Sierra Club Reveals Plans for Fixing American Democracy

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Bruce Hamilton, deputy director of the Sierra Club, talks about how to fix our democracy –

By Glynn Wilson

CAMP BECKWITH, Ala. — The Sierra Club is working on a five point plan for the future and the national staff and political committee will be discussing it this weekend. But Sierra Club Deputy Director Bruce Hamilton revealed a sneak preview of the outline to the Alabama Sierra Club this past weekend at the group’s annual retreat on Weeks Bay near Fairhope.

The first part of the plan is the “democracy track,” Hamilton said. Before we can save the nation’s environment or the planet, in other words: “We’ve got to fix our democracy.”

“We have just witnessed the most expensive election in history,” he said. “We’ve just seen all this Koch brothers money, Karl Rove money, just flooding the airwaves to the point where people are getting nauseated if you happen to live in a swing state because there’s nothing going on but ads all the time, negative ads blasting people because they support clean air, clean water, women’s health, terrible things like that,” he joked. “Somehow we’ve got to fix this.”

We’re living with the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, he said, “a decision that said corporations are people and money is speech. That is now the law of the land. So what do you do about this?”

For starters, he said, the people and the Democrats in the Senate need to deal with issues of voter suppression.

Many people across the country experienced long lines and draconian voter ID laws passed by Republicans to suppress the votes of groups that tend to support Democrats, including new, young voters, older people who no longer drive and Latinos who may not have a drivers license or an official state identification card.

While there were legal challenges all over the country, he said, they were too late to fix the problem before the election.

“We’re still seeing provisional ballots out there. Who knows when they’ll be counted?” he said. “Maybe by 2013 if we’re lucky.”

That needs to be fixed, he said, and he was glad to see President Obama mention that in his victory speech on election night.

While it may come as a surprise to some that a national environmental advocacy group would involve itself in these issues, Hamilton said the Sierra Club’s “huge” legal staff is making it a priority.

“This is a priority of the Sierra Club as well as our partners,” Hamilton said.

The group deployed lawyers around the country in this election cycle to help protect peoples’ right to vote and plan to expand and continue that, he said.

There is a case in Alabama of interest to the Sierra Club. The Justice Department and the Supreme Court have agreed to review the state’s Voting Rights Act.

“This is another opportunity to make sure we aren’t coming up with squirrely state rules that will disenfranchise people in the future,” Hamilton said.

Second, even though Citizens United is the law of the land, what can we do about it?

Now that President Obama has won reelection, Hamilton said, he may have the opportunity to appoint Supreme Court justices if there are deaths or retirements. The group and the public need to keep the pressure on the president to make sure he chooses judges “who understand that corporations aren’t people and money isn’t speech.”

“This is going to be really important,” he said. “We need to ultimately get a majority on the Supreme Court so we can turn around and revisit that issue, because it really is such an atrocious, politically motivated decision that makes no sense legally.”

Then, what can we do while we’re living with the Citizens United decision?

“If money is speech, we need to know who is speaking,” Hamilton said. “We ought to be passing legislation and requiring disclosure on all that money that’s flooding our politics.”

He also said the club and its officers and members need to work to help create a public backlash against this.

“We need to turn around and say this is unacceptable,” he said. “Changing the politics, with people saying we cannot live with Citizens United, is the way we’ll ultimately get it overturned — either by the Supreme Court or proposing it as a Constitutional Amendment. One way or another we’ve got to change this or else we’re just going to find that our democracy is being taken away from us.”

He suggested that the group and the public need to “stigmatize” those who are flooding the democratic process with private and corporate money, like Karl Rove and the Koch brothers and anybody else who brings “dirty money” to the process. This is the positive equivalent of peer pressure.

The Sierra Club plans to expand its “Toxic Money/Toxic Votes” program to do just that. The idea is to expose those politicians taking that dirty money so they will think twice about even taking it anymore.

The group also supports Bill McKibben’s 350.org.

McKibben explains Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math in a Rolling Stone Magazine piece providing three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and that make clear who the real enemy is.

June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Meteorologists reported that this spring was the warmest ever recorded for our nation – in fact, it crushed the old record by so much that it represented the “largest temperature departure from average of any season on record.” The same week, Saudi authorities reported that it had rained in Mecca despite a temperature of 109 degrees, the hottest downpour in the planet’s history.

McKibben and the Sierra Club are recommending a divestiture campaign to get universities to stop investmenting in fossil fuel burning companies in the same way they stopped investing in South Africa because of Apartheid. That means stop investing in oil and gas stocks, and coal mining.

“Start with the campuses,” Hamilton said. “But then broaden that so that state retirement systems will start saying, ‘we’re not going to put our money into oil, gas and coal.'” The reasoning is not just about pollution of the environment.

“They’re the one’s who are polluting our politics,” Hamilton said. “They are taking our money and turning around and taking away our democracy. That’s not the way this (country) ought to work. These are the people who are polluting the planet, blocking progress, stopping clean energy and basically buying the whole political game in this country.”

Finally, Hamilton said, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should be pressured to adopt rule changes in the Senate right away. They are not going to do away with the filibuster, he said. It’s in the Constitution. “But there are many, many things they can do to make it so the minority, whether it’s Democrat or Republican, can’t operate in a way that they block all progress.”

Hamilton also said President Obama should be pressured to use Hurricane Sandy to beat back the “climate change deniers” and push for a production tax credit for alternative energy sources and roll back oil and gas subsidies. The people need to get involved to help stop the attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency by the Republicans.

The EPA under Lisa Jackson should be pressured to push for carbon standards for existing power plants, pass regulations on coal ash and further strengthen regulations on soot, smog and water pollution. There needs to be new source performance standards for oil and gas operations, especially on those who use fracking methods to go after methane on public lands.

Then, he said, President Obama needs to continue developing his spine and “learn to say no” on things such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Keystone XL pipeline, the export of LNG gas, mountain top removal coal mining operations and coal exports.

Lastly, Hamilton said, the group is going to push to set aside more wild lands and establish big landscape monuments. The monuments at Ft. Monroe, Ft. Ord, Ceasar Chavez and Chimney Rock Colorado are very small, he said. What we need are bigger monuments for the Grand Canyon, the Arctic, the Greater Canary Islands, Rocky Mountain Front, Otero Mesa, and we need new marine sanctuaries.

The group will also continue to promote conservation in the new Farm Bill and for Congress to fund real Gulf Coast Restoration and implement it, and to protect all the nation’s coasts from further expansion of oil and gas leasing.

“It won’t be easy,” he said. “It won’t be quick.”

But with a combination of carrots and sticks and “tough love,” he said: “We can make it safe and popular to do the right thing.”

This is Part Two of a series. See Part One here: Environmentalists Take Heart at Election Victories in 2012.

© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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