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February 15-21, 2006

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The Byrne Report

Greenwashed

By Peter Byrne


As the June 6 primary election approaches, five Democrats are competing to represent the Marin-Southern Sonoma Sixth Assembly District. The candidates share similarly liberal views, so I have been looking for elements of distinction. Last month, I profiled Petaluma City Council member Pam Torliatt, who said she will release her income tax return "if all the other candidates do."

Enter candidate Jared Huffman, 41, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a million-member organization run by environmentalists and billionaires freaked out by the environmental consequences of industrial capitalism and the fact that Caligula has his finger on the nuclear button.

Huffman showed me his and his wife's federal income tax return for 2004. They earned $86,000. No wonder he doesn't mind curing the state deficit by raising taxes on the wealthy. Seriously, he is very outspoken on important issues. He calls for taxing commercial real estate at market value and opines that American consumers should pay more for gasoline, saying, "We should internalize the costs of global warming and our autocentric society." Conversely, he says the state should pursue price-gouging energy companies more aggressively.

Huffman supports a moratorium on the death penalty and says that the war on Iraq "turns [his] stomach." The Patriot Act, he says, is pushing us "down the slippery slope to fascism and corporativism." He wants to stop the proliferation of Las Vegas-style Indian casinos. He predicts that Sonoma County's groundwater will soon dry up and worries that local governments have no plan to deal with this looming disaster. As an NRDC lawyer and a longtime board member of the Marin Municipal Water District, Huffman has acted to protect salmon runs in several creeks and rivers in Northern California.

Aside from such standard liberal cred, Huffman is optimistic about the future of No Child Left Behind. He says Bush's educational program "could work if properly funded," and believes that "California's testing standards are excellent." The program's critics point out that No Child Left Behind is intended to privatize the public school system, and that state and federal testing standards are de facto segregationist.

I asked Huffman why he is not a Green Party member. "The Democratic Party has everything I am looking for," he says. "It is deeply rooted in social justice and has the potential to protect the environment."

This is an odd position coming from a man who says that the operation of the United States government has been seized by corporations; aren't the Democrats every bit as war-mongering and corporativized as the Republicans? It's just a question of which corporate brand controls which politician's lockstep.

Members of the Fisher family—of the Gap Inc.—have contributed $13,200 to Huffman's campaign. The Gap has admitted to systematically abusing female and child workers in Third World sweatshops. Gap chairman Robert Fisher is a board officer of the NRDC, which, for all of its potential clout, has accomplishments more cosmetic than structural. Its board is chaired by a partner in Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a major Wall Street law firm that defends the bluest of the blue chip multinational corporations against antitrust lawsuits and counsels them on how to handle environmental matters. Its "environmental" clients include IBM (computers), Boise Cascade (lumber), J.M. Huber (food additives) BAE Systems, (war machines), Ripplewood Holdings LLC (phosphorus chemicals) and JP Morgan Securities (Latin American investments).

Huffman says that individual NRDC board members should not be held accountable for the actions of their corporations. Many of these guys, he says, are avid fishermen and support his work on restoring American rivers.

With friends and employers like these, though, one can only wonder where Huffman is coming from—or going toward? For example, he accepted $2,300 from the president of Cummins West, a large corporation that manufactures diesel and gasoline engines; the military is one of its clients. Huffman says that Cummins is environmentally "visionary," noting that the company sells a product that reduces particulate emissions from old diesel engines.

Huffman is proud of his endorsement by Don Perata, president pro tem of the California Senate, with whom he has worked on environmental bills. Perata gave his campaign $3,200. But FBI agents are all over Perata in an ongoing investigation caused by the revelation that he accepted nearly $300,000 in "salary" from a political consultant to whom his campaign had paid $313,000.

In our interview, Huffman seemed to be genuinely committed to effecting social change incrementally, without fundamentally challenging the status quo. He told me, "Perfection is the enemy of the good in public policy." To which I reply: "Power corrupts."


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