Last spring and summer, officials at the Sierra Club gathered for a series of confidential meetings to plot how to make the environment an issue in elections around the country. But their deliberations often had little to do with things like polluted streams or global warming. Instead, they focused on political tactics: which candidates to help and which to punish.
Senator Lauch Faircloth, a North Carolina Republican often denounced by environmentalists, would be a target; his own hog farm was said to be a polluter. Another Republican, Senator Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, was less vulnerable. "The problem with D'Amato is he doesn't do a lot of dumb things," the group's media consultant said. They decided to help a Nevada Democrat, Senator Harry Reid -- until he voted the wrong way on an environmental bill.
Sierra Club officials insist they do not play politics. Their advertising, they say, simply seeks to educate voters about issues. In the last two years, however, the Sierra Club has spent more than $6 million to make itself heard in 15 House and 8 Senate contests. And the club is just one of dozens of interest groups spending millions on advertisements that take advantage of campaign finance laws and restrictions on political activity by being labeled "issue advocacy."
From the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to the Republican and Democratic Parties, from the health care industry to religious conservatives, the advertising has proliferated to the degree that some candidates complain that they have lost control of their own messages. This year, independent groups are spending at least $260 million to press their issues in television advertisements, twice the amount they spent in 1996, according to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
While the Clinton scandal has led some groups to spend relatively less on television this year and more on get-out-the-vote campaigns, the commercials are more prevalent than ever; in many cities they have dominated the airwaves over the last week.
The Sierra Club made possible a case study of this important new phenomenon by allowing a reporter to attend its strategy meetings and to examine its internal memorandums over several months. The result shows that even groups like the Sierra Club, known to many people for its scenic calendars and nature books, can play politics as ferociously as any other interest group.
With 550,000 dues-paying members, the Sierra Club is the nation's oldest and largest grass-roots environmental group. Of its annual budget of $42 million, $12 million is devoted to lobbying and policy matters.
In weekly strategy meetings, club officials made no secret of their goal: helping to elect Democrats with solid environmental records -- it is backing only two Republicans, Representatives Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut and Constance A. Morella of Maryland -- and to defeat their foes.
"We need to be even more focused in choosing places where we want to attempt to unseat anti-environmental opponents, and spend significant resources per race to do so," the club's political director, Daniel J. Weiss, wrote in a memorandum to his bosses on Sept. 5, 1997.
The club has a political action committee, which spends some money on direct political advertising in about a half-dozen races. But its efforts overwhelmingly involve the more subtle "issue ads," which escape Federal election regulations and spending limits by not expressly endorsing candidates.
The organization is so concerned that it not be perceived as exploiting election laws that it periodically issues staff memorandums on what constitutes a legitimate issue ad. One advised what to tell reporters who ask, "Are you trying to influence this political race?" The recommended answer: the club's objective is "to educate the public about the votes of our elected officials."
Interest groups are prohibited from contacting campaigns about issue advertisements on their behalf. But the Sierra Club's strategy is clearly to complement campaigns' own efforts. In California, the club broadcast spots in May promoting the record of Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat, before her campaign began advertising, allowing her to conserve her resources.
Besides commercials, the Sierra Club has begun issuing one million voter guides promoting candidates in pivotal races around the country.
"Our goal is really to roil the waters," said the Sierra Club's outside media consultant, Kim Haddow. "There's a big shrug out there. But we believe because we're out there in their faces, the saliency of this issue will rise."
Mixing Politics With Pragmatism
The Sierra Club's decisions on where to channel its money are far more complicated than simple questions about which candidates most support its positions.
Throughout this year, officials at the club's headquarters in San Francisco spoke on conference calls with their political staff members in Washington, often debating practical considerations: which candidates needed their help and had a reasonable chance of winning; which contests offered opportunities to have an impact, which regions had strong Sierra Club field operations.
Last spring, for example, officials agreed that Senator Faircloth should be a target because of his hog farm. The club's associate political director, Chris Norman, said: "All the pundits here say Faircloth looks vulnerable. He has a huge pig farm and he has a deplorable rating" on environmental issues.
But Ms. Norman added, "The only problem is the local chapter is not as sophisticated as we'd like." The club produced an advertisement anyway, focusing on river pollution in North Carolina and mentioning Mr. Faircloth's farm.
