Hey Philly Environmentalists– Let’s Take a Look at the PA Governor’s Race

by William Lawrence, Philly Environmental Activist

“As 2014 approaches, it’s time to take a look at the upcoming Pennsylvania gubernatorial race.”

I cringed typing that sentence. Every two years, my progressive/leftist Facebook friends go through the same debate–boycott the election? Campaign for the Democrats? Third party? Well, it’s that time again. Though I’m not yet commited to a particular form of engagement with this election, I think the least we can do is understand the candidates and issues, anticipate how the election is likely to play out, and determine our best course of action.

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I care about multiple “issues” and consider my life’s work to be the project of collective liberation, but my primary political engagement is as an “environmentalist.” For that reason, this piece is targeted at other (mostly white) environmentalists in the Philly area, both inside and outside the NGO world.

We have a choice to engage with the election, or ignore it entirely. I hope we can have a conversation about the risks and opportunities of any approach we consider. The main point of this piece is to suggest that John Hanger’s candidacy provides opportunities for meaningful coalition-building with other social movement organizations in Philadelphia, and not engaging with his candidacy carries considerable risks for our relationships with those groups.

John Hanger 101

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Let’s start out by looking at where Hanger stands on the issues. He calls the push for corporate school privatization in Philadelphia “unconstitutional.” He wants to expand Medicaid in Pennsylvania and supports a national single-payer healthcare system. He is unequivocally pro-labor and strongly opposes “right to work for less” laws.  He supports the incremental legalization of marijuana and speaks openly about how the drug war has been an instrument of discrimination against people of color.

Hanger is an outside shot in the Democratic primary because he doesn’t have the name recognition of the frontrunner, Rep. Alyson Schwartz. For this reason, Hanger seems to be banking his chances on strong support from social movement organizations. He has already explicitly supported the Media Mobilizing Project and Parents United, and rejected critics of the Point Breeze Organizing Committee. Organizations like PBOC understand that getting behind the Hanger campaign could be a way to elevate their profile and their issues both city and statewide in the process of supporting a solidly progressive candidate.

Hanger is an energy policy wonk who served as head of the state Department of Environmental Protection under Ed Rendell. In this election, he seems to be positioning himself comfortably in the realm of “political feasibility” with regard to environmental issues. He wants to implement a statewide climate action plan to reduce emissions 30% by 2020. He also wants to tax and regulate fracking, which is much better than Corbett’s current policy, but nothing to get fired up over. Fracktivists are demanding no fracking, not better fracking.

It’s worth mentioning that Hanger gave a less-than-flattering interview for the documentary Gasland when he was chair of the DEP. He gives his honest opinion, which is that the risks of fracking are real, but minimal compared to coal and oil. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with the filmmaker Josh Fox. On the flip side, Hanger recently received the endorsement of several families who have led the fight against fracking in Dimock, one of the most famous sites of contamination by the gas industry.

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Hanger is no worse on the environment than Schwartz or the other Democratic candidates. In fact, I think he’s better overall. But it’s easy to see why environmentalists wouldn’t want to put any energy behind his long-shot primary campaign.

So what does this mean for environmentalists?

As I see it, we have three choices in how we relate to this election: (1) ignore electoral politics altogether, (2) ignore the primary and engage with the general election, or (3) engage with the primary and the general election. Let’s explore these options. I am not committed to any one approach, but I’d like to start a conversation about what is the most strategic path. I go into the most detail with approach 3 because I am leaning in that direction, and I also think it is less-often articulated than the other approaches.

1. Ignore the election

The argument: History is not decided at the ballot box, it is decided in the streets. None of the candidates have the environmental agenda we need because we are not yet strong enough as a movement. Engaging with seriously compromised candidates will distract us from doing the real organizing that will lead to real solutions.

Who’s doing it: Grassroots activists and organizers working on their own campaigns.

2. Ignore the primary, engage with the general election

The argument: We should support the Democrat in the general election, because taxation and regulation of fracking is much better than what Corbett will do. There’s no strong reason to bother with the primary, though. If taxation and regulation of fracking is what we get with any Democratic candidate, why pick one over the other? If anything, we should endorse the primary candidate who we expect to win, so we’ll have more influence later on.

Who’s doing it: In all likelihood, Penn Environment, Clean Water Action, and other “green” NGOs, unless they get a better idea.

3. Engage with the primary and the general election

The argument: Hanger’s candidacy offers an interesting opportunity to align progressive forces in Philadelphia. As I mentioned above, his hopes of victory are reliant on an alliance with social movement forces, which is driving him to actively court their support. It’s too early to say if this will play out, but let’s consider the possibility that PCAPS, Point Breeze Organizing Committee, Decarcerate PA, and progressive unions like UNITE HERE all come together to support Hanger. In other words, the most active community and labor organizations working on the issues that matter to Philadelphia’s working class and communities of color.

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Where do white environmentalists fit into this equation? If we are not at the table, it could give the impression that, as individuals and as organizations, we are not interested in school funding or racist drug laws. And let’s face it–if we aren’t willing to ally ourselves with the groups fighting on these issues, then we really can’t claim to care about them. The effect will be to reinforce the long-standing divide between white environmentalists and other social justice struggles.

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Joining the (hypothetical) Hanger coalition would enhance our long-term ability to win victories in Philadelphia and statewide. First, it would build trust with other progressive organizaitons and help us win support for future environmental initatives. It would show that we’re more than single-issue, out-of-touch treehuggers. This benefit will happen whether or not Hanger wins the election. Second, if he does win and implement his platform, it would roll back the 1% agenda in Philadelphia and shift the balance of power towards the working class and communities of color. This is good for its own sake, and it’s also good for the success of environmetnal protection. Two of the fundamental struggles in this country are between white supremacy and communities of color, and between the 1% and the working class. In each of these struggles, guess who is most in favor of environmental protection? That’s right–communities of color, and the working class. Empowering these communities is a prerequisite for a truly sustainable society.

What’s the next step?

I actually want this to be a conversation. I’m curious what you all think about this opportunity. Was I uncharitable in my representation of options 1 and 2? Which options 4 and 5 did I miss? I’m curious to know more about what questions the green NGOs are asking, including Penn Environment, Clean Water Action, Clean Air Council, and others. Is my read on them correct? Is there any chance of getting them to spend time on a long-shot candidate like Hanger?

Obviously, continuing to monitor the campaign is important, both to see what the candidates do and what endorsements they pick up. We decide what’s next.

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