Editor’s note: A version of this story without Rep. Elise Stefanik’s responses appears in the print version of the July/August Adirondack Explorer. The Explorer began seeking an interview in mid-May but was unable to speak to the congresswoman until after the mid-June print deadline.
By STEPHEN LEON
On May 2, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 231-190 to pass its first climate bill in nearly a decade. Known as the Climate Action Now Act, it urges President Donald Trump to remain in the Obama-era Paris climate accord and take steps to reach its emissions goals.
It is nowhere near as wide-ranging as the Green New Deal advanced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who nonetheless voted in favor of Climate Action Now. “I think we need to support whatever action on climate that we can get,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I certainly think that we need to do more, and it’s not about any one bill.”
Perhaps a more significant vote in favor of Climate Action Now came from another New York representative, Elise Stefanik, one of only three House Republicans to support the measure. Stefanik, who represents the state’s 21st District, encompassing most of the Adirondack Park, has been quietly carving out a middle ground between her own party’s broad dismissal of environmental legislation and most Democrats’ consistent support of air- and water-quality regulation and efforts to promote renewable energy and combat climate change.
The Climate Action Now Act is largely symbolic, intended to underscore the clear distinction between the two parties on climate change. There is no companion bill in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it “will go nowhere.”
For Stefanik, the bill provided an opportunity for her to build on her growing reputation as an environmentally aware Republican who is willing, at times, to break from her own party. And her voting record has moved some distance toward the environmental middle since she began her first term in 2015. That year, her paltry score of 9 percent on the League of Conservation Voters’ National Environmental Scorecard barely distinguished Stefanik from the rest of her party. But in each year since, she has shown steady improvement: She scored 29 percent in 2016, 43 percent in 2017, and 51 percent in 2018, for a lifetime score of 33 percent (most Republicans are in the single digits). For the first time, in 2018, Stefanik’s “pro-environment” votes (18) edged ahead of her “anti-environment” ones (17).
Since 1970, the league, has identified important environmental legislation and then rated lawmakers strictly by counting the number of pro- and anti-environmental votes on each bill.
Some environmental advocates around the state applaud Stefanik for moving in the right direction on environmental issues, and for being open and available for discussion. Others say her preferred market solutions to climate change aren’t enough, and that she must do more to oppose her party’s rollback of environmental protections.
“The thing I have noticed is that she has a strong local presence,” said Greg Jacob, policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy in New York. “When she comes back from D.C. to the district, she spends her time out and about.” And when she’s not here, her staff members are generally available. “This week we had her staff around the Bouquet River looking at dam removal sites” and inspecting culverts, he said, noting that improving road infrastructure around waterways, however seemingly mundane, creates healthier habitats for everyone from people to fish.
The bottom line, Jacob said, is that when she goes back to D.C., “she has firsthand knowledge of what’s happening on the ground in her district.”
Jacob also praised Stefanik’s work on the issue of invasive species. “She’s one of the primary leaders,” he said. “She has introduced legislation that would help prevent the spread of invasive species.”
John Sheehan, director of communications for the Adirondack Council, also appreciates Stefanik’s willingness to meet with environmental advocates, and to listen. “When we’ve gone to lobby her office in Washington, she has personally met with us,” Sheehan said. “And her staff is willing to take our call. She sent a staff member to our acid rain conference in Saratoga last November.”
Sheehan noted that Stefanik has been helpful on several of the Council’s core issues, including climate change, acid rain and the Lake Champlain Basin Program, a cooperative effort between New York state, Vermont and Quebec. Stefanik, he said, helped double the program’s federal watershed-protection grant.
Stefanik, in a phone interview, cited the Lake Champlain program as one of her proudest accomplishments. “I worked across the aisle—and across the lake,” she said, referring to legislation she co-authored with Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., to significantly increase the federal appropriation for the program.
Behind the scenes
The congresswoman’s overall voting record on air and water legislation has not pleased most advocates. But Sheehan points to her work on issues that don’t grab the headlines, such as data collection. “Trump has twice proposed 31-percent cuts to the EPA budget,” Sheehan said. “So we worked with the New York delegation last year, and Stefanik was part of that—she helped get letters sent to the appropriations committee, asking that they protect the funding for acid rain data collection in the Adirondacks.” And the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget actually increased slightly.
This year, with appropriations controlled by Democrats, some were more interested in spending directly on reducing pollution than on data collection. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who works alongside Stefanik on this, had to explain why the research is so important—without it, they’d be defenseless.
Albany-born and Harvard-educated, Stefanik worked in the George W. Bush White House, and in 2012 she managed Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s debate preparation as he ran for vice president on the Mitt Romney ticket. After Obama won re-election, Stefanik returned to upstate New York, and in 2014 decided to run for the newly redistricted 21st District House seat. Winning the office at age 30, she became the youngest-ever woman (since eclipsed by Ocasio-Cortez) to serve in Congress.
As her early environmental voting record differed little from that of other Republicans, Stefanik came out of the gate at odds with New York environmentalists—and with some of her constituents, who know firsthand how air and water quality impacts their lives and livelihoods. Even if the district leans somewhat to the right, the realities of acid rain and climate change have educated locals who might be more conservative on other issues. Sheehan offered the example of outdoor sportsmen and women who have gotten behind environmental issues. “That’s brought a large number of potentially skeptical Republicans onto our side,” he said. “They’ve seen trees dying, they’ve seen fishless lakes—they don’t like it.”