The Senator's general counsel in Washington, Sean Callinicos, said the club had overblown a minor incident on the farm when "cattle feed spilled into a creek as a result of vandalism from a disgruntled employee." The advertisement was no surprise, Mr. Callinicos said, because "the Sierra Club is simply part and parcel of the D.C. Democratic establishment."
While Mr. Weiss, the political director, and Ms. Haddow, the outside media consultant, usually had the most to say about the broad political landscape, the club's top officials often deferred to staff members in the field to tell them how races looked.
One who got his way was the Midwest field director, Carl Zichella, who in midsummer sent a message to the officials to head off the Washington staff, which wanted to pull back from aiding Senator Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat opposed by Representative Mark W. Neumann, a Republican.
"The early soft polling has lulled some folks into a sense of complacency about the Neumann-Feingold race," Mr. Zichella wrote. "This is very dangerous. I believe that Senator Feingold is threatened by low turnout and easy access to campaign resources from right-wing contributors."
After reviewing fresh polls that showed the race tightening, the group relented, agreeing to finance two more weeks of commercials to help Senator Feingold.
Sometimes the Sierra Club acts purely out of concern -- or distress -- about a candidate's votes. In July, Ms. Haddow urged her colleagues to cut back plans to help Senator Reid in Nevada. He had just voted for a bill that could make it easier for developers to evade local planning regulations.
Mr. Weiss said, "I would rather spend the money on someone who is with us other than Harry Reid." The officials, saying it was the latest of several disappointing votes by Mr. Reid, canceled three weeks of radio spots.
The Sierra Club tries to stay flexible enough to make last-minute adjustments. Early in the year it had high hopes in Missouri for Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat running for the Senate against the Republican incumbent, Christopher S. Bond. But in midsummer the group shelved $17,260 from the race -- a week's worth of radio advertisements -- after concluding that Mr. Nixon was waging a lackluster campaign.
"Bond seems like a no-brainer," Ms. Haddow said of the decision.
A spokesman for Mr. Nixon, Allen Mattison, said, "It's a very different race now than it was five months ago."
Officials regularly looked for races where they could trim budgets to conserve resources for tighter contests later in the season. While Representative Neil Abercrombie was "in big trouble" in Hawaii, Mr. Weiss and Ms. Haddow wrote, there was "little marginal utility" in buying a fourth week of radio advertising. The savings: $9,750.
Usually the conversations were courteous. But at one session Bruce Hamilton, the club's conservation director, complained bitterly that his staff members seemed too quick to rejigger spending priorities to conform to the latest polls or conventional wisdom about a race. "It's very demoralizing to put the money out and to be constantly changing signals," Mr. Hamilton said.
Fitting the Pictures To the Message
At a strategy meeting this summer, Mr. Weiss excitedly told his colleagues about an idea for a commerical to help Representative Lane Evans, an Illinois Democrat being challenged by a Republican, Mark Baker.
"The local organizer has actually found someone who's gotten sick from drinking water contaminated by a hog farm," Mr. Weiss said. "This person's story sounds fabulous! It would be great to get this girl on camera because we'd have a human victim instead of a dead fish, which is already in the ad."
The girl could be used to personalize the danger that large hog farms pose to public water supplies, Mr. Weiss said -- and to make the point that Mr. Evans has worked to clean up his district's waters.
But the girl, it turned out, did not live in Mr. Evans's district. And, Mr. Weiss said, "we decided that didn't want to seem like we were exploiting a tragedy."
The Sierra Club has hardly been timid, however, about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to attack its foes. Last December it commissioned focus groups in five states to help develop messages for its advertising.
One of its biggest targets is Representative Linda Smith, a Washington State Republican who is challenging Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat.
"I would like to hold Linda Smith accountable on water and salmon," the director of the Northwest regional office in Seattle, Bill Arthur, announced at a meeting in July. "She is consistently wrong on those issues."
The club decided to focus on Ms. Smith's support for a bill it says was intended to remove the ability of local governments to protect salmon and limit suburban sprawl. To avoid being accused of being political, the group likes to refer to pending legislation in issue advertisements; in this case, a vote was pending in Congress on budget bills that included money for enforcing clean water laws.
But when Ms. Haddow and Mr. Weiss, back in Washington, D.C., entered an editing studio to assemble the 30-second advertisement, they spent much of their time looking for evocative pictures of salmon and polluted water -- and scouring an illustrated field guide to salmon to make sure they had the right fish.
"We don't want people saying, 'You guys don't know what you're talking about,' " Mr. Weiss said, looking through the guide.
