Neither's record doused in green

The two Democrats who want to be governor have pleased and angered environmentalists over sugar, a dam, oil and the Glades.

Published August 29, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Four months ago, several hundred Floridians began mailing little gold postcards to gubernatorial candidates, asking if they would support clean-water environmental policies.

No Republican responded. Tampa Democrat and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis has yet to respond. Rod Smith, the Democratic state senator from Alachua, answered nearly every question, generally supportive but without the commitment the postcards tried to elicit.

A broader look at both candidates' overall environmental records shows that while Jim Davis has a better voting record than Rod Smith on the environment, neither candidate has lately proved himself a champion of the movement.

There's no Al Gore in this governor's race.

The environment has erupted as a major issue in the Democratic primary for governor, especially in the wake of 1.7-million in advertisements promoting Smith and attacking Davis, mostly funded by U.S. Sugar. The sugar industry has repeatedly pushed state officials to delay the deadline for cleaning up Everglades pollution. The last time the industry got this involved in an election was to fight a measure that would have taxed raw sugar production to restore the Everglades. Sugar won.

"It's like, who do we want: Someone who's all talk or someone who we think silently agrees but hasn't stuck his neck out?" said Linda Young, director of the nonprofit Clean Water Network of Florida, the group that sponsored the postcards.

It's tough to compare the two Democrats' records, because few environmental issues play out the same in the Florida Legislature and in the Congress.

For example, Davis got a lot of publicity for helping protect the Gulf of Mexico from drilling, but the Florida Legislature has little power to do the same. Also, Congress is more partisan then the Florida Senate, making it comparatively more difficult for a minority congressman to sponsor and pass legislation.

Over his tenure in Congress, Davis has voted with environmentalists about 81 percent of the time, putting him in the middle of his fellow Florida Democrats, according to the League of Conservation Voters, an advocacy group known for its report cards. Smith's voting record, rated by the group's Florida chapter, tends to stick him just barely in the top third of the Florida Senate, lower than most of his fellow Democrats.

DAVIS: Davis' environmental record was stronger in the statehouse than in Congress.

He was an early advocate for mandatory recycling and conservation programs in the state House, passing clean air legislation and making it easier to build a natural gas pipeline in Florida, an alternative to nuclear and coal plants.

He took on Bo Johnson, then speaker of the House, over the Everglades, lobbying his colleagues, against Johnson's wishes, to buy a tomato farm that was polluting Florida Bay, said Davis supporter Eric Draper, now with Audubon of Florida.

In Congress, Davis votes with environmentalists most of the time. He touts his top scores of 100 percent in synch with the League of Conservation Voters in 2003 and 2004, but he earned a low of 63 percent in 1999 and 2002 because of votes favoring free trade and carting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

He has been most effective in passing anti-oil drilling amendments that have won Republican support on more than one occasion. Beyond oil drilling, however, he has seen little success.

He sponsored a bill to funnel millions to help research and build desalination plants and he's been a co-sponsor of a bill to reduce power plant emissions and a bill to designate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a wilderness to protect it from drilling. The bills got nowhere.

Most recently, as lawmakers have been negotiating a deal on offshore oil drilling, Davis hasn't been in the loop. Some critics say that after years of building up so much clout on the issue, he cut himself out of the negotiations by sticking to such a hard line on drilling, when political and citizen sentiment about offshore drilling had started to change in Florida.

"Davis is a good progressive who votes the right way," said David Guest, a managing attorney with EarthJustice, which represents environmental groups in lawsuits. "But he got to run around and say everyone else sold out, when he was in a position to negotiate a better deal than we got." (Smith has said he would also have taken a hard line in the debate and would not have accepted the compromise offered by Republicans.)

Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, said Davis fell victim to partisan election-year divisions and that his bill would have gotten support, "any other year."

His voting record earned him an endorsement from the Sierra Club, whose political director Curt Levine is co-chairman of Davis' Orlando campaign. Levine said he took on the position as a civic activist, not as a Sierra Club political chair, while the Sierra Club was considering its endorsement.

