The Magic of our Message


AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha gave this speech to the Garden Club of America’s Legislative Directors’ Conference in Washington, DC, on February 25, 2004.


Thank you for inviting me to be here with you today. It’s an honor to be part of a program that has included a United States senator, a congressman and the EPA administrator. That’s heady company for Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Your conference organizers have plugged me into today’s agenda as the “wind-up” speaker… supposedly to get you fired up before you set off tomorrow on visits to your congressmen and senators. I take that responsibility very seriously, and I’ll do my best to have you charged up and spitting fire, ready to go mano a mano with your assorted Congress Critters.

But first, let me tell you a few things about the organization I started in 1995. REP ‘s mission is “to resurrect the GOP’s great conservation tradition and to restore natural resource conservation and sound environmental protection as fundamental elements of the Republican Party’s vision for America.”

In other words, we’re out to “green up” the GOP.

Now, most of you would probably agree that greening up today’s GOP isn’t an easy task. It surely is an interesting project, however! I wish I had a couple of hours to share with you some of the fun things that people have written and said about us. I’ll just note that the most common thing that conservation-minded Republicans write to us when they first join REP is:

“I am sooo glad to find out about your organization. I thought I was the only one!”

We like to say that REP is “the environmental conscience of the GOP.” Well, last year, Sierra magazine published an interview with me in which they called REP “the environmental conscience of a party that may not want one.”

As I told the Sierra Club board and staff in a talk to them last Saturday… when I read that, I didn’t know whether to say Ouch! or Bin-go!

Another wisecrack is that “Republicans for Environmental Protection” is an oxymoron.

Yeah, some of you thought that too, didn’t you? Well, my fellow gardeners, it’s really not. The GOP has a long and proud history of supporting environmental protection and natural resource conservation. Why… even in today’s polarized political environment, there are hundreds of Republicans in Congress and the state houses who carry on the GOP’s great conservation tradition. I’ll come back and talk about them again in a few minutes.

But before that… if you don’t believe that the GOP has a great conservation tradition, I’ll refer you to our booklet Conservation is Conservative—which you may already have picked up back at your hotel. Let me urge you to take a look at our Green Elephant newsletter, too. I think you’ll find them both interesting … and surprising too!

You know, about a hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt made a statement that we at REP have come close to making our own slogan. TR said:

“I do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many.”

Roosevelt’s line resonates with us because not since his time has the Republican Party seemed in greater need of “greening up.” Not since his time have the extractive industries laid such a big claim to America’s bounty and had that claim reinforced so wholeheartedly by the administration in power.

Can any of you imagine the current president of the United States saying something even remotely akin to: “I do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many.”

No, I can’t either. But I do hope to live long enough to hear that kind of statement from a Republican president, and I’m working hard for that goal, too… through REP.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that there’s a Republican organization that not only says things like what I just said, but which also advocates strict enforcement of landmark federal laws that protect our air and water, our public lands and our endangered species… and which isn’t afraid to hold GOP officeholders accountable when they don’t enforce those laws. Well, it’s true. Believe it.

REP works in a variety of ways that are common to all advocacy groups. We educate our members on key environmental issues. We hold conferences and workshops and bring in exciting speakers to fire our members up and get them ready to go mano a mano with their own Congress Critters. We publish issue-specific op-eds and letters to the editor. We give speeches. We spend a lot of time nagging GOP elected officials to do the right thing.

REP is still young and small, so it doesn’t have money for lots of staff or K-Street lobbyists. Our members are mostly rank-and-file voters, so they don’t carry a mass of clout. And since we’re scattered around the country in hundreds of congressional districts, we don’t yet constitute a critical mass of voters in any one district.

But we have one trick up our sleeve that we use to great effect… something that makes us unique among environmental organizations: We speak up as Republicans, and we tell the unbiased truth about the actions of our party.

REP focuses its attention solely on the leaders and elected officials of the Republican Party. It operates under the carrot and stick principle. When Republican bigwigs do good work for the environment, we praise them vociferously. We send them thank-you notes, and brag about them in letters to their local newspapers, and write op-eds and Green Elephant articles about them, and do whatever we can to help them in their next election.

