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Environmentalists get political

New county conservation voters group focuses on election season

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
Published 02/26/10

Environmentalists are stepping up their game when it comes to politics, forming a new group that will evaluate and endorse candidates.

"People don't feel they need to be accountable on environmental issues," said Kincey Potter, a veteran environmental activist from Annapolis who is one of the organizers of the new Anne Arundel chapter of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

The new group aims to change that status quo. Members hope to raise the profile of environmental issues during the upcoming election season.

They're planning to endorse environmentally minded candidates and maybe even donate to their campaigns. They'll be focused solely on County Council and county executive races.

Potter, who also is president of the South River Federation, said candidates too often don't go beyond paying "lip service" to the environment.

As an example, Potter and fellow organizer Bob Gallagher point to the 2006 county elections in which many County Council and county executive candidates talked about the need to constrain sprawl and overdevelopment.

But in the past four years, almost nothing has been done on that front, they said.

With this new group "there will be somebody that's watching," Potter said.

Environmentalists often are outgunned when it comes to political debates. Most environmental groups - such as watershed organizations, riverkeepers and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation - are set up as 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups, which prohibits them from endorsing candidates. The League of Conservation Voters has a 501(c)(4) arm that allows more extensive political action.

When environmentalists can't offer a thumbs up or a thumbs down to a candidate, deep-pocketed donors and groups that do offer endorsements carry more weight in politicians' minds, Gallagher said.

"They feel more accountable to interest groups that fund their campaign than the public that elects them," said Gallagher, a former riverkeeper who now leads the board of directors for the West/Rhode Riverkeeper.

Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College, said the conservation voters group will have to work hard to make headway against the dominant topic in this year's election: the economy.

Nataf said his surveys for the Center for the Study of Local Issues continually point to growth, development and the environment as important issues for voters, but never as the top issues.

He said the conservation voters group will be most successful if it forces candidates to be clear on their environmental records and promises - and if it backs up its candidate choices with campaign cash.

Potter and Gallagher head a nine-member steering committee for the new effort.

While environmental issues often are seen as a strong point for Democrats, the steering committee was carefully designed to include people from across the political spectrum, such as Gallagher, who is unaffiliated, and Republican businessmen Kent McNew and Eliot Powell.

A kickoff fundraiser in early March will feature appearances by politicians from opposing parties: Democratic Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen and Republican County Councilman Ron Dillon Jr. of Pasadena.

Organizers said they hope to raise $10,000 to help fund their efforts.

This isn't the first effort to bring more attention to environmental issues in elections. In 2006, author and Naval Academy associate professor Howard Ernst endorsed "blue crab candidates," so named because if blue crabs could vote, they would pick those candidates.

The highest-profile blue crab candidate, then-county Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, lost to then-Del. John R. Leopold in the county executive race that year.

The Maryland League of Conservation Voters Anne Arundel Chapter will hold a kickoff event at 5:30 p.m. March 10 at 164 Conduit St. in Annapolis. A $50 donation is requested. For information about the group, call 410-280-9855, ext. 261.

(Revised February 2010)