Host Steve Curwood talks with Susan Greene of the Denver Post about the tight Senate race in Colorado and how environmental issues might affect the outcome.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. With the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate hanging on just one seat, every Senate race this November counts. And in Colorado, the contest between Republican incumbent Wayne Allard and Democratic challenger Tom Strickland is particularly strident. Polls have the two candidates in a virtual dead heat, and the environment may be the key to how voters decide.
Susan Greene covers politics for the Denver Post. Susan, why has the environment emerged as an issue in this election?
GREENE: Well, the environment is always pretty big in Colorado. We’ve got a huge segment of the population that moved here for the mountains, for the national parks, the open space, and hundreds of thousands of Coloradans who make their living off the state’s natural resources by ranching, mining, farming, skiing, rafting, etc.
In this race, I think that, by all accounts, it may come down to the state’s Independents who make up a third of the registered voters in Colorado, and new residents, who are said to be, largely, moderate Republicans who likely moved here for environmental reasons and may, sort of, embrace environmental causes.
CURWOOD: Republican Wayne Allard is campaigning by claiming to have a strong environmental record. What do people say about his environmental record?
GREENE: First of all, what he says about his environmental record is that it’s great, and that he’s the most green senator ever to represent Colorado. He makes a lot out of his work passing legislation to designate Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant near Denver as a wildlife refuge. It’s been decommissioned for years. And he makes a lot out of his work helping to designate the great Sand Dunes National Park and the Spanish Peaks Wilderness Area, which are both in Southern Colorado.
He’s also done work on helping to clean up a place called Shattuck. It’s a hazardous waste dump in Denver. So, all of those things have won support among some environmentalists, although they point out some downsides, as well. On Rocky Flats, some say the wildlife designation is a ploy by the government to avoid totally cleaning up the plutonium and the uranium there. On the Sand Dunes, many people note that it won’t officially become a national park until it acquires more land from a program which Allard has not supported.
On Shattuck, I think that’s one of his more solid claims on the environment. And he was really on Shattuck, many say, far before any of our local Democratic congresspeople were actually on the issue.
CURWOOD: Looking at his broad voting record, where does Senator Allard stand on the environment?
GREENE: First of all, Allard is chairman of the Senate Renewable Energy Caucus. And Colorado is home to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden. And while Allard recently voted to secure, I think, a 15 percent budget increase for the lab, he’s voted against things like improving fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, and helped block a requirement that 20 percent of utilities energy comes from renewable sources. He also opposed a plan to triple the content of ethanol in fuel and that was very controversial in Colorado, not only among environmentalists, but also the farming community because ethanol comes from corn and that’s one of our biggest crops.
CURWOOD: I know Senator Allard has gotten into a bit of a scuffle this fall with the environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club. What’s going on?
GREENE: Well, in touting himself as the most environmental senator in Colorado’s history, Allard has made a big deal about having received in the mail a membership card from the Sierra Club. And he’s carried it around with him and said if his record’s so bad, why would they want him as a member. This was a solicitation that went to millions of Americans nationwide, and you’re supposed to send in your $25 dollars for an actual membership.
Carl Pope, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club was in town recently and whipped out a membership card of his own. It was a platinum membership with the Republican National Committee, congratulated him for upholding the party’s ideals. Pope’s a Democrat, and said he’s no more an exemplary supporter of Republican values than Allard is an environmentalist.
CURWOOD: So, environmental groups are endorsing the Democratic challenger Tom Strickland in Colorado, but he doesn’t have an extensive public record on the environment. What was he able to do as United States Attorney when he was in office?
GREENE: Well, he was the United States Attorney for the last two years of the Clinton Administration and he prosecuted a few cases against polluters. But, really, his focus as U.S. Attorney was mostly on guns, not on environment. What he did before that when he was working as a private attorney, he was heavily involved in a 1992 ballot initiative to create something called Great Outdoors Colorado. It’s an agency that takes lottery money in the state and buys parks and open space. One thing that sticks in the craw of environmentalists is his record as a private lawyer and lobbyist. He represented a company that’s had to build a medical waste incinerator in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Denver, even though neighbors objected. And he also represented Louisiana Pacific which was fined for environmental violations at a lumber mill in western Colorado.
CURWOOD: So, Susan, what do you think are the biggest environmental topics that will be at issue as this campaign heads into the final weeks?
GREENE: One huge one is fire. As you know, we had a horrible fire season in Colorado this year. Both candidates support plans to thin forest and reduce the kindling in the national forests, but they disagree on how to do it. Allard supports a plan that would cut down far more trees and far more acreage than Strickland supports.
Also related to the fire season is the drought. This was the driest summer in more than 150 years in Colorado. Huge reservoirs were nearly depleted as early as July. Crops suffered long throughout the state went brown. And all this called attention to a lack of a statewide water policy in Colorado, which is not something that a senator has authority over, but both have called for a statewide water policy even though Strickland has done so much more loudly.
CURWOOD: Why is this race so close, Susan? I mean, typically an incumbent has a lot of advantages going into an election. Why are things so tight? And how much does the environment have to do with it?
GREENE: Some people say if the Democrats have any challenge in this election, it’s to appear strong on the economy which people are obviously concerned about. And if Republicans have a challenge, it’s to appear environmental. And, basically, you’ve seen the Sierra Club, you’ve seen the League of Conservation Voters, the Democratic Party, and Strickland’s campaign blasting Allard on his environmental record, and, to some degree, that may have been successful.
CURWOOD: Susan Greene is a staff writer with the Denver Post. Thanks for taking this time with us today, Susan.
GREENE: Thanks for having me.
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