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Patriots Live

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Final

JOANNA WEISS

Left’s money play on the environment

ISTOCKPHOTO

In a downtown conference room last Tuesday night, a group of eight Democratic voters, gathered for a focus group, were asked about the state of the environment. They used words like “horrible,” “dismal,” and “fragile.” But when it came to the upcoming US Senate primary, they didn’t name the Earth as a top issue. And most didn’t know the policy differences between Stephen Lynch and Ed Markey — including their positions on the Keystone XL pipeline, which Markey opposes and Lynch supports.

Then the pollster turned on a video about last week’s oil spill in Arkansas: interviews with people whose homes were destroyed by the type of Canadian sludge that Keystone would carry. The response was visceral, emotional. People who had supported the pipeline declared that they’d changed their minds. People said they’d vote against Lynch if he supported the pipeline.

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Watching from the other side of a two-way mirror, Craig Altemose pumped his fist. This was a tiny sign that the money might work.

Altemose, a 27-year-old climate and social justice activist, led a group that last month invited Tom Steyer, the California hedge-fund-billionaire-turned-political-player, to pour some of his fortune into the Massachusetts race.

Steyer agreed and entered with a bang, demanding that Lynch withdraw his support for Keystone by “high noon” on March 22, or else. Now, we’re into the “or else”: a campaign to make the environment a top issue in the April 30 primary.

The price tag is yet to be determined. “I don’t know, but I’ve never seen a low estimate,” Steyer told me by phone last week when I asked how much he would spend.

But because of that pesky “people’s pledge” — no outside TV ads — we’ve so far seen a smorgasbord of earnest press conferences and gonzo stunts: RV trucks that show Lynch’s face morphing into George W. Bush’s; an airplane banner flying over last Wednesday’s Bruins-Canadiens game, that said,“STEVE LYNCH SAYS: ‘GO HABS!’ ” — the Canadiens’ nickname — “ ‘AND GO CANADIAN DIRTY OIL!’ ”

After that, the Lynch folks put out a fact-filled press release, insisting that the congressman is a bona fide Bruins fan. This is what happens when money floods politics.

But let’s be clear: This money dump isn’t really about Lynch, or even about the Lynch-Markey race. It’s about using Massachusetts as a lab to test-market a new approach to political influence on the environment, an effort to counter the billions that the oil and gas industry has spent, for decades, on public relations and lobbying. Steyer’s goal is to make the environment more like guns or abortion, the kind of wedge issue that can actually move elections.

Whether Lynch is a fair target is a matter for debate (though Markey also has the backing of the League of Conservation Voters and the environmental group 350.org). Steyer’s people point to a vote Lynch made last year, supporting $554 million in fossil fuel research and development programs. Lynch’s people respond that Barney Frank and Richard Neal voted the same way, as did the entire Democratic leadership. They also offer a long list of oil and gas subsidies that Lynch has opposed.

Still, Keystone remains the line in the sand for environmentalists, the symbol of a long-term commitment to oil and oil companies, a visceral issue they think will move voters. The trick is getting them to care about the pipeline so much that they care less about anything else.

Including the money.

That’s a potential drawback to Steyer’s involvement in the race: Voters still say they hate money in politics. In Tuesday’s focus group, people spoke dismissively about the influence of the Koch brothers, the health insurance lobby, Halliburton. A Lynch supporter made a reference to “that billionaire,” though no one seemed to realize that billionaire was paying for the room.

Steyer told me he hates Citizens United, too. “I agree about the point about money in politics,” he said. “But the money’s all on the other side.”

And he said he would measure success, not just through who wins the primary, but whether voters — and politicians — start talking about the environment more.

“It’s important that this be spoken about,” Steyer told me.

He understands, more than most, how well money can talk.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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