You bet they’ll care!
By MARTHA MARKS
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Martha gave this keynote speech at the Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues annual conference at the lovely La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on March 28, 2003.
Good evening. And thank you, Ed [Zuckerman], for that warm welcome. I was delighted when you invited me to be your keynote speaker, and I’m just as happy to be here with you tonight in this beautiful place.
You know, I began thinking seriously about this speech last weekend, about the time those “Shock and Awe” bombs started falling on Baghdad. It was pretty hard to imagine—just a short week ago—what I might want to say tonight, at the end of the first week of the first war of the 21st Century. Lots of “firsts” in that statement, so obviously this is a serious moment.
Last weekend, an unusually depressed little part of me wondered if anybody would care what I had to say tonight, or care about the environment this year, or care about environmental politics at all in the 21st Century.
But then my bolder, savvier self spoke up with the right answer.
“You bet they’ll care!” that bolder, savvier version of myself said. “The people at the Federation of State Conservation Voters Leagues will care.
The American people, the voters… they will care. And they’ll even start paying attention again, too, once this war is over and the world returns to something resembling normalcy again.
And for sure the American people will care about the environment throughout the rest of the 21st Century, because after all, that’s where they and their children are going to have spend the rest of their lives.”
So that’s what I decided to call this talk. You bet they’ll care!
I believe the American people—activists and non-activists alike—care about the issues we deal with. They realize that all the environmental victories and gains of the past century won’t do us one iota of good if we allow our governments—at all levels—to start rolling back environmental protections under the rubric of “homeland security.” Unfortunately, that seems to be exactly what is happening.
And so, my bolder, savvier self and I are here to tell you that we absolutely cannot let ourselves get thrown off balance by “Shock and Awe,” by frightening live-from-the-field news clips, by horrific photos of human casualties, or by back-to-the-future acronyms like POWs and MIAs.
We environmental activists have to stay focused on our mission, because we’re doing God’s work if anybody is. We’re doing patriotic work, if anybody is. We’re defending our homeland just as surely as any Army general or FBI investigator or airport security agent.
And so, to repeat what I said in a speech to a group of river activists last fall in Wisconsin:
We environmental activists are patriots. We love our country, and we’re protecting it from harm. We mustn’t ever let anybody say otherwise. We must stand tall and proud as we go about our work as environmental patriots.
I called that speech “River activists are patriots!”… so you see, I do try to come up with clever speech titles.
During my conversation with Ed about this speech last weekend, he assured me that the notion of a “Republican environmentalist” wouldn’t be quite the side-splitting oxymoron to this group as to some I’ve spoken to. His comment was welcome news, because I needed a break from my usual laugh line about being president of the world’s funniest oxymoron. Besides, humor doesn’t seem entirely appropriate these days, given the grim events taking place elsewhere in the world. So I’ll spare you my usual ha-ha lines.
Instead, I’d like to spend the rest of my time talking about ways that you state and local environmental advocates can build better relationships with Republican elected officials.
And I’ll wind up with a few thoughts about how your various state groups and mine may be able to work together to further our mutual goals in the 21st Century… that place where we will all be spending the rest of our lives.
It comes pretty naturally to me to talk about how the State Conservation Voters Leagues can build their relationships with Republican elected officials… given that I was one of those wild-and-crazy critters as recently as last December.
It also comes pretty naturally to me to talk about state and local environmental politics, since it was an environmental fight that led me to run for a seat on Illinois’ Lake County Board back in 1992. And it was my concern for Lake County’s increasingly threatened environment that kept me in office for ten long years… through three hotly contested but ultimately successful campaigns of my very own. I was also involved in the campaigns of my political allies, including another “green” Republican woman who —with my full blessing and support—ran for and won my county board seat last year. Her victory in November kept that seat in the “green” column and freed me up to do other things… like hang out in beautiful places like Santa Fe and give speeches to exciting groups like this.
So, having established my bona fides as someone with intimate knowledge of both Republican Party politics and in-the-trenches environmental battles, I’d like to share with you some of the insights I gained in those ten years.
I’m going to assume that one of the goals of your state organizations is to build bridges to those state and local Republican elected officials who may not automatically share your pro-conservation ethic. Is that an accurate assumption? Good! Then let me offer four rock-bottom-basic suggestions for how to approach them—and how not to—if you want your bridge-building efforts to have a chance of success.
Suggestion #1: Watch your language.
Over the last few years, we at Republicans for Environmental Protection have evolved to a high level something that I was already working out in my own head as far back as the late 1980s… before I was elected to office, and long before it ever occurred to anybody like Ed to invite me to speak to a group like this.
