Is Jerry McNerney the Tim Walz of California?

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Or is Tim Walz the Jerry McNerney of Minnesota?

Nov. 7 was indeed a day of upsets. Two of the most unexpected were Tim Walz in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District and Jerry McNerney in California’s 11th. How did these guys — both have never held political office before — overcome two entrenched, very conservative House members?

Could the answer be “the environment”?

Ah yes, the environment. The bête noir of “liberal” politicians. Right-wing Republicans love to hang the moniker of “environmental activist” on politicians advocating for a more sustainable environmental policy. Less flattering terms have included “tree hugger” and “environmental nazi”.

Both Gil Gutknecht, whom Walz unseated, and Richard Pombo, whom McNerney defeated, have shared a blind eye for environmental issues and exceptionally low ratings from pro-environment groups like the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, the Defenders of Wildlife and even the Republicans for Environmental Protection.

Both have represented heavily agricultural districts. Is there then an inherent conflict between being pro-agriculture and pro-environment?

Not at all, for numerous heavily agricultural districts are represented by congressmen with strong environmental credentials. Examples include California Reps. Mike Thompson, whose home base is the Napa Valley, famous for its wines, and Sam Farr, who represents the Salinas Valley, a primary source for our lettuce and strawberries; Wisconsin’s Ron Kind, whose district includes many dairy farmers; and Iowa’s Senator Tom Harkin. They prove that being strong on agricultural policy does not mean being anti-environment.
While Walz’s primary focus has been on the Iraq war, veterans issues, cleaning up Congress and health care reform, he has not shied from advocating pro-environment policies, and received endorsements from Clean Water Action, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.

McNerney, on the other hand, has made the environment a key focus in his campaign, particularly as an outspoken advocate of wind energy. That’s no doubt because Rep. Pombo has seemingly delighted in becoming the national poster boy for anti-environment policies.

While Walz and McNerney come from half a continent apart, their simultaneous and surprise victories prove that Americans, despite what Karl Rove thinks, still have some common sense about them.

Farmers often like to say that they are the first to defend the environment. That’s because their livelihood depends upon clean water, soil and air. And while they have received a bad rap over the last few decades because of their growing reliance on agrichemicals, monoculture and genetically engineered crops, these changes from traditional, more organic agriculture have been foisted upon them by government policies, chemical companies and market realities.

No farmer would choose the more environmentally damaging route if all economic variables were equal. Unfortunately, our trade-off for cheap food is loss of topsoil, a reliance on dangerous petrochemicals, polluted rivers and streams, and numerous incentives to farmers and agricultural interests that are financed by taxpayer dollars.

Like the already existing pro-agriculture, pro-environment members of Congress, both McNerney and Walz will be strong advocates for sensible, holistic, people-friendly and planet-friendly policies. Inasmuch as each beat his incumbent opponent by six percentage points, not a small number in what were supposed to be two exceedingly close races, the voters in these two districts must certainly agree.

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