With leading environmental protection groups branding Republican state attorney general candidate Dan Lungren an anti-environmental extremist, Democratic hopeful Arlo Smith is barnstorming the state this week vowing to take tough action against toxic polluters.
Appearing Wednesday outside the proposed site of a controversial hazardous waste incinerator in Vernon, Smith said, "I will be there to enforce the environmental laws and protect the public . . . my opponent will be there to protect the sludge merchants."
Smith, the San Francisco district attorney, was accompanied by his Los Angeles counterpart, Ira Reiner, in their first joint appearance in Los Angeles since Smith defeated Reiner in the Democratic primary last June. Reiner, who has criticized Smith's record in office, said Wednesday it was "critical" that the 11-year San Francisco prosecutor be elected in November to ensure strong environmental enforcement efforts at the state level.
Earlier this week, Smith appeared in Santa Barbara to spotlight his opposition to offshore oil drilling, and in Sacramento, where he called for prison sentences for business people who poison the state's land, rivers and air.
Smith is hoping the environment can be a cutting issue in the race, in which some polls have both candidates running essentially even. Both candidates have been attempting to show they are tough on law-and-order matters. But the strong opposition to Lungren by environmental groups could spell trouble for the Republican at a time when other GOP candidates are openly courting their support.
Among the groups that endorsed Smith in Sacramento were the Sierra Club California, the California League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the River, Californians Against Waste and the California Trout Political Action Committee.
"I have never seen such a clear-cut choice," said Michael Paparian, state director of the Sierra Club California, who characterized Lungren as "an extremist in his approach to environmental issues."
"(He) is one of the most hostile officials toward environmental issues that we have ever seen. . . . He was against every single major piece of environmental legislation--from wilderness protection to water quality to toxics to protection from offshore oil drilling to clean drinking water."
David Bolling, Friends of the River executive director, called the former five-term congressman "far to the right of the mainstream of the Republican Party."
While the Sierra Club is backing Democrat Dianne Feinstein for governor, Bolling noted, Friends of the River is supporting Republican Pete Wilson. "The environmental community is not in lockstep with the Democratic Party," he said. "But the environmental community is in total unanimity on the question of the attorney general's race."
Lungren, who left Congress in 1988 after his nomination to the job of state treasurer was rejected by the state Senate, defended his record in Washington as an effort to balance environmental protection with fiscal concerns.
"I am not an extremist; they misinterpret my record," Lungren said this week. "I have tried to explain to people that many of the votes on which they are making judgements on my environmental record were fiscally oriented.
"And if they go back and look at my entire record, they would see that same sort of fiscal approach to virtually all issues."
Lungren has branded as extremists those who oppose all offshore oil drilling projects. Considering the nation's energy needs, he said, oil drilling must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
"I'm not suggesting we do all-out oil drilling down the coast. (But those who say) don't even consider it--that's a luxury you can't afford," he said.
Smith said the results are not worth the risk, maintaining that California's known offshore oil reserves would supply the nation with oil for only a few weeks.
On environmental enforcement, Smith established a one-attorney unit which has filed five cases during the past decade, winning what was apparently the first criminal conviction in state history under the Hazardous Substance Control Act. The actions have netted fines but have not landed any polluters in jail.
While Lungren has ranked environmental protection far behind drug abuse, gangs and violent crime as priorities for the attorney general's office, Smith has emphasized that the office also has an environmental protection role second only to that of the governor.
The state government code specifically identifies the attorney general as the state official empowered to "protect the natural resources of the State of California from pollution, impairment or destruction."
In recent years, Proposition 65 has added to the attorney general's power to bring lawsuits against businesses and individuals who expose the public to carcinogens or reproductive toxins.
The office has 81 lawyers assigned to three divisions that handle environmental matters, as well as dozens of other deputies serving as advisers to state agencies that deal peripherally with the environment.
Experts have said passage of the broad environmental initiative, Proposition 128, on Nov. 6 could add further responsibilities as the state government's spotlight focuses further on reducing pollution.