This interview took place on Thursday, March 27th 2014 at 3PM in The State Room at the Kellogg Hotel & Conference Center at Michigan State University. Mark Meadows is the Political Char of the Political Committee for the Central Michigan Group Sierra Club Chapter in Michigan.
Lauren: So how exactly did you become involved with The Sierra Club, Mr. Meadows?
Mark: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been a Sierra Club member for a long time, although, I was never active in the club after I got into politics because some of the issues that the Sierra Club deals with are sort of a conflict of interest, and people would question my independence on my thought as I was developing policy as a Mayor or as a State Legislator during the time that I was involved in politics. After I left the legislature, I made a determination that I was going to become involved as a volunteer not just in the Sierra Club but in a couple of other groups, and there are a number of very valuable and positive environmental organizations in the state of Michigan that might qualify for independent volunteer work, but ultimately, I had dealt with all of them and felt that the Sierra Club was closer to my own sort of aggressive views on protecting the environment. So, I became involved last year when I left the legislature and am currently the Political Chair of the Political Committee for the Central Michigan Group, which covers about 11 counties in mid-Michigan and I sit on the state-wide political committee where we determine where we are going to endorse. We participate in the development of policy positions for the Sierra Club on a number of issues, we lobby the legislature as citizen lobbyers, not as paid-lobbyists, so we don’t have to register as lobbyists, but it’s been very rewarding. I was chosen by the Sierra Club to attend political training in Washington D.C. to get a better feel for the national issues that we are dealing with as well, and I feel very comfortable in that role..
Lauren: For those that are not familiar with the Sierra Club, could you explain what your organization does?
Mark: Sure. The Sierra Club is the oldest environmental organization in the country, and basically developed originally as a conservation organization in the development of state and national park system, preservation of wild lands throughout the country, and slowly over the decades, because it was founded in the 1800s, has broadened it’s reach and continuously develops it’s positions. Originally, like I said, pretty much concentrating on conservation issues, now one of the biggest advocacy groups, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and a lot of the national legislation has really made a difference for American citizens and cleaned up the environment, to protect the environment from degradation over the years. We also are now involved in many local issues, not just across Michigan, but across the nation because, for instance, local communities can protect wetlands of a certain size in their communities. You know, we’ve advocated over the year in the Sierra Club for local legislation to protect wetlands that still exist because the State Protection Act only applies to wetlands of a certain size and above, so those areas that are below that, we protect in East Lansing the wetlands down to a quarter of an acre because we passed an ordinance that protects those wetlands. Other communities have done the same thing largely through the political activity of the Sierra Club. We also have, recently, within the last couple of years, and it’s a little bit controversial within the club, embraced some what we call social justice issues. Not the traditional social justice environmental justice issues that you might think of. For instance, there was a point in time when I worked for the Attorney General that we were engaged in litigation that involved a hazardous waste site that was to be developed in an inner-city neighborhood of Detroit. Well, the reason it was going to be located there was because the area was depressed, and they thought that even a few jobs might encourage the local population to give up their homes, move on, and there wouldn’t be very many people advocating for preservation of that neighborhood, but the reality was they were taking advantage of a low-income population that probably didn’t have the resources. That’s environmental justice to fight those types of things, but voting rights also affect the ability of individuals to participate and protect the environment. So, you know, recently we began to expand our policy activity to embrace some rights that might be a little harder to explain the relationship to protecting the environment, but, there is a relationship between the ability of an effective population to vote and protection of those rights because if that’s an issue, and you don’t have the votes there to pressure politicians to protect the environment, well, frankly, money is on the other side of this issue. So, these are important aspects. The Sierra Club, like I said, is the oldest environmental protection agency in the country and has changed as America has changed, and we are still changing.
Lauren: How much of the state office time would you say is dedicated to policy issues and how does the policy mission fit with The Sierra Club’s other activities?
