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California and the West | THE ISSUES : CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS
/ U.S. SENATE

Boxer, Fong Offer Stark Contrasts on Environment

Sierra Club and other groups marshal forces to support the incumbent Democrat, but challenger's views appeal to agribusiness interests.

October 04, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He is the favorite of the Farm Bureau. She is the darling of the Sierra Club.

On issues involving land, air and water, the U.S. Senate race pitting Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer against Republican challenger Matt Fong offers a head-butting confrontation between agribusiness and the environmental movement.

It is a classic California clash. This, after all, is the nation's leading state in agricultural production, and likewise the birthplace of the Sierra Club, Earth Island Institute and a list of other like-minded groups.

Both sides are marshaling their considerable forces and putting their money behind their ideology. Hardly a day goes by without opposing fund-raising efforts in the salons of the San Francisco Bay Area and the farms of the Central Valley.

Officials of the California Farm Bureau, American Farm Bureau, Western Growers Assn. and California Cattlemen's Assn. toured the state's agricultural heartland last week to tout Fong as the best hope for California agriculture to regain its once formidable clout in Washington.

"We're here in what is virtually an unprecedented shoulder-to-shoulder endorsement," said Bill Pauli, president of the state Farm Bureau. "It's time for agriculture to be invited back to the table where decisions affecting our industry are being made."

On the other side, the Sierra Club had television commercials endorsing Boxer during the primary and plans to reprise them during these final weeks of the fall contest, which polls suggest is deadlocked. Boxer's survival is at the top of the organization's political agenda.

"Boxer has been a leader in environmental matters in the Congress for a long time," said Sierra Club spokesman Michael Paparian. "Matt Fong really has no environmental record to speak of, and many of the things he's said are counter to what we believe."

Fong thinks the proposed Auburn Dam on the American River north of Sacramento and the proposed nuclear waste dump at Ward Valley in the Mojave Desert are essential to keeping California's economy on the uptick. Boxer believes both are environmental disasters in the making, and she is leading the opposition in Washington.

Fong is seeking votes by saying that the Endangered Species Act needs loosening, the Clean Water Act is too picayune and costly, and the federal government should go slow in adopting safe food regulations. He is also sympathetic when farmers say that air pollution laws are unfairly applied to dust and diesel fumes during planting and harvesting.

Boxer is seeking votes by saying the opposite.

"Matt Fong says we should go slow when adopting food quality standards," Boxer said in a voice thick with incredulity. "Meanwhile, our children are afraid to bite into a hamburger because they might die of E. coli," she added, referring to a deadly bacteria.

The two are pitching messages tailored to geographic areas where they can expect to be strong: Fong in the Republican-heavy Central Valley, Boxer in the high-density urban and suburban coastal areas. Their differences are symbolic of a philosophic gap as sizable as the distance between Yreka and San Ysidro.

To Boxer, laws meant to safeguard endangered species or drinking water or food in the supermarket are an expression of government at its most noble. (She does bend on occasion, however. Last spring she intervened with the Environmental Protection Agency to allow growers of peaches, plums and nectarines to use a restricted type of fungicide.)

To Fong, environmental laws, however noble in intent, are too often an example of what happens when government is captured by "enviro-crats" who ignore the real-life economic consequences of their actions.

"Generations of farming families sweated and toiled and took risk to develop California land into our greatest industry," Fong said during the Central Valley trip, "and now some in the environmental movement, with Barbara Boxer's help, are attempting to lay claim to it."

Boxer is having none of it.

"In 20 years of elected life, no one has ever come to me and said, 'Barbara, you've got to do something, there's too much clean water,' " said Boxer.

Fong Emphasizes Boosting Exports

It would be an overstatement to assert that Fong has no friends among environment-friendly voters or that Boxer does not have farmers in her camp.

Boxer has received money from several agricultural political action committees and earned praise for her work for crop insurance, disaster relief and breaking foreign trade barriers for almonds, dates and sugar beets. Boxer also recently filled a vacancy on the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

But for the Farm Bureau and other large agricultural lobbying groups, it is too little, too late. Fong has pledged that getting a spot on the full Agriculture Committee would be his top choice among committee assignments.

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