Shifting political dynamics
But “Republican orthodoxy” clouds GOP politicians’ judgment when it comes to things that should have bipartisan support, and that goes for Stefanik too, said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of the Albany-based Environmental Advocates of New York. Iwanowicz pointed to an early sign that Stefanik had adopted the language of that orthodoxy when, during her first re-election campaign, she vowed to fight the “out-of-control EPA.”
“From my perspective,” he said, “she doesn’t wake up in the morning wanting to do the right thing by the environment, but she almost views it as a ‘have-to’ so it’s not used against her.”
Stefanik defended her early low scores from League of Conservation Voters because, for one thing, “in my first term, we did not have a Republican president.” That affects the dynamics of how a representative responds to what the president and his EPA are trying to do, she said. At times, “Obama overreached.”
Then for two years, with Republicans controlling all three branches, Stefanik began to make distinctions where she disagreed with Trump or the party. Now that she is in the House minority, she’s in a position to reach across the aisle to work on legislation where her environmental values dovetail with those of mainstream Democrats.
Stefanik also stressed the ongoing education she has received from her constituents. “I have learned so much,” she said, “learning at the very local level about what impacts my district, (and) the public health consequences of environmental policy.”
One example she gave was her constituents talking about Lyme disease, with ticks surviving at higher elevations due to climate change. She also acknowledged her constituents’ role in helping her get behind “renewable energy” besides just solar and wind (which she supports), to include such things as biomass and hydroelectric, which the advocates are less enthusiastic about. Investing in these energies, she said, would provide “job and economic opportunities in the district.”
Reminded of Stefanik’s steady climb in the voter group’s rankings, Iwanowicz remained skeptical. “A legislator from New York should not be proud of a 51-percent environmental record, particularly where a healthy environment is a big part of her constituents’ livelihood.”
Iwanowicz compared Stefanik’s record on the environment unfavorably to that of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who represented parts of Stefanik’s (now redrawn) district from 2007 to 2009, before being appointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton when she became secretary of state. Gillibrand “had a real understanding of what clean air meant from a parent’s perspective,” Iwanowicz said.
He suggested that Stefanik is trying to burnish her reputation by getting her name on “high-ticket headline environmental votes; but when it comes to really important regulations that would rein in toxic (pollution), often she sides with interests that are not in the health interests of her constituents.”
As an example, he pointed to her 2018 vote in favor of the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, also known as the Farm Bill, which repealed the clean-water safeguards established by the 2015 Clean Water Rule. The bill passed, and President Trump signed it into law on Dec. 20.
“The words and deeds don’t match up with her,” Iwanowicz concluded.
Stefanik countered that the bill was a Farm Bureau priority, and it’s important to her to be “making sure that their voices are heard.”
Judith Enck, a longtime Capital Region activist and a former EPA regional administrator, was more blunt in her criticism.
“President Trump has launched the most serious attack on environmental protection in American history,” Enck said. “The Adirondacks are at particular risk. Since she is from the same party, it is troubling that (Stefanik) has not stood up to President Trump to challenge his unprecedented attacks on the environment and public health. On climate change and acid rain, the stakes could not be higher. This is no time to be complicit.”
Market solutions debated
Earlier this year, Stefanik wrote an essay on “market-oriented solutions to climate change” for The Catalyst, a publication of the George W. Bush Institute. Rejecting the Green New Deal (“a non-starter”) and government intervention generally, the essay called for “market-based policy approaches (to) encourage behavioral changes through signals to the market … rather than through explicit governmental directives,” and also for expanding tax credits for wind and solar to biomass, hydropower, and geothermal. “Market-based approaches encourage businesses and individuals to undertake pollution control efforts that are in their own interests, and that collectively meet policy goals when they are well-designed and properly implemented,” Stefanik wrote.
With the essay, Stefanik appeared to be digging in more adamantly to the middle ground she has staked out for herself: more vocal on climate change than the average Republican, but still an anti-regulation Republican.
Even John Sheehan, who looks for silver linings in Stefanik’s record, challenged her position. After being told about the essay, he wrote back, “Saw Stefanik article. We are not on board with biomass as carbon-neutral. Not on board with statement that regulations are economically damaging.”
The environmentalist author Bill McKibben, in an email to the Watertown Daily Times regarding the essay, acknowledged that some market-oriented solutions do work to an extent, but that at this late stage, they’re not enough. “At this point, we need to move very quickly,” McKibben wrote.
The Nature Conservancy’s Jacob said his feeling about the congresswoman’s environmental role is less a frustration than a hope.
“I would love to see her taking a greater role in leadership down in D.C.,” Jacob said. “We would like to see her out front more on this issue.”
“At some point, regardless of ideology,” he continued, “there’s an understanding that these issues are critical to New York, and by extension to the country.”
Jacob said that shifting winds in Washington have opened a door, that the Green New Deal “has forced a conversation,” and that Stefanik is uniquely poised—if she so chooses—to pull some legislators in her own party off the fence by taking more of a stance.
This is a real chance for her, Jacob said, “to lead the GOP into a conservation-based, science-based future.”
“I hope that I already am,” Stefanik said. She noted that a bill she cosponsored with broad bipartisan support recently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanently. She said she considers herself “one of the national leading independent voices in the Republican Party.”