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2023 Elections: The Final Stretch, Part 2
Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maine's Pine Tree Power initiative, and municipals
We continue our preview of Tuesday’s elections with an in-depth look at some of the most consequential climate campaigns.
Democratic governor Andy Beshear’s engaged response to numerous climate disasters is part of why he has remained relatively popular in conservative coal-seam Kentucky. His Republican opponent is Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who has acted aggressively to promote the falsehood that the state’s economy remains dependent on fossil fuel production. Prior to winning election as AG, Cameron was an aide to Mitch McConnell, and helped oversee the confirmation process for radical anti-climate Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. Beshear has used his fundraising advantage over Cameron on a big bet that Kentucky voters do not share Cameron’s extreme opposition to reproductive rights. In one powerful ad, a rape survivor directly addressed Cameron to challenge his position against any exceptions to the state’s abortion ban. Last year, voters rejected a proposed amendment that would have affirmatively removed protections for abortion from the state constitution. Aside from the tossup governor’s race, Republicans are favored in elections for the other statewide offices.
Jeff Yass, Pennsylvania’s wealthiest resident and a climate-denying Republican megadonor, is spending heavily to influence several elections in the Keystone State this November. His top priority seems to be electing Republican Supreme Court justice candidate Carolyn Carluccio over Democratic candidate Dan McCaffery. A win by Carluccio, who seems unsure who won the 2020 presidential election, would bring Republicans one seat closer to reclaiming a majority on the state Supreme Court. This has profound implications for democracy, as well as for pipeline permitting, and the state’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
Yass has also spent big to boost Republican Joe Rockey in his bid for Allegheny County Executive against Democrat Sara Innamorato, a progressive who overcame fracking and coal money to win the May primary.
Maine voters will decide on Question 3, a ballot initiative that asks whether the public should convert Maine’s deeply unpopular investor-owned utilities (IOUs), Central Maine Power (CMP) and Versant, into a consumer-owned non-profit called the Pine Tree Power Company. If Question 3 is approved, it will trigger a sale of the IOUs to the state of Maine. The sale would cost an estimated $5-13 billion and would be completed within about five years. Pine Tree Power would then be governed by a 13-member board, a majority of whom would be elected by Maine voters. Maine would become the first state to establish a publicly-owned utility statewide.
IOUs serve over 70 percent of utility customers in the US, compared with 14 percent of customers who have some form of publicly owned utility. Publicly-owned utilities generally outperform IOUs on rates, reliability, and resilient grid investments. In theory, they’re also better positioned to shift more rapidly to clean energy sources, and proponents point to Nebraska for evidence of consumer-owned utilities making faster climate progress.
Pine Tree Power advocates submitted nearly 70,000 signatures to qualify Question 3 for the ballot after Democratic governor Janet Mills vetoed a previous attempt to refer the question to voters. After that veto in 2021, Mills hinted she was open to a consumer-owned structure in the future, acknowledging the “abysmal” performance of Maine’s IOUs, and citing problems from a 2015 merger that made CMP predominantly foreign-owned. But Mills has come out strongly against Question 3, insisting that the measure will be caught up in litigation and casting doubt on the expertise of publicly accountable board members.
Maine was one of three states that enacted legislation this year restricting utilities from using ratepayer money to obstruct climate action via their political spending. But that legislation became law too late to prevent the utilities from deploying over $34 million against Question 3. Though there is some noisy data, polls seem to indicate that Question 3 is headed toward failure in the face of this powerful opposition. Proponents can try again in the future, but will face stronger barriers if Question 1— a competing initiative that the IOUs placed on the ballot prohibiting consumer-owned utilities from taking on debt without voter approval— passes.
The Pine Tree Power initiative is also opposed by unions representing utility workers, who are worried that they’ll have weakened power to bargain if classified as public employees. Labor spokespersons acknowledged that Pine Tree Power advocates dispute their interpretation. There were reportedly efforts by Pine Tree Power to address labor’s concerns, but in the end the dialogue was unsuccessful.
The Pine Tree Power initiative is hardly the only example of a blue-green rift creating friction during our energy transition, but as Bill McKibben writes, there are hopeful signs of progress in Maine and beyond: earlier this year, successful negotiations between climate advocates and the Maine Lobstering Union resulted in the state AFL-CIO signing off on a plan for offshore wind expansion.