Conversely, when the leaders and elected officials of the Republican Party don’t do the right thing for the environment, we aren’t at all shy about voicing our displeasure. We use the same tools… personal notes, op-eds, letters to the editor, and Green Elephant articles taking them to task for failing to live up to the GOP’s great conservation tradition.

To show you what I mean, let me take you on a quick guided tour through our latest Green Elephant newsletter… which should be available back at your hotel.

  • There’s a lead article about how Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger represents “a beacon of hope for conservation-minded Republicans.”
  • There’s a “Proud to Praise ‘Em” section on Members of Congress who did the right thing on last year’s energy bill and efforts to protect wetlands.
  • There’s a spread of photos from a reception we held in November to honor Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk.
  • There’s also an extensive report on the activities of our grassroots organizers nationwide who are taking REP’s message out to their own GOP leaders and elected officials.

That’s all very positive, encouraging stuff.

On the other hand, in this particular Green Elephant, we don’t hesitate to point out that:

  • President Bush made no mention of the environment in his State of the Union speech and couldn’t seem to come up with anything to say about Gale Norton’s Interior Department.
  • Fourteen states—representing a big percentage of the American people, and with both Republican and Democrat governors—are suing the federal government for weakening the Clean Air Act.
  • The Bush administration’s plans to exempt the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 Roadless Rule, opening it up to massive logging and road building, have been rebuked by editorial boards all across the country… including in Red States that put President Bush in the White House.

The one thing that we at REP have going for us — which no other organization in the country can match — is the magic of our message.

Imagine the impact that even a small group of articulate, informed, and unafraid Republican voters can have when they remind Republican elected officials that Republican voters are among those demanding enforcement of environmental-protection laws… demanding better energy policies… demanding strong protection of our public lands.

That is a powerful message, and our REP members from coast to coast are doing an outstanding job of getting it across to their Republican elected officials.

I’d like to spend the rest of my time by offering three specific ideas that I hope you’ll take with you to your visits tomorrow and also keep in mind from now on out. I’m going to start with the assumption that each of you will be talking with at least a one Republican congressman or senator. If that’s not a good assumption, then please forgive me, because the advice I’m about to offer will obviously apply best to people dealing with GOP lawmakers.

1. If the lawmaker you’re visiting is a Republican and you are too, be sure to tell him that!

If you’re not a Republican, don’t fake it just to score a point. But if you are a Republican—and I suspect that many of you are—please be sure to let your Congress Critter know that. Do this whenever you go to meet with a Republican officeholder—whether here in DC or in your state capital—and also whenever you write a letter or make a phone call to one. This seems like rather obvious advice, but I’m often amazed how frequently even our tuned-in REP members forget to mention that little detail in their communications with their GOP elected officials.

So, okay… why is this so gol-darned important? Well, Republican lawmakers are used to hearing Democratic constituents ask them for pro-environmental votes. The common wisdom among Republicans is that “enviros” are usually Democrats who wouldn’t support or vote for a Republican if he were the last candidate on Earth. Anti-environmental Republicans frequently taunt their pro-environmental Republican colleagues by saying things like, “Why do you care what the Sierra Club wants? Their members are never going to vote for you!”

So, it’s extremely important for GOP representatives to hear from GOP voters, especially their own constituents, who actually support and vote for them because of their strong environmental voting records. It’s impossible to exaggerate how powerful that message can be. Please don’t forget it.

2. Identify the good guys and be prepared to praise them loudly and publicly for their courageous stands.

There really are quite a few “green Republicans” in Congress, as I mentioned earlier, and they are worth their weight in gold. Many of them are on REP’s Honorary Board… Representatives Sherwood Boehlert, Mike Castle, Vern Ehlers, Wayne Gilchrest, Jim Greenwood, Nancy Johnson, Sue Kelly, Mark Kirk, Jim Leach, Jim Saxton, Christopher Shays, Rob Simmons, and James Walsh; as well as Senators Susan Collins, Lincoln Chafee, and John McCain.

So if one of those good folks is “yours,” you’re in great luck, because you can march right into that office tomorrow and congratulate your representative for being a member of REP’s distinguished Honorary Board!

REP is proud of our other “heroes,” too, even if we haven’t yet recruited them for our Honorary Board. Senator Olympia Snowe and at least a dozen congressman who appear regularly in our “Proud to Praise ‘Em” newsletter column are among our favorites. You can get a good idea of who they are by taking a look at that section of The Green Elephant tonight or by checking REP’s web site when you get home.

