Crossing the Potomac

By Bergman, B. J. | Sierra, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Crossing the Potomac


Bergman, B. J., Sierra


Until Republicans wrested control of the gavels in January 1995, Congressman George Miller presided over the powerful House Resources Committee. In June of that year, the California Democrat--a longtime Sierra Club ally--perched on a folding chair at the back of a noisy Capitol hearing room and described how the political landscape had changed for environmentalists.

"They used to just go to the speaker and say, `Don't let that bill come up,'" reminisced Miller, still acclimating to minority status after 20 years in a Democrat-controlled House. "Or they'd go to [Senate majority leader] George Mitchell. Now they've had to go out and reinvigorate the grassroots. And that's starting to come to life. But it's going to be a long, hard struggle."

Miller was too pessimistic. Even before the 1994 elections, Sierra Club leaders had seen the need for a radical shift in strategy--radical, that is, as in roots. Direct lobbying of politicians, even with support from half a million members, was no longer a match for massive campaign contributions from corporate polluters. Reaching out to citizens in our own communities and mobilizing the general public seemed the only way to make democracy work for the environment.

It was during the do-little 103rd Congress that the Club took its first strides toward revitalizing its grassroots. The most dramatic effort was Project ACT, a far-reaching volunteer initiative aimed, said then-President Robbie Cox, at "reaffirming John Muir's vision of an empowered and organized citizenry that can speak for the earth." By streamlining our grassroots structure, the initiative freed activists in the Club's 65 chapters to focus more energy on pressing conservation issues, at both the regional and national levels.

Which is why, when the Gingrich "revolution" came, the Club was ready. In cities all over the country--through rallies, media work, doorhanging marathons, congressional voting-chart mailings, and petition drives like the one for the Environmental Bill of Rights, which garnered more than a million signatures--volunteers exposed the hidden agenda of the self-proclaimed "regulatory reformers." The results were heartening. As the 104th Congress limped to the finish, its War on the Environment was in shambles. Once-high-stepping pollution warriors were tripping over themselves to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act and to keep their development-minded sponsors' hands off the Presidio in California and Sterling Forest in New York and New Jersey.

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