Why climate law advocates are watching these black and Latino lawmakers
The “wanted” poster with pictures of five state lawmakers appeared in the pages of a Spanish-language newspaper in Southern California last week.
“Would these politicians be willing to confront the petroleum industry and fight for Latino families?” the ad said in support of tougher environmental rules. “Help us make sure these elected politicians stay responsible to the community.”
The five are among the Latino or African American Democrats representing low-income districts who have not taken a side in the fierce tug of war over climate change measures that has been dominating the Capitol.
They represent places with perhaps the most at stake in California’s environmental policies — communities choked by pollution but wary of the higher costs that can come with new regulations.
One measure would set new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; another would reduce the use of gasoline on state roads and require more electricity to come from renewable energy.
Lawmakers have only a few days left to weigh the issues. With Republicans opposed, the fate of the legislation rests in the hands of undecided Democrats.
Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier), one of the lawmakers named in the ad, said he knows that people in his mostly Latino district rank the environment as a top concern. “But does it continue to stay a No. 1 issue for them when their gas prices go up and their utility bills go up?” he said.
The question of what best serves these districts has become a key issue in the climate debate.
Supporters of the legislation say that cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and power plants would reduce asthma and respiratory diseases associated with polluted air. They also say investments in green power could foster new jobs in areas with high unemployment.
“What we would ask these legislators is to do the right thing,” said Arturo Carmona of Presente.org, the Latino advocacy group that ran the newspaper ad. “They have an unprecedented and historic opportunity to stand with working families, with communities of color.”
Opponents argue that such neighborhoods could be harmed by higher prices of fuel and electricity. Zero-emission vehicles are often too costly for low-income residents, who are more likely to drive older cars with worse gas mileage and would be hit hard if the cost per gallon rose.
Fueling the debate are questions of whether the environmental movement is serving low-income, minority families.
Solar panels and electric vehicles “are great, but they don’t come to our neighborhoods,” said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove).
Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, said environmentalists should work more closely with minorities.
“What are you doing to make sure that we have a clean environment and that our water is clean and the oil drilling in our neighborhoods is clean and efficient?” he has asked them. “Many times we would get no response.”
Jones-Sawyer has suggested that designated seats for representatives of low-income communities be added to the California Air Resources Board, a top regulatory agency for handling pollution. But he said Gov. Jerry Brown’s office opposed the idea.
An administration official said “no door has been closed” in the climate change talks.
Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), author of the most contentious climate change bill, on gasoline use and renewable energy, supports the addition of new board members. A Latino who grew up poor, De León has been working to show the benefits of environmental regulations and programs to minority communities.
He touts the prospect of new jobs in a green economy. He hosted a Capitol event at which a Latino family from Stockton was presented with a Toyota Prius, paid for with the help of a state program, to replace an aging truck.
Last month, De León spoke in English and Spanish to an environmental group and reminded the audience that he represents “one of the poorest and most polluted districts in the state.”
If the Legislature approves his bill, “we will be healthier and much more prosperous,” he said. “We can do this. Si se puede!”
Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said economic benefits from green policies can be a tough sell.
“Those are longer-term economic benefits,” he said. But “if you’re living in a more challenged economic environment, green jobs may seem more abstract compared to the cost of filling a gas tank.”
Some Latino and black lawmakers give little weight to opponents’ predictions of surging fuel or electricity prices if the legislation passes.
“Those arguments have been made in the past and have clearly not panned out,” said Democratic Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, whose downtown Los Angeles district is crisscrossed by freeways and dotted with industrial zones.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “people’s health is more important and supersedes all those other arguments.”
Environmental advocates fear that lavish campaign donations may also affect the opinions of lawmakers whose votes on the climate measures could be decisive.
The five named in the ad, for example, have received at least $260,000 combined from oil companies, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
“We’re very concerned that’s compromising their representation of our communities as it relates to issues around the environment,” Presente.org’s Carmona said.
Calderon brushed off the notion that business interests could sway his decision.
“It isn’t about who gives money; it’s about my community and my constituents,” Calderon said. “I have to worry about them.”
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