And that key concept is this:
If you want to make headway with an elected official—of either party—who considers himself or herself to be “conservative,” then you better find ways to couch your arguments in a manner that rings true from a conservative point of view.
That advice seems obvious, but you’d be amazed how often I’ve seen local activists take exactly the opposite approach.
So my advice is this:
Don’t go talk to a self-described conservative about squishy liberal concepts like deep ecology and animal rights… even if you fervently believe those concepts have value and need to be discussed. Save those conversations for more liberal elected officials.
To make headway with conservatives, look for ways to hook your issues into the values that conservatives say they believe in:
- Fiscal responsibility
- Intergenerational obligations
- Respect for God’s creation
- Self restraint
Yep, there’s that word again. Patriotism. Don’t be shy about using it. It’s patriotic to conserve the breathtaking landscapes, abundant wildlife, and other natural resources that made our country great from the beginning and help keep it great today.
I’m not going to go into depth about any of those conservative buzz words, because that would take all of my time tonight. But I do want to recommend a book written by Dr. John R. E. Bliese, a long-time REP member who’s been a frequent contributor to our Green Elephant newsletter. Three of John Bliese’s articles are available on our web site, and each one is well worth reading.
But far more important is a book he published in 2001 called The Greening of Conservative America.
If you read nothing else this year, please read this book. You’ll learn far more from John’s book than anything I could possibly tell you tonight. And I’ll venture to bet that if you do read that book and work its language into your own, you’ll find yourself having much greater success with the conservative legislators you deal with than you ever dreamed possible.
Suggestion #2: Pay attention to the Three Ds… Dress, Demeanor and Deportment
One of the most repeated stories about REP is how three Republican women happened to meet at an environmental conference in 1995 and spontaneously decided to create a Republican environmental organization. Actually… that is 100% true. It really did happen just that way.
But there’s another little side story that I don’t believe has ever been told publicly before. So be aware… you’re getting something special here: an inside scoop!
There was one thing in particular that drove educated, professional, middle-aged Aurie Kryzuda, Kim O’Keefe and Martha Marks so nuts at that conference that we decided something needed to be done about it. That was the manner of dress, demeanor and deportment of some of the so-called “trainers” who were there to teach us conference attendees how to lobby our elected officials, including Republican Members of Congress and their staffs.
Now, some of these men and women were highly professional and would be a credit to any organization they worked for. I still keep up with a couple of them, and they are respected, productive members of the environmental community.
But there were other “trainers” present who were, to our three sets of conservative eyes, downright embarrassing. Men with scraggly beards and pony-tails, wearing ratty jeans. Twenty-something women who led our training sessions—and then went on to the Republican congressional offices we visited—clad in short, shapeless cotton shifts… bare legs and rubber sandals… chewing gum and speaking “Valley-Girl.” I don’t remember any unusually-pierced body parts, so that probably wasn’t quite so popular at the time.
I do recall very clearly a conversation where Aurie, Kim and I commented that it was a thousand wonders our so-called “trainers” could even get into the offices of those conservative Republican lawmakers they were supposedly training us to lobby, much less make any headway with them.
And so, one of the notions in the back of our heads as we launched REP later that year was that we Republican environmentalists needed to look and act and speak differently —like mature, responsible, productive members of the community— if we wanted our Republican elected officials to take our concerns seriously. We needed to be the kind of people they would feel comfortable socializing with. We felt that if the environmental advocates that most elected officials encountered looked like escapees from some ’60s-era commune or anti-war demonstration, there wasn’t much chance that they would even get a hearing, much less bring about any sort of change in GOP legislators’ attitudes.
So now you know our little secret: REP is probably the only environmental organization ever designed around a dress code!
We hold to that even today… urging REP leaders, REP members and REP staff to dress professionally—conservatively—whenever we meet with our GOP elected officials.
And that’s an approach I would recommend to you as well.
- Don’t send your youngest, coolest members out to deal with conservative legislators, no matter how articulate or gung-ho they happen to be.
- Don’t send any of the usual suspects… the left-over hippies or Valley-Girl types who will just reinforce bad stereotypes in those legislators’ minds.
- Do try to find professional-looking, professional-acting, professional-speaking members of the community to make your pitch to conservative elected officials.
- And if you can, do lure a few card-carrying Republican professionals into your activist loop and coach them in how to speak John Bliese’s conservative conservation language, so much the better.
Advocates like that can be worth many times their weight in gold to you. It’s worth going out of your way to find them.