Mark: If you’re referring to, for instance, the time frame of a state legislator, I’m not sure what the average legislator would have spent on policy issues. The number one objective and job of a state legislator is to be the representative of their constituents, so a lot of staff time is spent with issues that are raised by constituents by calling into the office, or getting access to state officials who maybe are reluctant to call the individual home but less reluctant to call the state representative because we still vote on the budget. But, personally, when I went to the legislature I had a pretty large amount of experience with the state government as Assistant Attorney General and with local government as a Mayor and a council member. So, I came in with a different set of credentials than a lot of people do. I was moved into the policy area almost immediately, and became chair of a major policy committee in my freshman year. In my experience, because I became Assistant Speaker the following year and was in charge of caucus policy, 90 percent of my work was policy work. All of the policy work that the caucus before me carried over into the session when I was Assistant Democratic Leader, and not Assistant Speaker anymore, since we lost that seat, I would say that about 20 percent of my time had been spent on developing environmental policy positions because it was a personal objective of mine. In my first and second terms I sat on the Great Lakes Environment Committee, so it was a committee that I had some focus on as well. So during that time period we passed the Great Lakes Compact, we passed legislation relating to invasive species in the Great Lakes, and we passed a number of other water quality issues. Policy is not only passing, policy is opposing. We also during that time period opposed and successfully opposed a number of legislative initiatives that would impact the environment. Unfortunately, some of those have passed now because we are not in control of the legislature any longer. When I say that, I’d say the majority of the Republican legislators would not be considered pro-environment. There are a lot of reasons for that, but I just want to make sure that you understand that the Sierra Club is a completely non-partisan organization, historically anyway. You know, there were times we would endorse an equal number of Republican and Democratic candidates, but what has happened in the last generation is that for some reason, there are fewer and fewer Republican candidates who embrace this pro-environment activity. William Milliken was probably the best governor we ever had in protecting the environment that was Republican, and no governor of any party actually has been as pro-environment as he has since then. There has been a change, and I don’t know where the blame should lie on that, but policy is extremely important. It comprises a large part of the activity, and in terms of policy development for the Sierra Club, the Sierra Club is a policy-oriented organization, we advocate policy, so that’s really the purpose.
Lauren: what are some issues that you are currently focusing on at the state level?
Mark: At the state level, we are currently in the process, I think, and I’m not on the executive committee of the Sierra Club, but I’m familiar with some of the things they are thinking about, and I believe you’re going to see a greater focus on the protection of the Great Lakes. Every year we have some major thing that we are working on, you know, the Great Lakes Compact, combined animal feeding operations, and protecting the Great Lakes from invasive species. There’s a question regarding lake levels, and there has been a significant level of question over the last five or ten years actually, which we anticipate that by concentrating on water quality, water protection, ground level protection, issues like that, for Michigan anyway, this should be the Michigan Sierra Club’s primary focus. This is the greatest natural resource that the state has, and it should get the attention that it should. We’ve had a number of successful initiatives in the last year. Our beyond coal campaign essentially resulted in every major electrical producer in the state of Michigan abandoning their plants to build a new coal-fired plant. So, ultimately, that will make a huge difference in the health of the people of this state, and that was largely because of the policy push that the Sierra Club had taken over the last four or five years. It really was a huge accomplishment.
Lauren: How would you say that the state level issues differ from national level issues?
