELDER: Most people think Gore was active, but there's almost nothing that he passed in his entire career. Whereas Bradley has a solid set of legislative achievements. For example, reforming western water law in 1992, putting taxes on pollution as part of the Superfund law, protecting the largest unspoiled forested area outside of New York City, the Sterling Forest. So, if you look at his record, you see that he was very quiet about it, but he got results.

ROSS: It's an endorsement that's creating a rift among political activists. Attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a prominent Gore supporter, has been shooting back, going after Mr. Bradley's decision four years ago not to seek another term in the Senate.

KENNEDY: When things got hot, he left, and Al Gore stayed and fought it out and fought for us. And, you know, Bill Bradley said that politics is broken and I'm going home, and he went and took a job for a consulting firm and he made himself money, while Al Gore was sitting there fighting for us and fighting for the environment.

ROSS: The candidates themselves, who have been sharply critical of each other on health care and education, have generally been silent about their differences on the environment. In fact, when it comes to the environment, Bill Bradley isn't saying much of anything at all.

BRADLEY: I think that people tend to focus more on their own economic circumstance, a good job, good health, good education. And I think that those are the issues that come to the fore.

(Milling crowd)

ROSS: Inside his national headquarters in New Jersey, Bill Bradley took a time out from campaigning to tell me where the environment fits into his political strategy. He believes people truly care about the environment, but only if they're economically secure.

BRADLEY: Because if you're only concerned with your own material welfare, then you have certain limitations as to what can happen for all of us in the country. But if you feel yourself a part of something that's larger than you are, whether it's a team or whether it's a country, then you recognize that we can all accomplish more together than any one of us could accomplish alone. And that is particularly true with regard to the environment, because the environment requires all of us to act responsibly, but the benefit is all of us. Whereas if we acted alone, we could never counter the forces that pollute our world today.

ROSS: To Mr. Bradley, the environment is like any other issue. He says it all boils down to money. His number one priority is campaign finance reform, ridding the political system of the influence of special interests. To do this, he wants to limit campaign contributions to $1,000 per person, no exceptions, no loopholes.

BRADLEY: And I think that if we reduce the role of money, then people would feel once again that the government is responsive to them. And we'd finally be able to get rid of some of the loopholes that have made their way into the environmental laws, exempting this company or that industry or this certain person for that period of time.

(Music up and under)

ROSS: Mr. Bradley's biggest challenge seems to be translating his ideas into rousing language. At this boisterous outdoor rally in New Hampshire, he was surrounded by sympathetic, bright-eyed college students and red, white, and blue bunting. But when it came time to talk, he seemed to struggle. Here's how he described the concept of environmental protection.

BRADLEY: It means protecting that for you to come into contact with, so you can come into contact with the natural world, and that means something that's bigger than you are and lasts longer than you do.

ROSS: Later that day, while campaigning inside a health food store, Mr. Bradley ran into an eager employee who wanted to hear his thoughts on the perils of economic growth.

WOMAN: One of my questions about that whole concept of growing and growing is that the Earth is only one size, and everything can't keep expanding. So how would you --

BRADLEY: Well, what happens is, you know, most of the economic growth now takes place in services, which is high-tech, information technology, and it is not use of natural resources. To the contrary, you can use that technology to preserve the natural environment.

ROSS: Bradley's meandering response seemed to disappoint her.

BRADLEY: You're welcome. Thank you. Bye-bye. Bye, thanks.

ROSS: (to woman) Do you think he answered your question?

WOMAN: No. (Laughs) Not satisfied.

ROSS: In New Hampshire, the Bradley campaign has scheduled private sessions with local activists to hear their concerns and share ideas. But Chris Bogen of the group Clean Water Action came away from his meeting frustrated by a lack of specifics and commitments.

BOGEN: In a way it's a fairly simple thing to say, that we're going to do more to protect our air, to protect public health, and we didn't get that. So, you know, we figured, well, we'll keep trying, and hopefully he'll come up with a better response.

ROSS: Bradley campaign flyers do provide some detail. He supports ratification of the Kyoto treaty to combat global warming, as well as tougher rules and stiffer fines for polluters. But even Bradley supporters have a difficult time understanding why their candidate isn't portraying himself as greener than Gore, and isn't pushing his record on an issue that clearly resonates with Democratic voters.

(Milling crowd; a horn honks)

ROSS: Standing beside a road in Keene, New Hampshire, holding a homemade Vote Bradley sign, campaign volunteer Joel Ziff shares his theory about what's happening behind the scenes.

ZIFF: I think politically, some of that can be attributed to the fact that everybody assumed that Al Gore was going to have, you know, the environmental issue locked up as his, because he supposedly built a reputation as somebody that cares about the environment and will clean it up.

ROSS: It's unclear if Bill Bradley can overcome that assumption. Nonetheless, Mr. Bradley himself seems confident. After all, he's a former basketball star who's always excelled at the outside shot. For Living on Earth, I'm Pippin Ross with the Bradley campaign in New Hampshire.

MAN: How are you doing? Yes sir, you've got it!

MAN 2: Yes, that's right. The man for the job, next president of the United States.



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