Suggestion # 3: Be positive and think long-term
Suppose you have set up an appointment with one of the most “conservative” Republican legislators in your state house, someone you think cares zip about conservation. Well, it’s a pretty safe bet that sometime in her career she has done something or other to at least look “Green for a Day” in the eyes of her constituents. Do your research, find that something and praise her for it… even if you fear your teeth will fall out under the strain.
Once you’ve praised her for that Arbor Day tree-planting photo-op three years back, ask her to do something similar this year… only bolder and more effective. Perhaps she could sponsor a bill to provide modest matching funds for tree planting in poor communities that can’t afford reforestation on their own. Whatever. Suggest something incrementally-better for her to do, offer to work with her on the details, promise to praise her for her good work in your newsletter or scorecard, and then follow through with praise if she does what you’ve asked. Suggest something simple that won’t make her look bad in the eyes of her conservative colleagues and start developing a positive relationship with her. Building relationships can be as routine as working with Pavlov’s dog: start with a simple request, offer praise and appropriate rewards, and gradually up the ante of what you’re asking for and the legislator is responding to.
This approach will undoubtedly work better with some legislators than with others, but you won’t know which ones it will work with until you try. And while it may take some time before the Green-for-a-Day legislator feels comfortable backing innovative environmental bills, if you don’t start somewhere with her, it’s a good bet she’ll never, ever do anything at all that you want.
The obvious corollary to this bit of sage advice is: Don’t constantly attack.
Nobody ever gets tired of praise and encouragement, and like Pavlov’s dog, people do tend to get hooked on it. But constant attacks and accusations can get very old, very fast, and if we as environmentalists fall into that rut, our attacks will undercut all the rest of the good work we’re trying to do.
Okay, I must confess… REP doesn’t always take my advice on this. We do operate with the carrot and the stick approach, trying to find something good to say about somebody or other in every issue of our Green Elephant newsletter… and looking a few different Republicans to cheer for each time. That’s not easy, given the cast of characters we have to deal with in Congress and the White House. But still, we do try.
And at the same time that we’re praising every pro-environmental GOP congressional action we can find, we also don’t hesitate to scold individual Republican senators and representatives— or the White House—when they do something or say something that’s anti-environment. Even so… we do try really hard not to beat up on the same people all the time!
REP bills itself as “the environmental conscience of the GOP,” and we take that role very seriously. Now, you and I all know how a conscience operates. I surely do know how mine operates. It doesn’t pat me on the back and say “Attagirl, Martha, keep it up!” when I’ve done something unworthy. It nags me. Just like REP nags the Republican Party.
The trick is to maintain a balance, so your praise is welcome and your criticism is accepted as thoughtful and warranted, not just part of some long, relentless, never-ending attack.
Time for a little personal anecdote. Back in Lake County, Illinois, where I served as a county commissioner for ten years, I had the reputation of being the greenest of a whole set of green Republicans who gradually grew in strength throughout the ‘90s and eventually took over the county government in 1998. It’s really hard to be a greener Republican than I am, and most people who know me know that.
But despite the $160 million in county bond referenda for open space protection that I worked hard to pass in our county over those ten years, and despite being the county board’s leading advocate for wildlife habitat restoration on the thousands of acres that we bought with that $160 million… somehow I got on the wrong side of an extremely shrill local animal rights activist who decided about 1993 that I was The Great Satan.
I won’t go into all the grim details of my long non-relationship with this woman. I’ll just tell you that for the better part of nine years, she lost no opportunity to beat up on me. She used her non-profit newsletter to rant about me. She wrote flaming letters to the editor calling me a hypocrite, a traitor, and every other perjorative you can think of. She went to her flock of supporters in my district to find people to run against me. She raised money for my opponents. And why? Because she disagreed with me on one issue: the need to keep Lake County’s exploding population of whitetail deer from over-running and destroying the last high-quality native oak savannas that we were working so hard to preserve.
It’s a long story. The details really don’t matter. But the point is… that woman who claimed to be an environmentalist managed to thoroughly alienate an elected official who was probably 95% on her side, all because of a single vote, a single philosophical disagreement. I was so turned off by her attacks over the years that what could easily have been a positive working relationship turned totally sour. The situation got so bad that it stuck in my craw to vote for things she wanted, even when I wholeheartedly believed in them too.
This was a classic example of how NOT to win friends and influence people.
Suggestion # 4: Don’t be fickle. Stand by your friends.
I can’t emphasize this one too much. Don’t be fickle. Stand by your friends. Support those who have done what you wanted them to do.