Mark: You know, it’s interesting you say that because some of the issues we deal with, let’s take combined feeding animal operations as an example. In Michigan, we regulate those through the Clean Water Act. The discharges from those facilities are regulated. There are air quality issues involving that, but really, that’s the way that they are regulated by the state of Michigan, and depending on the governor, we either get an emphasis on enforcement, or a de-emphasis on enforcement. We worked my first term in the legislature for almost two years on some accommodation on a better regulation of those facilities, but we were never able to get it to the table in a form that it could be passed with the people in our own caucus objecting to this. Another concern is about the impact on farmers. We were working with the Department of Agriculture and Farm Bureau, which is the farmers’ major lobbying group at the capital, to reach some accommodation but we weren’t able to do that. Nationally, that’s really the way that this could be fixed, is to take it out of the state’s hands because every state is dealing with the issues involving these large animal operations, you know, factory farms is one of the typical references to them. We also have a huge population that needs food; so, the idea that these large animal operations are going to go away is not something the Sierra Club advocates. It’s appropriate regulations so that we protect the environment and the public health of the population in regard to these operations. I’d say that there is where the national policy activity of the Sierra Club lies, and it’s easier to accomplish public policy at this national level because there is more influence at the impact level, and the Clean Water Act probably couldn’t be passed in Michigan, or the Clean Air Act, but it can get done at the federal level because there is a distance between the national impact and the policymaking at the national level. So, the national policies of the Sierra Club also impact the state policies of the Sierra Club if there is a national policy that is being advocated. The states are free to make it a focus or not make it a focus, but it obviously influences everything. Another example might be, as you know, we had a lot of snow this year, and we’ve had extraordinarily cold weather. By this time of the year, we probably shouldn’t be dealing with the temperatures we are seeing today. We wouldn’t normally see this, especially because it is the end of March. You know, there’s been a lot of precipitation either through snow or rain in the Great Lakes basin, and we expect that the lake levels should be rising. By the same token, west of the Mississippi, there’s been hardly any precipitation, so, drought conditions are probably going to prevail in the western states this summer. The last time we had a significant drought in the western states, actually, I was with the Attorney General’s office, and I handled a case that has been pending before the U.S. Supreme Court since like 1919, and it has never gone away. It’s Wisconsin and Michigan vs. the State of Illinois because in the early 1900s, the state of Illinois reversed the flow of the Chicago River and opened a ship canal to the Mississippi River. It essentially began to drain Lake Michigan down in through the Mississippi River. We sued them, we had a stop to it, but they were still allowed 3.2 billion gallons a minute. So there is a huge drain on Lake Michigan anyway, but the last time we had this happen when I had the case was the late 80’s and there was an effort by Illinois to increase the amount of water because the drought had caused the ship canal to basically dry up, and affect the shipping up there. It’s a huge economic pressure to do that. If there’s a lack of water in the west, there is going to be a lot of pressure on the Great Lake states to start diverting more water in that direction because we have 80 percent of the fresh water in the entire nation. So, at a national level, that’s clearly a State of Michigan issue, but if we don’t have the National Sierra Club on our side, that diversion is bad for instance because they are going to get pressure from the other 37 chapters out there who are not having any water, will also affect the environment. There is a clear interplay between the national policy and state policy.
Lauren: So, of the tactics that you use to influence policy, which do you believe are the most effective and most important?
Mark: Money. I hate to admit that, but sitting on the political committee, we have a PAC fundraiser on Lobby Day this year, and I’ve told the other political members, you know, that when you’re dealing with the State Chamber of Commerce, who is passing out 3 and 4 million dollars a year in campaign contributions when we’ve got six thousand bucks, we don’t have the impact. We need true believers to get elected in order to influence policy as strongly as we can, but often, the people who really embrace our issues are not as well funded as the opponents, and that’s Republican and Democratic. So, it’s not a partisan issue, it’s just that the reality is that the politician has said that money is the mother’s milk of politics is absolutely correct, and it is. It’s the absolute essential; that is the number one thing. Certainly, passionate advocacy on any issue is useful because sometimes that can change public opinion since there is another influence that impacts people in addition to money, and that is the public. The polling results indicate what the public is supportive of or opposed to. You know, a lot of times it takes several years of advocacy to raise the public consciousness and education about any issue. I think this beyond coal thing really was the result of about eight to ten years of public discussion about alternative energy, and it went from “that’s meaningless, we don’t want to invest in it,” to being forced to invest in it in because an agreement that we reached in 2007 that passed in 2008 which established a minimum renewable portfolio standard, RPS, for utility companies that had to be implemented in 2015. In the meantime, we kept pushing, and the valid proposal that took place last year that related to renewable energy educated people even further, and then the Governor’s task force did a study on it which showed that number one, it was cheaper than a coal-producing entity, longer-lasting, more reliable, which was everything we had been saying for years was being indicated, but it took ten years to get there. When the public opinion shifted, that’s when the utility companies abandoned their coal philosophy. Now we just need to get a higher RPS because one of the other elements of this is that it just doesn’t protect the environment, it supports an economy that is sustainable. One wind energy system has 800 parts in it, and they all have to be manufactured somewhere, so why not manufacture them in Michigan and put people to work?
