Why is this environmental group staying neutral in governor’s race?
For more than a century, the Environmental League of Massachusetts has aggressively lobbied government officials to protect the state’s land, water, and public health.
In recent years, it has also endorsed political candidates who support its agenda, nearly all of them Democrats, including former governor Deval Patrick and former attorney general Martha Coakley, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2014. This year, of the 58 candidates the group endorsed, all but two are Democrats.
But there was one glaring omission: Jay Gonzalez, the current Democratic nominee for governor, whose policy proposals more closely align with the league’s agenda than perhaps any previous candidate for the state’s top office.
As Tuesday’s election nears, polls show Governor Charlie Baker with a commanding lead in the race, and the league’s decision not to endorse Gonzalez is clearly strategic. But it has also put the liberal advocacy group in an awkward position. At a debate Thursday night, Baker, a Republican, suggested ELM’s decision to withhold its endorsement was a nod in his favor.
“I was honored to see that the Environmental League of Massachusetts, the biggest and broadest coalition of environmental organizations, chose to stay neutral in this race,” he said.
The decision, which came after intense internal debate, was surprising because the group has consistently criticized Baker’s environmental record. In annual report cards issued by the organization, Baker has received a “C” each of the past three years.
In this year’s report, the group gave Baker a failing grade for seeking to assume the responsibility of regulating state waterways from the federal government, which critics saw as a way to weaken oversight. They also issued an “F” for the administration’s record on waste facilities, specifically its approval of a landfill expansion in Saugus, which allowed the plant to dump an additional 500,000 tons of toxic ash beside a vital estuary.
It also came despite Baker acknowledging last month at a candidates forum — which ELM organized — that he failed to honor a pledge to the organization in his 2014 campaign that he would devote at least 1 percent of the state budget to environmental organizations.
Baker has also taken positions on a range of other issues that ELM and other environmental advocacy organizations have long opposed, such as the expansion of natural gas lines in Massachusetts, which Baker has not ruled out even after the explosions in the Merrimack Valley in September.
By contrast, Gonzalez has promised to reject new gas pipelines, accelerate the state’s transition to renewable energy, and impose a carbon tax to reduce the state’s emissions, among other environmental proposals that ELM favors.
At last month’s candidates forum, Gonzalez even wore a large green pin that read “1 percent for the environment” and pledged to increase state funding for the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
His staff declined to criticize ELM’s decision, instead noting the environmental groups that have endorsed Gonzalez.
“These leading climate action organizations believe in Jay’s environmental agenda,” said Kevin Ready, Gonzalez’s campaign manager.
ELM officials acknowledged that political considerations influenced their decision. With Baker seemingly assured of a second term, endorsing his opponent could well hurt their agenda by ultimately reducing access to the governor.
“We’re about endorsing environmental protections, so we’re continuing to talk to both campaigns and using our leverage to encourage them to increase their commitment to environmental protection,” said George Bachrach, former president and board chairman of the group’s lobbying arm. “If we were to endorse either candidate, we would be closing the door in terms of influence to the other. So we’re keeping both doors open.”
Still, he found it peculiar that Baker had gloated about the group’s decision.
“Candidates can say what they want to say, but I think it’s damning with faint praise if someone considers a non-endorsement anything close to a blessing,” Bachrach said. “We have purposely not endorsed Governor Baker.”
Baker’s significant lead in the polls has made other liberal groups wary of endorsing his opponent. In September, the political arm of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, a staunch supporter of abortion rights and Democrats, announced it wouldn’t endorse either candidate.
The Service Employees International Union, which opposed Baker four years ago and is also a traditional supporter of Democrats, has also declined to make an endorsement in the governor’s race. That decision was touted as well by the Baker campaign, which issued a press release last month, calling the SEIU’s non-endorsement “a tacit acceptance of the Republican and a blow to the ability of the Democratic nominee.”
Clean Water Action, another prominent environmental organization that has criticized Baker, also declined to endorse either candidate, even though it supported Democrats during the last three gubernatorial elections.
“We made the best decision we could make,” said Elizabeth Saunders, the group’s director. “I don’t think it’s a failure of our mission.”
But officials from the environmental groups that endorsed Gonzalez said they’re disappointed that prominent organizations such as ELM have declined to use its influence to promote the candidate that most closely represents its environmental interests.
“I strongly disagree with their choice,” said Deb Pasternak, chair of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, which endorsed Gonzalez. “Gonzalez’s fate is not yet sealed. But conflicting messages from environmental groups are not helpful.”
Officials at 350 Mass Action said they endorsed Gonzalez because of his “bold, progressive vision for addressing the climate crisis.”
They see a “clear distinction” between the candidates, calling Baker “lukewarm” about promoting renewable energy, while Gonzalez had pledged to “fight new [gas] pipelines with every fiber of his being and to accelerate a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy.”
“For us, it’s more important to be honest to the public about where politicians stand than to court access with those like Governor Baker, who do not seem to appreciate the level of crisis we are facing,” said Craig Altemose, 350 Mass Action’s executive director.