Actually, I’m very proud of the way the League of Conservation Voters sticks by its friends. LCV loyally endorses and supports green Republicans like Representatives Sherry Boehlert, Nancy Johnson and Mark Kirk, and Senators Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe, even though it does mean that… yes, those Republicans will vote to keep the House and Senate in Republican hands. That may be hard for some of LCV’s supporters to accept, but it’s not only the honorable thing to do, it’s also—thinking long-term—the wise thing to do.
How many of you read High Country News? Well, if you do, you will soon see an op-ed that I wrote for High Country News’ “Writers on the Range” column.
The point I made in that essay was that bi-partisan support is absolutely essential if we hope to make permanent, long-term environmental progress. As long as one party ignores the environmental vote and the other party takes it for granted, few of our hard-won gains will be permanent. Whatever is done by one party when it’s in power can usually be undone when the tide turns and the other party takes over. If you need any convincing on that subject, look at the current situation in Washington. Long-term success depends on getting both parties in agreement on environmental issues, and to do that, you have to support the people in either party who vote the right way on environmental issues.
Back in the middle nineties, during the heyday of the “Gingrich Revolution,” a certain New York Republican congressman named Rick Lazio maintained an LCV Scorecard rating of over 70 percent. Lazio bucked Gingrich and DeLay and the rest of the GOP leadership on three out of four environmental votes during those years, winning the praise and thanks of environmentalists everywhere. Well, in the year 2000, Rick Lazio wound up as the Republican candidate for the US Senate, running against Democrat Hillary Clinton. The Sierra Club chose to ignore Lazio’s courage and leadership and endorsed Clinton… a non-New Yorker with no voting record of her own. LCV wisely made a dual endorsement in that race… essentially saying that the environment would be in good hands no matter which candidate won. That was an accurate call, not to mention a very smart move.
So I would remind all you state LCV activists that the old line is true… if you want a friend, be a friend. Your parent organization, the League of Conservation Voters, does make it a point to stick by its friends. I hope all of you will follow that good example in your own states. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the long-term survival and success of our movement may well depend on your efforts to promote bi-partisan environmentalism from coast to coast.
Well, that is just about as neat a transition to my conclusion as anything I could have thought up.
So… okay, I’m confident that from now on, you will send only your most professional-looking, professional-acting people out to talk with your conservative legislators, and you’ll have them speaking in such conservative language that even your most reactionary anti-enviro-wacko legislator can relate to it. I’m sure you’ll work for positive, long-term relationships, and that you’ll always, always stand by your proven friends.
Let me say that we at REP are ready and eager to work with you in your individual states. Like you, we’re building a network of environmentally-minded voters around the country. Ours just happen to be self-identified Republican environmentalists, which means the going will probably be harder and slower for us than it is for you. You can draw from a larger pool of people… Republicans, Democrats, Independents or whatever. We have a smaller pool to begin with, and we’re not as well known or as well funded as the LCV, and we’re bucking our party to boot… so winning the gold ring is bound to be harder for us than for you. But if I didn’t believe it was possible to “green up” the GOP in my lifetime, I would fade away into retirement here in Santa Fe and let others fight the battles for me.
If any of you are interested in teaming up with REP in your states, please let me know. I can tell you what REP’s current situation is in your state and put you in touch with our leaders there.
Like you… we’re stronger and better organized in some states than in others. REP now has official chapters in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, and Washington State. Soon to come are chapters in Colorado, Ohio, Georgia and Pennsylvania. But even where we don’t have an official chapter yet, we do have enthusiastic members and state coordinators who would be delighted to partner with you to get better laws out of your legislatures and better legislators into them. We want to work with you.
There are some obvious places where we can do this. One of LCV’s heroes in Congress is New York Republican Sherwood Boehlert, who not coincidentally is also one of REP’s heroes. Unfortunately, Sherry Boehlert now appears to be a top target of the extremist Club for Growth in next year’s GOP primary. REP and our REP PAC are gearing up for battle in Boehlert’s district. We will defend Boehlert. I’m betting that the New York LCV will also be heavily involved in that race. Let’s work together to hold that seat in our camp.
And if your radar picks up other opportunities to team up to help a greener candidate win a Republican primary in your state, let us know that, too. We don’t always know about every candidate who comes along, so if you hear about one we ought to know about, please let me know. And if I know you’re interested in working with us, I’ll pass the word back to you when we spot a Republican that we feel is worth supporting.
Well, folks, it’s an honor and a pleasure to be with some of the best environmental advocates in the country tonight. REP looks forward to the challenges and opportunities of working together with you to protect our environment, natural resources, and quality of life in the 21st Century… that place where we will all be spending the rest of our lives.
Four of John Bliese’s articles, mentioned in this speech, are available on this web site:
And here’s a link to Professor Bliese’s excellent book: The Greening of Conservative America