Connecting state and local government leaders
With action at the federal level stalled and their communities hit by drought and extreme heat, a growing cohort of down-ballot candidates are prioritizing climate policy. Donor and activists groups are taking notice and lining up to back them.
Brian Radford, a Democrat from Tucson seeking a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives, supports investing more money in public education and increasing access to affordable healthcare, among other priorities.
But addressing the climate crisis and ensuring that his desert community has an adequate water supply are at the center of his campaign.
“I have four boys and what’s going to happen for their generation if we don’t put things in place now?’’ Radford said Thursday, when the temperature in Tucson climbed to 104 degrees and the city—along with much of the U.S.—was under an excessive heat warning. “Access to clean water, solar power and clean energy—those are all big issues for me.”
Radford is among a growing cohort of down-ballot candidates across the nation whose campaigns are focused on confronting the realities of a rapidly warming planet.
With action in Congress largely stalled and the Supreme Court placing limits on the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, those at the state and local levels are stepping into the void.
Environmental groups say city and state leaders play a pivotal role in developing strategies to tackle the global climate crisis, even though they lack the broad power—and deep pockets—of the federal government.
“This problem is too big for any one area of government,’’ said Nick Abraham, state communications director for the League of Conservation Voters, whose 30-plus chapters across the U.S. endorse candidates in state and local races. “We’re going to all have to be pushing at the same time."
That push has become more focused in recent years. Grassroots youth activists from the Sunrise Movement are pumping new energy into the effort by prodding policymakers to take decisive action on planetary warming.
At the same time, several groups have formed to recruit, train and fund local and state candidates who are running on a pro-environment platform. Lead Locally backs down-ballot candidates who support the Green New Deal, a Democratic-sponsored congressional proposal with big plans for tackling climate change, and other initiatives to reign in the fossil fuel industry.
“By electing climate champions to city councils, county commissions, and statehouses—we can block permitting for new pipelines, ban fracking across states, or win majorities that can pass massive green jobs bills,’’ the group says.
California-based Project Super Bloom is working to train activists and young people to run for office. The group also endorses assembly candidates who support environmental justice and other progressive causes.
And the Climate Cabinet Action Fund, a political action committee formed about two years ago, is investing in climate-focused candidates across 14 states who are running for legislature, city council and utility regulatory commissions, among other posts.
Down-ballot races often receive scant public attention and are chronically underfunded, said Caroline Spears, the group’s founder and executive director.
“We exist because there’s a massive gap between the authority that state and local policymakers have and the resources they get,’’ said Spears, who holds a master’s degree in atmosphere and energy engineering.
The Climate Cabinet Action Fund expects to dole out thousands of dollars to candidates this year, Spears said. (The amounts vary by state and are governed by local campaign contribution rules, she added.)
“We're actively tracking thousands of races across the country to figure out which ones have a really big climate impact and are overlooked,’’ Spears said. “You can think of what we do as moneyball for climate.”
Most of the candidates endorsed by the group are Democrats, a reflection of the Republican Party’s general discomfort with government rules that limit fossil fuel production, even as they increasingly accept the scientific reality that human activity is causing climate change.
Among the “priority candidates” the group is supporting are several running for seats on utility regulatory boards in Georgia and Arizona. These little-known but powerful panels oversee gas, electricity and other energy providers as well as water and telecom companies.
“These are really under-the-radar races and ones that don’t often get a lot of attention but have really big roles to play about [the implementation of] clean energy,’’ said Abraham of the League of Conservation Voters. ”They’re where the rubber meets the road about actually getting clean energy onto the grid and the enormous task ... to make this transition.’’
He cited Nebraska’s power system to illustrate his point. The state is controlled by Republicans and strongly supported Donald Trump in 2020. Yet its three publicly owned utilities, governed by elected boards, have all committed to a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
“That’s huge in a state that I think most people would write off” as too conservative to support such an initiative, Abraham said.
The League of Conservation Voters issued a memo last month detailing state-level environmental wins in 2022, including:
- A Maryland measure committing the state to net-zero climate emissions by 2045 and requiring a 60% carbon reduction goal by 2031.
- Washington state’s $17 billion clean transportation package.
- Colorado’s efforts to address air pollution.
Action at the state level is spurred the very real impacts of climate change that local politicians are witnessing in their communities, Abraham said.
“The urgency they’re feeling is not due to congressional inaction or stalled legislation,” he said. “It’s from seeing the effects of climate change on a daily basis. We’re seeing record-breaking heat waves, we’re seeing rivers dry up in the West and real problems with access to water in places like Arizona, Utah and Colorado. We’re seeing devastating wildfires.
“The urgency is because people see this in their daily lives and they know how serious it is,’’ Abraham said,
That’s what prompted Brian Radford to run for the Arizona House. He’s watched with alarm as an extended drought, made worse by a warming climate, has reduced the Colorado River’s reservoirs. Federally mandated cuts and other measures have reduced Arizona’s water allowance; a county adjacent to his district has largely gone dry, he said.
“We kind of take it for granted that we have water but there has to be planning so we have it in the future,” Radford said.
Radford, who’s been endorsed by the Climate Cabinet Action Fund, is proposing state tax rebates and grants to encourage farmers to invest in water-use reduction technology, among other measures to conserve water. (The former special education teacher’s assistant and retired corrections officer is one of two Democrats seeking to represent the 17th legislative district. Five Republicans are also running in the Aug. 2 primary; two members of each party will square off in November.)
“When you’re seeing nearby communities running out of water, it’s kind of scary,’’ Radford said. “What’s going to happen in the future if we don’t put things in place now?”
Daniela Altimari is a reporter for Route Fifty.