SACRAMENTO — Earth Day may have come and gone, but the environment remains on the political center stage. Just look at the race for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.
State Sens. John Seymour and Marian Bergeson, both from conservative Orange County, are in a struggle over who can appear tougher on pollution.
Seymour this week unveiled a television commercial highlighting his support for the Clean Air Act of 1988, which Bergeson opposed. Bergeson has been running ads describing herself as a "crusader" against air pollution and offshore oil drilling.
But before the campaign began, neither candidate was considered much of an environmentalist. Both have been heavily supported by campaign contributions from land developers and have carried legislation backed by that industry.
Doug Linney, political director for the League of Conservation Voters, said he was "shocked" last year to hear Seymour talking about the environment as an important issue. The league has endorsed Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, who is seeking a third term.
"Neither of these candidates has shown much leadership in the past," Linney said of Seymour and Bergeson. "Seymour has never been good on the environment. Marian at least at times gave us her vote."
Corey Brown, a lobbyist for the Planning and Conservation League, said the GOP competition demonstrates that Republicans now recognize that environmental protection is a goal shared by voters of both parties. Seymour and Bergeson may be especially sensitive to the environmental issue because of the recent oil spill along the Orange County coast. But Brown said neither candidate in the past has been a reliable ally of the environmental movement.
"Both of them will listen to our arguments, but it's much tougher to get their votes when there is industry opposition," Brown said. "Hopefully, their comments reflect a renewed and greater commitment to the environment, and we hope their votes this year will reflect that as well."
The two candidates have been squabbling for weeks over their votes on two air quality bills.
Bergeson based her "crusader" label on her vote in favor of a 1987 measure giving a Southern California anti-smog agency greater authority to control emissions in the South Coast Air Basin. Seymour voted against the bill the first time it was considered in the Senate. But he voted for the measure after it was weakened by Assembly amendments, which removed provisions opposed by the oil industry, utilities and manufacturers.
Seymour's first television commercial says that he is the only Republican in the race who voted in favor of the Clean Air Act of 1988. That measure, described by a top Sierra Club official as "the air quality bill of the decade," required smog control districts statewide to reduce emissions by 5% each year until they reach state standards. The bill also gave districts new powers to regulate vehicle traffic to encourage commuting and mass transit.
Bergeson voted against the bill, one of only four state senators to do so. An aide said she was reflecting local government concerns about how the new rules would be implemented. Earlier this year, Bergeson signed a letter to the state's congressional delegation that described the bill she opposed as "the most far-reaching and comprehensive air quality program in the nation."
She has opposed offshore oil drilling and was a central player in the fight to preserve and restore the wetlands around Upper Newport Bay in Orange County. But Bergeson also has supported efforts to limit the fees that real estate developers must pay to finance public works for their communities. And she authored a bill that would have created a "private city" run by a builder as the first stage in developing the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach.
"Her record in the environmental area is very sound," said Eric Rose, Bergeson's campaign coordinator. "Some environmental groups might not be content because she does not vote 100% the way they want her to. But we think she has a darn good record."
Seymour, a landlord who became a millionaire in the real estate business, has carried legislation that would have penalized cities that adopted plans to limit growth. He also was the author of legislation allowing the construction of new toll roads in Orange County that were sought by land developers eager to build on vast tracts of open land not now served by major roads. He did not oppose offshore oil drilling until after the Alaska oil spill last year.
"I think John has evolved over time," said Donna Kingwell, his legislative assistant, who pointed out that he voted for bills to monitor acid rain and ban the chemicals used in aerosol spray cans, and he carried legislation that would have required the state to purchase recycled oil. "If you're not flexible enough to recognize people's changing attitudes and change your opinions on certain things, then you're not representing them very well."