This is a guest post written by Laura Sabransky:
While a large bowl of Tootsie Rolls and Jelly Bellies may not be the most conventional method of assessing a U.S. Senator, it made perfect sense to 11-year old environmental advocate Bella Parra, who visited Mark Kirk with her single mom, Barbara, in 2013.
When U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) took office in 2011, he inherited the “candy desk” – a half-century tradition of senators stocking the desk in back of the chamber with candies from their home state.
He also – as Bella and Barbara urged on that visit – became chief sponsor of a bill that designates 1.56 million acres of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, protecting its coastal plain.
“This was her introduction to volunteer lobbying and negotiations,” says Barbara, Sierra Club-Illinois Chapter’s federal lobbying chair, as well as National Zero Waste Team chair and Northeast Region political endorsements chair.
Both Barbara and Bella have asthma. Last summer’s Chicago area Ozone Action Alert days put Bella in the emergency room. When Barbara – a professional flutist – testifies at EPA clean air hearings, she says “I’m probably the only person in the room who breathes for a living.”
“From a lobbyist’s perspective, you focus your time on the ‘persuadable middle.’ With Sen. Kirk, we know we have a fair chance of him hearing our arguments, being open-minded and considering our case,” said Barbara, of Grayslake, IL.
Sen. Kirk has been seen by some allies as a supporter of energy-efficiency, renewable energy, Lake Michigan and public federal lands protection. Shortly after he moved to the Senate, Sen. Kirk said climate remained a “long-term concern” that should be addressed through alternative energy innovation.
So, when Environment & Energy Daily reported Sen. Kirk last week as saying climate change isn’t caused by industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and that “political correctness took over climate science,” Barbara was, like other environmental advocates, “bewildered.”
“I really like him. If he did really say that, he is disappointing me – it lowers my respect for him,” daughter Bella said.
Less than 24 hours later, and after criticism from environmental organizations, Sen. Kirk walked back on his position, saying that climate change is real and human activity contributes to it. He is expected to vote in favor of the KXL Pipeline.
Sen. Kirk’s record on environmental issues has badly deteriorated in the Senate. In 2013, the League of Conservation Voters gave him a 23% score. His lifetime score is 61%, close to the 57% average for the entire Senate.
Kirk was one of just eight Republicans to vote for cap and trade in 2009. He renounced that vote soon after launching his 2010 Senate campaign. In his first two years as Senator he co-sponsored America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act, however, during the last Congress, failed to renew his support.
When Sen. Kirk seeks re-election in 2016, he may well face a primary challenge from the right. And as part of a Republican-controlled, anti-environment Senate, he is sure to face further pressure from his party to go along with its stance.
The Hill reports Republican lawmakers are planning an all-out assault on Obama’s environmental agenda, including rules on mercury and other air toxics from power plants, limits on ground-level ozone that causes smog and mountaintop mining restrictions.” Senate Majority Leader McConnell has vowed to dismantle the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
In surveys of Illinois voters, 71% support the Clean Power Plan, 45% said they would be less likely to vote to re-elect Kirk if he agreed to block the plan, and 69% are more likely to support candidates who promote use of renewable energy.
Is there a place in this Congress for moderates like Kirk? Barbara says lawmakers who compromise are critical to passing legislation. “I am hoping that Sen. Kirk will hold true to his beliefs and continue to protect the environment as he has done so many times in the past.”
Barbara volunteers an average of 20 hours a week, saying “At the end of my life, is it going to be more important that my floor is cleaned, or that air quality in my county was protected?”
Laura Sabransky’s advocacy for a more just, humane and sustainable society has been as volunteer. Her non-profit career includes volunteer management and education, communications, special events and fundraising. She holds degrees in Psychology/Communications and Interior Design. Connect with Laura on Facebook and twitter.