By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Environmentalists made a clumsy leap into the political worlds of City Hall and the Teamsters when they were invited to the power table to create the “clean trucks” program at the Port of Los Angeles. The Teamsters and Villaraigosa wanted the port’s long-independent truckers to work for companies. Although the public was told that the reasoning behind this move was to stop Wild West truckers from driving filthy, smoke-belching vehicles, critics saw another motive at work, one that had nothing to do with “clean trucks.” Instead, it was all about stripping the truckers of their independence and giving the Teamsters a major opening to organize the drivers as union members.
Coalition for Clean Air’s Mendoza, whose staff members worked on the plan, says environmentalists backed that controversial clause. “[We] thought it was the best way to ensure that clean trucks would be maintained,” Mendoza writes in an e-mail to the Weekly. “If the trucks are not properly maintained and no one is accountable for that, then the whole purpose of having new/clean trucks goes out the window.”
For Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, though, dabbling in Teamsters politics wasn’t a good route for pursuing “clean trucks” and clean air for the Port of Long Beach, right next door. The Teamsters move was, in fact, a big distraction. “My first job in dealing with the port is to improve the air quality,” Foster tells the Weekly. “Employee status wasn’t a part of the issue.” The environmentalists appeared to get sucked into the Teamsters’ and Villaraigosa’s agenda. But Foster decided against any provision that could threaten “the clean-trucks program with a lawsuit,” he says.
This year, U.S. District Judge Snyder halted the plan to strip L.A. truckers of their independence. Although the trucker clause was peddled as absolutely necessary to achieving cleaner air, Villaraigosa released a statement suggesting the opposite: Despite the judge’s striking of the clause, the clean-trucks plan is “moving full-steam ahead.” The prolabor provision, it turns out, was not crucial to clean air. The environmentalists had gotten entangled in the mayor’s political maneuvering to help the Teamsters, and the lawsuit that went with it.
Mitchell Schwartz, president of the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters and a national political operative who headed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in California, says there’s a reason for these missteps.
Environmentalists “sometimes want to be so pure,” he says, that, unlike Schwartz, most don’t have much experience with rough political campaigns. “But that’s not how politics works.” Schwartz adds, “People have to get dirty. You can either get in there, get dirty, and get something done, or you can stand on the sidelines with a beautiful reputation intact and get nothing done.”
“The good news for the environmental movement is its time has come,” says Darry Sragow, a well-known Democratic consultant. “The environmental community is swimming with the current, but that’s just good luck. If you don’t have an ongoing political operation with a political plan that’s run in a sophisticated way, you’re going to run into trouble.”
And Stephanie Taylor, interim managing director of the Green L.A. Coalition, an umbrella group of more than 100 environmental organizations in Los Angeles, doesn’t see that kind of political operation in place. “I don’t know if we’ve figured out how we can reach out in a bigger way,” she says.
One problem may be the lack of Internet savvy among older leaders of the movement. Mendoza, in his 30s, sees a generation gap, with younger environmentalists telling him that older, mainstream groups in Los Angeles have not properly used social-networking tools, such as Facebook and Twitter.
And Taylor and others think the public needs to be far more educated on the issues, in order to intelligently question corporate publicity machines and their adjunct political machines in Sacramento and City Hall. “I think we do need to be more aware and diligent about making sure that the ‘green job’ movement doesn’t take environmental issues away from us,” says Taylor.
Jack Humphreville, who is active in the citywide neighborhood-council movement and helped to lead the campaign against Measure B, says the greens are now in danger of getting “tainted. Environmentalists have to be careful how they approach these things,” he says. Humphreville says a lot of people want to clean up air pollution or restore the Los Angeles River. But there’s a wariness now, as activists allow themselves to “get played” by developers, labor unions, factory owners and politicians. “What the mayor has done is use the environment for his union activities,” he claims.
If they really want to stop this mission drift, says Sragow, environmentalists must elbow their way into power-broker roles. “It’s their job collectively, as a movement, to kick into gear and play offense,” he says. “They have to ask for things.” Taylor of the Green L.A. Coalition agrees, saying, “We have to make sure we’re at the table when these decisions are made about the new green economy.”
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