"Jim Davis is much easier to work with," said Levine, who didn't participate in election events until after the group released its endorsement. He says his personal support of Davis did not influence the endorsement.

SMITH: It's fair to say that most of Florida's statewide environmental groups are wary of Rod Smith, especially since so many of the commercials and fliers attacking Davis have been funded by sugar money.

"Smith is a determined advocate for big agriculture, and environmentally, unregulated big agriculture is Florida's biggest problem," said Guest with EarthJustice.

Looking at the past six years, Smith passed more environmentally friendly legislation than Davis did. But he's also voted for and sponsored more legislation deemed bad for the environment.

Smith sealed his fate with most environmentalists by sponsoring the 2003 bill that preserved a dam and blocked restoration of the Ocklawaha River. The Legislature passed the bill but Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed it.

It's not just any old environmental issue. It partly gave birth to Florida's environmental movement. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the river in the late 1960s, which created a premier fishing spot for largemouth bass and some nice waterfront property. Studies throughout the 1990s, including one that Davis voted for while agreeing to preserve the dam, have shown that the Rodman Dam should be torn down.

Smith's stance has softened, and he says he favors a compromise that would preserve some of the reservoir while partially restoring the river. Davis supports tearing the dam down and restoring the river.

Even conservative environmental groups, like the pro-hunting Florida Wildlife Federation, say that while Smith has supported "good climate and energy policy," Smith's stance on the Ocklawaha River and Rodman Dam is troubling, said Manley Fuller, the group's president.

As a state attorney, Smith started one of the state's first environmental crimes task forces.

In the Senate, he passed legislation funding sea turtle research and preventing developers from suing to expand their development rights on coastal land they just bought. He made an energy bill greener by requiring a panel to recommend statewide greenhouse gas reduction goals.

He has tried several times to pass legislation to require the state's Department of Environmental Protection to consider the environmental performance of a company when doling out permits, a measure fought by Associated Industries of Florida and developer Anderson Columbia, whose president gave $50,000 to the Democratic Party and another $3,500 in support of Davis.

A move that best exemplifies Smith's environmental record in the Senate was when he watered down a development bill universally despised by environmentalists. It allows developers wanting to rezone agriculture to ignore local zoning boards if the land has development surrounding it on three sides. Smith passed an amendment to shrink the size of land that could be effected from 2,500 to 1,280 acres.

But as the head of the Senate's agricultural committee, critics say, Smith could have done more to block the bill, which he voted for in committee and on the floor.

"He's too chummy in the Legislature, he's not willing to irritate anyone," said Thomas Reese, a St. Petersburg environmental attorney who sparred with Smith at a legislative panel a few years back over a Smith-supported bill to make it more difficult for citizens to have standing to challenge water and environmental permits.

Both Smith and Davis have received thousands of dollars from farmers in sugar-rich Clewiston in this year's governor's race. Since 1996, Davis has benefited from some $30,000 poured into his congressional runs by U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystal and other sugar political committees.

However, Smith's recent indirect support, at least $1.7-million from the sugar industry so far, dwarfs the Davis figures.

Sugar has largely funded two political committees supporting Smith, two mailers attacking Davis and two TV commercials, one attacking Davis, one supporting Smith.

Both candidates have accused each other of not doing enough for the Everglades.

Davis criticizes Smith's vote to delay the timeline for the state to meet Everglades cleanup standards, and Smith says Davis didn't do enough in Washington to make the federal government pay their share of cleanup costs.

Both say their No. 1 priority would be buying up more land now in the hands of polluters. But neither has talked about what Everglades groups really want to see: a crackdown on the source of pollution, from farm fertilizer runoff to the South Florida Water Management District, which pumps polluted water from urban areas into the wetland.

"Everybody pays lip service to the Everglades but nobody has taken any hard actions," said David Reiner, president of Friends of the Everglades. "Just trying to build hundreds of acres of filter marshes is not the solution."