Ballots against Bulldozers

By Shepherdson, Nancy | Sierra, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Ballots against Bulldozers


Shepherdson, Nancy, Sierra


When Micheal Talbett won his primary race for the Lake County, Illinois, County Board, he knew whom to thank. "Our environmental supporters helped get the vote out," he told the Chicago Tribune in March. "When they make a recommendation, people respond."

Talbett asked voters what they'd like to see in five years: more concrete or more wildlife? Voters delivered their verdict against Talbett's opponent, incumbent Robert Grever, a former construction-company president known for his pro-development stances. Talbett, a Republican who is running unopposed in the fall, will bring the pro-environment faction on the 23-member county board to 13, a clear majority.

Just 30 miles north of Chicago, Lake County and its rolling, leafy beauty have attracted more than 150,000 new residents in the past ten years. The terrain is difficult to build on, however, because it was originally more than 40 percent wetland and has clay-based soils. "It's too thin to farm and too thick to navigate," jokes Evan Craig, chair of the Sierra Club's Woods & Wetlands Group.

In an attempt to preserve what's left of the fragile ecosystem, the group launched a campaign in 1994 to oust an enthusiastic pro-development majority on the county board and elect reformers like Talbett. Each election cycle, the group asks candidates to respond to a questionnaire; this year it is requesting opinions on sprawl, threatened and endangered species, flooding and development, forest preservation, roadbuilding, and power plants. The political committee then interviews selected candidates and evaluates their voting records in any previously held elective offices.

After deciding which candidates to endorse, the group promotes them on its Web site in correspondence with members. Activists ring doorbells and telephone voters in critical districts, urging supporters to get out the vote. This year, endorsed candidates also appeared at a press conference held at a nature center and on the group's own cable-TV program.

Most candidates mention the Sierra Club's endorsement prominently in their campaign literature. "It's a big help to be endorsed," says county board member Martha Marks, who in 1992 was one of the first pro-environment candidates to be selected. (Marks is also founder and president of the 3,000-member Republicans for Environmental Protection.) "Once the environment starts being important, everybody starts painting themselves green. An endorsement helps cut through the clutter."

Last year, the group's efforts in support of a green slate of candidates for Hawthorn Woods Villages Board helped stop a million-square-foot mega-mall from being built on open space.

The same year, Marks helped pass a development law that streamlined the approval protection of woods and wet-lands, including the preservation of single significant trees. "Developers howled," she says, but the board majority didn't flinch: "We've made it not only safe, but necessary, to be green."

RELATED ARTICLE: From Grassroots to Government

Club leaders reflect on their dual lives as activists and politicians

Are environmental activists more effective as outside agitators or inside advocates? Dozens of Sierra Club chapter chairs, representatives, and other leaders have weighed this question and leapt headfirst into the political arena--and more are campaigning for elective office each year. Here, just a few of these protesters-turned-politicians talk about their biggest battles their greatest success, and how they've managed to stay green while working within the system.

WILLIAM GEORGE WITT Former Iowa Chapter Chair Iowa State Representative, 1993 to present

After a dozen years organizing, lobbying, and helping other good people get elected, one day I said to myself, "I can do this job, and I can do it well."

One of the pleasures of my legislative service is applying the skills I gained with the Sierra Club to help citizen advocates be more effective; I can be an "inside agitator" for my environmental allies. …

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