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Polls show that a majority of Pennsylvanians want lawmakers to do something about climate change. An annual environmental scorecard tracks how state legislators vote on climate and other environmental issues. In many parts of the state, that voting record is pretty dismal. 

Conservation Voters of PA and its partners put out this scorecard each year. To get more traction on environmental issues, they’re putting money and resources into endorsing candidates to flip Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled legislature. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Josh McNeil, executive director of Conservation Voters of PA.

LISTEN to the conversation

Kara Holsopple: Your organization has spent about a million dollars in this election to turn Pennsylvania’s General Assembly blue, and with additional money from other environmental groups in the state, it’s two million dollars. You need to flip nine House seats and four state Senate seats. Why this big push now? 

Josh McNeil: For a couple of reasons. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives has been the origin of almost a decade of bad environmental legislation. The House of Representatives, under Speaker Turzai, was essentially an arm of the natural gas industry. They worked tirelessly to cripple the Department of Environmental Protection with budget cuts and to remove any ability it had to protect our air and our water. 

There’s been an all out assault on our ability to keep the air that Pennsylvanians breathe and the water that we drink clean, and the only way to fix that is to change who’s in charge of the statehouse.

They gave hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to industries that gave them campaign contributions, and not to small businesses. Even in Covid times, they were putting 670 million dollars into petrochemical plants, rather than the small businesses that actually employ most Pennsylvanians.

So it was time for a change. We hoped after Speaker Turzai stepped down that the new speaker would change that attitude. But one of the first things that he said in a public meeting was that cutting the Environmental Stewardship Fund, which funds our parks and our open spaces in the state, was one of his first legislative priorities. So we had no choice. 

There’s been an all out assault on our ability to keep the air that Pennsylvanians breathe and the water that we drink clean, and the only way to fix that is to change who’s in charge of the statehouse.

House Races

Holsopple: Can you give me an example of a key state house rate that you think you can win? 

McNeil: There are three really interesting races in Allegheny County. In House District 28, Emily Skopov is running to replace Speaker Turzai. In House District 30, Lissa Geiger Shulman is one of my favorite candidates in the whole state. She is really committed to taking care of her community’s public health, their air, their water. She is running to replace Representative Mizgorski, who in her first term in office has voted against the environment literally 100 percent of the time. She has not cast a single vote that would do anything to keep air and water clean. 

In House District 44, Michele Knoll is running against Representative Gaydos, another freshman legislator who has voted against the environment 100 percent of the time. So the opportunity to replace Mike Turzai and two zero percent environmentalists with three champions, three strong women who have clearly demonstrated their commitment to their community is something we couldn’t pass up. We’re excited to invest in those races and to try to help them win. 

Holsopple: Why do you think it’s likely they could win?

McNeil: Allegheny County is changing in some really interesting ways. You’ve seen in the last couple of years a number of strong progressive leaders take office. I’m thinking about Representative Summer Lee and Representative Sarah Innamorato. The political environment in that area is changing significantly. I think the Trump administration has, in polarizing the country, also polarized different regions, and changed the political calculus. 

People who might agree with the Republican Party on a lot of things, but don’t agree on some of the more egregious things that the Trump administration has done, are looking for new places to go. We’ve seen polling that shows that all three of these candidates are winning over not just Democrats and Independents, but significant numbers of Republicans, as well. So I think all three of them stand a really good chance. That bloc of three new legislators from Allegheny County is going to be key to changing power across the state.

Holsopple: What are the challenges to electing Democratic candidates in some of these races? What are you running up against?

McNeil: Money is the biggest answer to that question. The Republican party, typically, is much better funded. The fossil fuel industry, which is probably the largest, most lucrative industry on Earth, has a fair amount of money to put into races and elections, and has done so repeatedly over time. But what we found is that a simple message of caring about people in a community and caring about the air that sustains them, the water that they drink and the land and parks that they have available to them, can overcome pretty large sums of money. 

So there are opportunities in places where there were never opportunities before to take someone with a zero percent voting record and replace them with someone who’s going to care about our environment. 

The average voters are, in this moment especially, caring about public health and caring about making that better. I mean, Pennsylvania has some of the worst air quality on Earth, certainly one of the top worst in the nation. That’s especially true in Allegheny County and a few other places in the state, and that means a lot more deaths from Covid-19. Air pollution makes your lungs weaker, and gives you things like asthma and other conditions that can make Covid much worse. So these candidates who want to clean things up are really speaking to what voters are caring about at the moment.

Holsopple: You addressed this a little bit, but how does President Trump’s environmental record and the presidential campaign impact your efforts to elect more Democrats in Pennsylvania? 

McNeil: You know, Pennsylvania, being the center of the universe for this presidential election, is having a lot of impact down-ballot. I would say in Allegheny County, and in places like Bucks County and Chester County, we’re seeing massive shifts in the Republican Party, of people who are voting against President Trump for environmental reasons, and for a number of other reasons. That has put a number of traditionally Republican state House and Senate seats in play, really for the first time. 

So there are opportunities in places where there were never opportunities before to take someone with a zero percent voting record and replace them with someone who’s going to care about our environment. 

Dismal Environmental Voting Records

Holsopple: What do you mean when you say “zero percent voting record” on environmental issues?

McNeil: Conservation Voters of PA, with some of our partners, issues the Pennsylvania Environmental Scorecard, where we track how legislators vote. So when I say zero percent, I mean, they have voted for all of the bad legislation, and against any good legislation. 

Holsopple: There are Green Party candidates running for state representative in several races. They have progressive environmental positions. Does your organization ever endorse Green Party candidates, or are you doing so in this election cycle?

McNeil: We haven’t, in general. You know, I am glad there is a Green Party. I’m glad they’re pushing hard. But evidence of the last hundred years would suggest that this is really a two party country, and that a Green Party candidate doesn’t have much chance to win. So I encourage them for doing what they’re doing, and encourage them for pushing these issues. But we haven’t seen one that we thought had a chance to win that we could get behind. But we’re always looking. 

We’re always looking for Republicans to support, as well. The party doesn’t matter to us. What matters to us is that you care about the air and the water. You care about fighting climate change, and you’re going to do something about it.

Environmental Wish List

Holsopple: What are you hoping could be accomplished legislatively or policy-wise with a Democratically-controlled General Assembly in Pennsylvania?

McNeil: First, I’m just excited to stop the attacks. In the last two months, in the middle of this crisis, the legislature has voted to prevent the Department of Environmental Protection from doing anything to deal with climate change. They haven’t done anything to protect anybody’s health. So first, we’ve got to stop the bleeding. 

Second, we need major investments in open space. Open space is more important than ever as more people are trapped at home. Our state parks and forests, and our local parks, are places that have become much more important in 2020 than even they were before. Our polling sort of backs that up with massive numbers of people wanting to see that, and saying that that should be one of the last things that gets cut in the state budget, as our legislators are determining that over the next couple of months. 

We want to fund clean energy and create a renewable energy standard that provides incentives, that levels the playing field so that solar and wind have the same opportunities and the same kind of economic incentives that existing sources of energy do. We’ve got centuries worth of problems in this state — legacies of a lot of pollution — and we want to get started cleaning those up.

Josh McNeil is the executive director of Conservation Voters of PA.

Pennsylvanians Want a Lot From Their Lawmakers When It Comes to Climate Change