Ms. Haddow also said that to be most potent, the commercial should give viewers "a sense of place." So she rejected a video clip of coho salmon because the guide said coho were not generally found in Washington.
They found footage of other salmon, but were not sure of the type. "They look like sockeye," Ms. Haddow said, comparing the salmon on an editing screen with the field guide.
"I don't think they're pink enough for sockeye," Mr. Weiss replied.
They moved on to another fish in the salmon family. "Are you sure that's not a tuna?" Mr. Weiss asked.
"No, it's a chinook," Ms. Haddow insisted.
Finally, they settled on footage of king salmon teeming upstream, juxtaposed against shots of bulldozers.
The narrator says: "The Columbia . . . the Columbia Gorge . . . Puget Sound . . . king salmon -- all are threatened by development. But instead of helping our communities rein in the sprawl and pollution that's threatening our water quality and wild salmon, Congresswoman Linda Smith voted to make it easier for developers to bypass local land-use decisions."
In a new approach, the Sierra Club ran the advertisement just before Labor Day. Usually, the most effective advertising is in the weeks before an election. But rates are much cheaper in the summer and there are fewer competing advertisments, so club officials figured they could get more attention and afford more commercials by going early.
Jim Troyer, a spokesman for the Smith campaign, said the advertisement obscured the fact that Ms. Smith had "a tremendous record of balancing environmental votes and property rights votes," and added: "These attack ads are based upon partisan politics. They selected competitive races where they can have an impact."
A possible downside of the early advertising in Washington is that the Senate race has not become as close as club officials expected. But the club says its early spots helped Senator Murray solidify her support among people who care about the environment.
Putting Opponents On the Defensive
Most of the Sierra Club's advertising is over, but in Boulder, Colo., the club has been broadcasting a spot for two weeks with the goal of influencing one of the most competitive races in the country, for the open seat in Colorado's Second Congressional District.
The decision to advertise in Boulder followed an unexpected opportunity: the Republican candidate, Robert Greenlee, a wealthy businessman and City Council member, was scheduled to vote in the City Council on an environmental measure. That pending legislative action enabled the Sierra Club to run an issue ad attacking Mr. Greenlee's environmental record.
"Instead of helping us protect our quality of life," the announcer says as images of traffic jams and exhaust fill the screen, "City Councilman Bob Greenlee has voted against plans that would have reduced traffic congestion, eased air pollution and protected our open spaces."
At a cost of about $50,000, the effort was not as large as some in other states, and does not appear to have significantly shifted the campaign to environmental matters.
Still, the Democratic candidate, Mark Udall, a state legislator and avid mountain climber who is being outspent by Mr. Greenlee, said he was thrilled to learn of the Sierra Club's efforts.
"I appreciate their help," said Mr. Udall, the son of Morris K. Udall, a longtime Congressman from Arizona who ran for President in 1976. "I like the fact that they point out how strong I am on the environment -- I need to get that message out."
Mr. Greenlee accused the Sierra Club of twisting his record and masquerading its efforts to damage his campaign behind the label of "issue advocacy."
"It's very clear to me, to everyone, that the Sierra Club has gone beyond the boundary of a nonprofit group," Mr. Greenlee said in his office in Boulder as he brandished a Sierra Club flier that compared his record with Mr. Udall's. "They're trying to push an agenda and a candidate."
Far from the objective comparison of records required by law, Mr. Greenlee said, the flier was "clearly a campaign piece."
It is often difficult to determine just what impact a Sierra Club campaign, or that of many advocacy groups, has in an election. The groups' efforts rarely can be credited with shifting the dynamic of a race. But the club's efforts can help put its opponents on the defensive and, at the least, draw publicity in the local news media.
Mr. Weiss cites anecdotal evidence, like the fact that Matt Fong, Senator Boxer's Republican opponent in California, took a river rafting trip after the Sierra Club ran an advertisement to help Ms. Boxer. He also took credit for Senator D'Amato's recent testimony at a hearing on acid rain, saying he was spurred on because "we've been beating on D'Amato since April" in advertisements.
In the Colorado race, Mr. Greenlee said he feared that the Sierra Club's campaign could cost him votes among swing voters that are crucial in this election.
Yet, rather than run advertisements countering the club, Mr. Greenlee said he planned to ignore it unless he appeared to be losing significant support because of the effort.
"It's probably better not to play into it," he said. "You'd have to have the I.Q. of a houseplant to do that."
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