Let me tell you something about those “Green GOP” heroes of ours. They are all under tremendous pressure to buckle under to the anti-environmental wing of the Republican Party. Congressional leaders aren’t above withholding perks from Republicans who vote for the environment. They’ve been known to deny coveted committee assignments or chairmanships and funding for projects in a Member of Congress’ district. Even more threatening… ultra-right-wing action groups like the Club for Growth pour massive amounts of money into the campaigns of extremist Republicans who challenge pro-environmental congressmen and senators in GOP primaries. If you’re interested, I can provide specific examples during the Q&A session in a few minutes.

So one of the things I would most fervently encourage you to do is offer public praise and public thanks to those Republicans who have the guts to stand up and vote for what’s right for the environment. The Garden Club of America is such a large, strong organization. Just think what a phenomenal cheering squad you could be for those Republican senators and representatives who vote their conscience against the pressures of their party and the administration.

I can point to two votes last year to show you what I mean. The latest (but surely not the last) proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge went down in the Senate last spring because eight principled Republican senators voted against it. Without those eight courageous Republicans, one of the finest natural areas left on this continent would have been turned over to the tender mercies of Big Oil.

And just last fall, six Republican senators voted against the 2003 Energy Bill, which I’m sure you know was a hodge-podge of pork and special-interest paybacks, offering few incentives for conservation but a big pot of honey for the oil, gas and coal industries. The pressure on those six Republican senators was horrendous, but they held firm, and the bill went down by two votes.

Now, I don’t mean to disparage any Democrats who vote for the environment… but you do have to admit that it’s a lot easier for them. A Democratic congressman or senator doesn’t usually get into trouble with his backers for supporting pro-environment legislation. That’s not the case for Republicans.

So, my personal plea to you is to cheer long and hard and loud—publicly and privately—for those Republicans in Congress and your state legislatures and county commissions who have the guts to take pro-environmental positions. Give them lots of credit… and your support. They deserve it. And they need it.

3. Remember that only when the leaders of both major parties take up a cause do the American people see meaningful, permanent progress. So we must restore the environment as an important issue for both Republicans and Democrats.

I have said much of what follows in other places, but I believe it so strongly that I’m going to repeat it here:

As long as one party takes the environmental vote for granted and the other party ignores it, we’ll continue to see our hard-won gains eroded by shortsighted politicians of both parties. We must make both Republicans and Democrats compete for our support and hold both parties accountable for their performance.

The obvious corollary to that argument is that as long as the environmental community routinely backs one party and demonizes, ignores, or gives up on the other, we’ll never make the environment a two-party issue.

It’s too easy to surrender to the grim reality of one “green” party and one “brown” party. Whatever good may be done by the “greens” when they’re in power can be undone by the “browns” when the cycle turns and they take power back. If you doubt that, just look at what has been happening right here in Washington, DC, over the last few years, to the detriment of our national forests and parks, clean air standards, conservation budgets and the public input provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.

One thing is certain: That happy state of bipartisan competition for our votes won’t become reality if we conservationists give up on the GOP. We absolutely must support pro-conservation, pro-environmental Republicans now in office and help others like them get elected.

And there’s a practical reason why conservationists of all political stripes should be glad to have a Republican membership organization like REP around. With our growing numbers and our powerful Conservation is conservative message, we offer the perfect foil to the rants of Rush Limbaugh and others of his ilk. We cut off at the knees their absurd claims that only “liberals” and “wackos” care about protecting America’s natural heritage. Through our website, our Green Elephant newsletter, our speeches and op-eds, and our efforts on behalf of green Republican candidates and office-holders, we provide a major counterweight to the anti-conservation extremists.

We at REP are working toward the day when both parties will compete to be environmental champions. Given where the GOP is at this moment, that will take some time. But if I didn’t think it could happen, I never would have begun this endeavor.

REP welcomes the opportunity to partner with the Garden Club of America. Please don’t hesitate to let us know how we can work with you to further our mutual goals.

And above all… when you go out tomorrow, please remember to praise the pro-environmental legislators—of both parties—that you meet with. Tell them if you’re a Republican. And be sure to let those with poor voting records know that you want natural resource conservation and environmental protection to be bi-partisan concerns once again.