Environmental group leaders say Corzine has no lock on their support

In his 2005 gubernatorial bid, then-U.S. Sen. Jon Corzine had the whole-hearted support of New Jersey’s biggest environmental groups, who called his campaign platform “one of the most comprehensive” ever outlined by a gubernatorial candidate.

“We were the first to publicly endorse him,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.

This time around, that is far from certain.

“I think Corzine has aggravated and frustrated the environmental community at large,” said Tittel. “I think that in a lot of ways, peoples’ patience has kind of run out, partially because a lot of things that he committed to doing really haven’t gotten done. Part of it has also been that a lot of little bad things have happened.”

With the national and state economy in shambles, residents concerned with their property taxes and state workers’ unions rebelling against money-saving measures, the environment will almost certainly not be the foremost issue this election cycle. Tittel acknowledges that, but doesn’t think that it relegates his cause to the back burner, especially since it’s tied into the economy by President Obama’s green jobs plan.

The announcement this week that former Commissioner of Environmental Protection Christopher Daggett, who held posts in the Kean and Reagan administrations, will run for Governor as an independent could force the two major party candidates to spend more time talking about the environment than they otherwise would.

Environmentalists put the Governor’s lack of commitment to open space funding among the worst parts of his record. Corzine favors once again funding open space through a ballot question, which annoys environmentalists who believe the issue is too important to depend on the whim of the electorate.

On top of that, lack of follow through on global warming legislation, the ill-fated proposal to close some state parks, along with hiring freezes and cutbacks at the Department of Environmental Protection, make leaders of the green lobby doubt that their organization’s members would vote again to endorse Corzine given current trends.

The groups tend to blame Corzine for the DEP shortfalls, and generally offer praise for then-commissioner and former Corzine Chief of Staff Lisa Jackson, who was recently sworn in to head up the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson herself has said kind things about the Governor, saying at a party in her honor during the “Walk to Washington” that Corzine’s environmental record was “unimpeachable” (Two sources present differ on whether Jackson intended a pun, since the Illinois state senate had voted to impeach former Gov. Rod Blagojevich earlier that day).

Environment New Jersey Director Dena Mottola was willing to grant Corzine more green cred than Tittel, lauding his advocacy for flood buffer zones, the Global Warming Response Act and high wind and solar energy goals. But she was still lukewarm on his follow-through and environmental record in general.

“On other issues besides global warming and energy, his record is probably worse, with open space being the most disappointing,” she said.

The New Jersey Environmental Federation waited until October, 2005 to endorse Corzine, by which time they had been won over by his tweaked environmental platform. The group’s campaign director, David Pringle, said that he kept his expectations in check for a first term governor, but is still unhappy with the progress so far.

“We fully recognize that no politician, even with the best of intentions, motives and abilities is going to be able to fulfill every commitment, let alone in their first term,” said Pringle. “So I kind of look at it in the first term, expecting that half of the commitments will not get delivered. Three years in, we’re not even close to that benchmark. That said, there’s still plenty of time left to get some stuff done now and solidify commitments.

The message is similar from all three groups: at the current pace of environmental reform, the Governor will not win their endorsements. But that can change if he gives a renewed push to environmental initiatives over the next six months.

“We haven’t made any decisions obviously about endorsing and whether we’re in this race,” said Mottola, whose group did not start endorsing political candidates until last year. “For us to be in this race, there has to be a clear environmental champion to support. We sure at this point don’t think the Governor fits that bill.”

Whether the environmental groups would endorse any of the Governor’s opponents is an open question.

Former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, the Republican frontrunner to take on Corzine, won some good will from many environmentalists by prosecuting companies for breaking federal environmental laws, and his general anti-corruption campaign had the side effect of mitigating overdevelopment.

“Going after mayors and politicians who take bribes from developers to change the zoning is one of the best ways to take on sprawl,” said Tittel.

But Mottola said that her group would have to learn more about Christie’s plans before judging him, since they have so little to go on.

“He was enforcing the law there and it happened to be that the environment was threatened,” she said. “We’re going to need the next governor to pass new laws and policies to protect the environment. We have a lot of work to do to avert global warming and all that.”

If environmental advocates can stomach backing a long shot candidate, Daggett might be the obvious choice. Mottola, Tittel and Pringle all praise him, but whether their groups will endorse him is another matter.

Tittel said that one of the Sierra Club’s criteria is viability – for instance, that a candidate could qualify for matching funds from the state.

Pringle, however, said his group might be willing to endorse Daggett purely on principle.

“As a person and environmentalist I think he has a lot to be proud of. As a gubernatorial candidate, I’m very intrigued,” said Pringle. “As environmentalists, sometimes that means making a statement.”

Corzine’s office countered the criticism by listing a few of his accomplishments and promising more to come.

“Governor Corzine’s environmental record has truly made a positive impact on the quality of life for all New Jerseyans. From implementing tough floodplain and land-use rules, to having one of the nation’s most aggressive greenhouse gas reduction laws, to taking swift action when contaminated sites are discovered, the Governor has taken great steps to improving and protecting New Jersey’s natural resources,” said spokesman Robert Corrales. “Working with U.S. EPA Administrator, and former NJDEP Commissioner and Chief of Staff, Lisa Jackson, New Jersey will continue to build upon its strong environmental record now and well into future.”

Even if most voters are more concerned with keeping their jobs than with open space, candidates would be wise to court environmental groups, which have significant membership from both parties and appeal to a large group of independents, according to Ingrid Reed, Director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project.

“They are a very well organized collection of organizations, and if an election is close, it obviously is important to have everyone on board,” said Reed. “You do pay attention to those groups – they’re not as big as the [New Jersey Education Association], nor do they have as much money to spend, but they do mobilize voters and they do communicate with their members.”

Environmental group leaders say Corzine has no lock on their support