Opinion » Commentaries

How dare we?

A lack of endorsement shouldn't be front-page news



The late Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, gave a speech titled “Environmental Politics on Uncommon Ground” at a 2002 meeting of the Planning and Conservation League. It is reprinted in the May issue of our newsletter, the Santa Lucian (santalucia.sierraclub.org/lucian/lucian.html). It sums up the kind of environmental awareness and commitment we like to see in candidates for office. Many times over the last four years, we have had occasion to wish that speech had been read and internalized by the majority of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, and by many other elected officials at the local, state, and federal level.

Some folks are now asking us, “How could you not endorse Jim Patterson and Adam Hill in their bids for reelection to the Board of Supervisors? Can’t you see the difference between Jim Patterson and Debbie Arnold? Between Adam Hill and Ed Waage? Don’t you know what will happen if the incumbents are not reelected to a board that tends to split along a 3-2 party line?”

We encourage everyone who feels dismayed by our decision to read that speech.

Yes, this is a critical election. Sierra Club members should be—and are—working on the Hill and Patterson campaigns. Their opponents are politically beyond the pale and far into the Twilight Zone. If either of them gains a seat on the Board of Supervisors, they will not take the county to a good place.

All of which makes us wish we could endorse supervisors Patterson and Hill. But we can’t.

In making this into a front-page story (“Patterson won’t get Sierra Club endorsement for re-election,” April 25) and scolding us via editorial, The Tribune (“Bouquets and Brickbats: Sierra Club overly picky,” April 27) presumed a familiarity with the Sierra Club’s endorsement process and the issues that we examined in making our decision, and then lectured us on the basis of their assumption. Apparently it doesn’t matter how many times we say it: No, we did not simply consider Hill or Patterson’s vote to put solar power plants in endangered species habitat on the Carrizo Plain and ignore everything else. We evaluated more than a dozen board votes on significant land-use issues and environmental policy questions taken over a span of four years or more in making our decision. (Will we be publicly discussing what those issues were? No. Nor will we disclose the answers of either candidate in response to their endorsement questionnaires, which are submitted on the assumption of confidentiality. We’re not interested in handing ammunition to opposition research teams.) While we were not able to endorse his candidacy, in recognition of Patterson’s overall record, including his activism prior to his election to the board, we offered his campaign assistance in outreach to our members.

To sum up:

1) The Sierra Club is not a wing of the Democratic Party.

2) We endorse a candidate on the basis of his/her specific environmental record, not a general reputation.

3) We endorse candidates, not political strategies.

4) Non-endorsement of a candidate is not an endorsement of his/her opponent.

In any election cycle, there are a lot of candidates we don’t endorse (often enough, if you don’t see a Sierra Club endorsement for someone you consider a deserving candidate, it’s because they didn’t request one), but we don’t send out announcements of non-actions. We don’t alert the media to tell them we’re not endorsing a candidate. The only folks we told of our decision regarding Hill and Patterson were the two campaigns. We didn’t inform the press and forward those letters of notification or otherwise trigger the ensuing front-page brouhaha. Somebody else did. Somebody may have made the same calculation as The Tribune: “Then again, the lack of an endorsement may help Patterson and Hill win support from moderate and conservative voters who distrust—or downright dislike—the Sierra Club.” If so, well played. And you’re welcome.

But, if, post-election, certain parties are looking for some easy blame for an undesired outcome, we know where the fingers will point. We knew that when we made our decisions. We knew many of our own members would be mad at us. That’s the problem with acting on principle: You have to stick to those principles when you know there will be consequences.

In his speech 10 years ago, Peter Douglas set a very high bar. We don’t insist that candidates who request our endorsement reach it. Some do. Most don’t. But they have to come close enough.

Greg McMillan, Lindi Doud, Pat Veesart, Jono Kinkade, Patrick McGibney, and Linda Seeley serve on the executive committee of the Santa Lucia Chapter. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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