Although a 12.3% unemployment rate and $20-billion budget deficit ensure the economy will dominate California's race for governor, Republican front-runner Meg Whitman has guaranteed that the environment will also be a high-profile issue in the campaign.
Whitman, the former CEO of EBay, declared in September that her first act as governor would be to suspend the state's pioneering climate change law, AB 32. It was a high-risk political move for Whitman, putting her campaign at odds with the views of a large majority of California voters while, more broadly, reigniting a statewide debate about the impact of strong environmental regulation on economic growth.
AB 32, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law in 2006, sets increasingly stringent caps on greenhouse gas emissions, leading to a 25% reduction by 2020. The governor's office described the bill as "a first-in-the-world comprehensive program of regulatory and market mechanisms to achieve real, quantifiable, cost-effective reductions of greenhouse gases."
That's not how Whitman sees it. The law, she says, "will lead to higher energy costs at a time when we can least afford them. [It] will discourage job creation and could kill any recovery." Schwarzenegger, who encouraged the measure, answered Whitman's statements with sharp criticism for all those who assert a conflict between the economy and the environment:
"I think there are people that just don't believe in fixing and working on the environment," he said. "They don't believe there is such a thing as global warming; they're still living in the Stone Age."
Whether the measure is the best approach to reducing greenhouse gases -- about which there is considerable debate -- Whitman's stance against it flies in the face of California political trends in recent decades. Like abortion rights, environmental protection is strongly favored by independent, decline-to-state voters as well as by large majorities of Democrats. As with the issue of choice, taking a stance in opposition to popular opinion can kill the general election chances of a statewide candidate.
Already, the liberal Courage Campaign has attacked Whitman in a radio ad, comparing her position on carbon reduction targets to that of Sarah Palin. Significantly, Whitman used the ad by the leftist grass-roots organization as a fundraising tool, positioning herself as a free market champion under attack.
As a political matter, the candidate's opposition to AB 32 may make some short-term tactical sense. Her first challenge is to win the Republican primary contest, in which right-wing voters dominate, and where she faces Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former Rep. Tom Campbell. The Public Policy Institute of California recently reported that, among Republicans, support for AB 32 has fallen in recent years, from 65% to 20% in favor in 2006 when it was passed to 43% to 46% against the measure in 2009.
As an aside in the GOP primary, but a harbinger for the general election, Democrats in the state stand 78% to 12% in favor of the law, and independents are 67% to 23% in favor of it.
And while 89% of California Democrats and 75% of independents say "it is necessary to counter the effects of global warming right away," Republicans are split on that issue, with 44% favoring immediate action and 46% saying it isn't necessary to take steps yet.
Whitman's strategy could ultimately backfire. It is difficult to see the environment as a determining issue in the GOP primary, where Poizner more quietly takes the same position as Whitman while Campbell favors AB 32. Republicans historically have not picked candidates according to their positions on the environment
But Democrats and independents do, and they will be voting in the general election.
The Public Policy Institute reported that about nine in 10 California Democrats and eight in 10 independents say the government should regulate greenhouse gases from sources such as power plants, cars and factories to reduce global warming. Whitman might call that a "job killer," but she would do so at her political peril: Even 54% of Republicans favor such measures, according to the institute's polling.
It's not hard to envision an anti-Whitman ad quoting Schwarzenegger:
"Some have challenged whether AB 32 is good for businesses. I say unquestionably it is good for businesses. Not only large, well-established businesses, but small businesses that will harness their entrepreneurial spirit to help us achieve our climate goals."
At the same time Whitman has been raising the issue's profile, the governor's Office of Planning and Research has been instructed to promulgate guidelines by which cities and counties can evaluate the effects on global warming of new development -- a result of lawsuits brought by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. The presumptive Democratic candidate for governor, Brown with his actions has forced consideration of global warming into local planning decisions.
Whitman may please Republican conservatives on the issue, but she is up against broader political forces that favor policies to slow climate change, including a huge portion of general election voters who want California to lead the way.
Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts report regularly on California politics at calbuzz.com.