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Dozens of municipalities will also hold elections on November 7. Check out Lead Locally’s list of endorsements to read about the Green New Deal slate running in elections from Tucson, Arizona to Vancouver, Washington to Holyoke, Massachusetts. Here’s a deeper look at Houston, Spokane, and Duluth.
The largest municipal contest is the race for mayor of the increasingly unlivable oil hub of Houston, where voters have listed flooding as one of their top concerns. In a race likely headed to a December 9 runoff, centrist Democratic state senator John Whitmire is seen as the favorite against longtime Congressional Progressive Caucus Member Sheila Jackson-Lee. Whitmire’s experiencing dealing with a legislature that is constantly trying to strip Houston of local control is seen as a plus, while Jackson-Lee’s mistreatment of staff has caught up with her. Early on in the year, there seemed to be some promising candidates in the race, but as detailed in a scathing Primary School post, they all dropped out when Jackson-Lee got in, leaving Houston with a choice between a notoriously abusive boss and a “de facto Republican.”
Spokane is Washington’s second largest city. Located on the eastern side of the state near the Idaho border, it has a very different political culture than the more populous Seattle, as exemplified by its Republican mayor Nadine Woodward and its congressional representative, climate-change-denying Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Fossil fuel pollution has fed more intense wildfires in the region surrounding Spokane. Woodward decided to respond to the Gray fire that devastated thousands of acres this summer by attending a prayer event organized by Christian nationalist Sean Feucht, who urged the crowd to “pray for a fire that would consume Spokane.” A few weeks later, Spokane’s city council censured Woodward for participating in that event and appearing on stage with former state representative Matt Shea, author of the “Biblical Basis for War” manifesto.
Woodward is being challenged by Democrat Lisa Brown, who served as the Washington Senate majority leader from 2005 through 2012 and as Washington’s commerce department director until last year. Brown has been endorsed by firefighters, and has joined with council leaders to call for a pause on residential development in the rural Latah Valley neighborhood until adequate fire response measures can be put in place. Woodward has said Brown allegedly represents “radical left policy coming from the West Coast,” and refused to appear at a climate forum organized by Gonzaga University. Lead Locally has endorsed Brown and council candidates Paul Dillon, Kitty Klitzke, and Lindsey Shaw on the basis that they will work to preserve the city’s power to limit gas hookups in new development.
A fascinating dynamic in Duluth, Minnesota’s elections signals a new phase in our climate crisis. In 2019, Tulane professor Jesse Keenan gave a “tongue-in-cheek” lecture dubbing the city “climate proof Duluth.” Keenan’s lecture spawned copious media coverage, including numerous New York Times features about Duluth as a climate haven. Incumbent mayor Emily Larson has been quoted in many of these stories. Now running for a third term, Larson touts her climate policy accomplishments, including reducing fossil fuel pollution across the city. Larson is endorsed by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party and governor Tim Walz, who signed a tremendous bevy of climate policy into law during 2023’s legislative session.
Larson’s re-election campaign comes as Duluth faces a potential uneven growth spurt following decades of stagnant population numbers, and there have been controversial fights over sustainable development and affordable housing. Larson is being challenged by former state senator Roger Reinert, a “business Democrat” who declined to seek the DFL endorsement, but still finished well ahead of Larson in the August primary. Larson’s campaign has sent mailers calling Reinert “silent on climate action.” Unprecedented outside spending has flowed into the race, with Reinert’s support mostly coming from Republican donors, while Larson’s climate record has been praised through an independent expenditure by the League of Conservation Voters, which emphasizes that “Duluth needs a climate-friendly mayor.”
“The climate refugee phenomenon is a real thing,” Lynn Marie Nephew told the Duluth News-Tribune in a story about the four candidates competing for two at-large council positions. Although that campaign has centered around issues like rent control, there is a discernible difference in the candidates’ views about fossil fuel infrastructure. Incumbent Councilmember Arik Forsman is a utility employee and a proponent of Line 3. He and Nephew are endorsed by the pro-pipeline union LiUNA, while progressive candidates Jenna Yeakle and Miranda Pacheco are endorsed by the DFL.