Lauren: So would you say that in the State of Michigan the public is starting to move more in favor of environmental policy?
Mark: You know, it’s hard to say. When Rebekah Warren and myself were in the legislature, we used to argue about who represented the most liberal area in the state, and I still think I do. Ann Arbor is liberal, but it is not quite as liberal as East Lansing. The environment is extremely important here and when you talk to people about protecting the environment, it’s a supportive political environment to protect the neighborhood. But, when I first ran for the legislature, I obviously did an issues poll so I was sure that my message would be directed towards the things the people were genuinely interested in. Jobs and the economy was number one, the major enterprise in East Lansing is education, which is the major employers of Michigan State University, the major taxpayers, and the Michigan Education Association. So, education was number two. The environment and protecting the environment polled at about 11 percent. It was way down on the list, and I was astonished by it. Now, when you talk to people one-on-one, they will tell you that it is important, but when they rate it, it’s not as high, and so part of the policy challenge, if you will, is raising public consciousness so that it becomes a higher priority for them. Back when fish were dying in Lake Eerie, which is happening again by the way, it was easy to get people to buy into the Clean Water Act because the lakes are dying and everybody knew it. So when you asked people they said, “yeah we have to save the lakes!” but success sort of breeds people changing their priorities as well, so, we have been very successful in a lot of major areas in protecting the environment and the result is that it kind of slides down the list of things people are concerned about.
Lauren: So what would you say are some successes and failures of the Sierra Club that you’ve encountered?
Mark: Well, certainly the bipartisan support for the Great Lakes Compact; that was a replacement compact. We had a prior Great Lakes Compact as well, but this was a huge accomplishment because there was a lot of opposition to it not because of the idea of protecting the Great Lakes, but because the way it has to be implemented impacts a lot of the ability of some people to actually use natural resources, particularly in agriculture. So, when you look at the use of water, for example, a potato farmer in Michigan uses a large amount of water to irrigate those fields and there is some restriction and regulation in keeping track of that, which is necessary in order to protect the environment, and that’s in the Great Lakes Compact. The biggest hurdle was getting them to sign on because they control a lot of Republican votes, but luckily the two people who were pushing the most were Rebekah Warren and Patty Birkholz who were on opposite sides of the aisle; one in the Senate and one in the House, and we were able to get it done. We got it done because Democrats controlled the House and the Republicans controlled the Senate. So that’s a huge success. We’ve influenced legislation like the current RPS standard but not in a way that I think has been as successful as it could have been. I think we had a weak negotiating team, but ultimately Sierra Club went neutral on it. You know, certainly we’ve opposed some of the recent legislation like sign off to state lands, and we’ve gotten involved in the wolf hunt, but traditionally we don’t get involved in hunting issues because it is not something we oppose and we don’t get involved in those issues, but that turned into not a hunting issue, but one of those environmental justice issues because the people had put on the ballot the anti-wolf hunting thing and the legislature overrode it by passing a different statute. So, that was a gain and that’s why we opposed it because we think that the public should have a right to determine these issues and the legislature wouldn’t just be changing two words and then passing a new statute to overweight the ballot in a better view by the public.
Lauren: Finally, out of the policies that the Sierra Club has helped enact, which are you the most proud of?
Mark: Hmm, well I guess nationally I can’t argue that the Clean Water Act was a bad thing; it’s a great statute and type of public policy that has impacted lives of everybody in the Great Lakes and throughout the country. Even today, strengthening the Clean Air Act would be a great policy accomplishment. Probably in this environment it’s not going to happen though, but the existing acts was a huge step, and has worked quite well. You know, we still have too many kids with asthma and we need a clean air environment for this to be prevented, so those are huge accomplishments statewide and are all in a version of the Clean Water Act, the Water Resource Act, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, and the Air Quality Control Act. Now, all of those things are huge accomplishments for the state, and most of those happened within the past decade and a half or two decades ago. So, we haven’t seen a lot of great accomplishments in the past few years other than the Great Lakes Compact, which was a gigantic accomplishment and will definitely pay off in the long run as much as these other things.
Lauren: Well thank you so much for your time today, Mr. Meadows.
Mark: You’re more than welcome.