Beck, Whelan endorsements: Environmental groups not on same page

TRENTON – One state senator is in the hottest race in the state and the other in a target district of the future, but both have garnered opposing endorsements from environmental lobbies.

Battling for his political life on the southern shores, state Sen. Jim Whelan, (D-2), of Atlantic City, has a solid voting record on the environment, even his detractors agree. But when it came time to issue endorsements, Whelan was snubbed by the N.J. Environmental Federation, one of the big three environmental groups statewide, in part because of politics, said the organization’s campaign director, David Pringle.

On the other hand, NJEF took special interest in state Sen. Jennifer Beck, (R-12), of Red Bank, culling her name out of over 200 candidates for office this year as an exemplar of environmental protection.

“Jennifer is one of the hardest-working legislators in Trenton,” according to Amy Goldsmith, NJEF state director and fellow Red Bank resident. “As a leading Republican voice in the Legislature fighting for a healthy environment, we’re very proud to endorse her for State Senate.”

The problem is the other two enviro-groups – Sierra Club and Environment New Jersey – completely disagree with the NJEF on Beck and on Whelan. They both endorsed Whelan but not Beck.

“If you just look at the voting scorecard,” NJEF’s Pringle told PolitickerNJ today, “Jim Whelan probably scored higher than Jen Beck, but that’s not the sole factor that we look at.”

Sierra Club state director Jeff Tittel agrees on Whelan’s record: in favor of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), supportive of clean energy legislation, defender of the Pinelands region. Tittel can’t say the same for Beck: opposed to RGGI, supportive of administrative control over regulation, and willing to compromise the Highlands region.

So what were the other factors that Pringle took into account beyond voting record? He said the political context of the votes were important. Beck had to lean against her party to vote for significant environmental bills like fertilizer and pesticide controls and a ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking; Democrats who supported the measures, like Whelan, had an easy choice to oppose the Republican governor, Pringle said.

Another difference, he said, was the time and energy that Beck puts into environmental concerns, not “just voting” by advancing the issues in caucus. For instance, Beck has pledged her support to override Christie’s veto of fracking, Pringle said.

If Beck’s voting record is worse than Whelan’s record, wouldn’t Whelan at least receive some recognition from the NJEF? “My board wasn’t jumping up and down (to endorse Whelan),” Pringle said. “Jen Beck has done more for the environment than Jim Whelan.”

Was Whelan’s competition, Assembylman Vincent Polistina, (R-2), of Egg Harbor, a better candidate down south? “Polistina wasn’t even in the ballpark,” Pringle said.

One of the reasons for the snub is Whelan’s alliance with South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross. “That was a factor,” Pringle said. “Half of our board has been fighting the Norcross machine…for as long as they’ve been on board.”

Pringle concedes that Whelan is more independent than other South Jersey Democrats, but he was also absent from the frontlines in the 2008-2009 Democratic-controlled legislative session that Pringle calls one of the most environmentally destructive in the state’s history.

“This isn’t just Jim Whelan,” Pringle said. “This is the state of the Democratic Party…Democrats were taking the environment for granted.”

“Everybody we endorsed (this year) on the Democratic side…vigorously opposed those efforts,” Pringle said. “Jim Whelan didn’t…Given that history, Democrats (were held to) a higher standard this year than in prior cycles.” In all, the total number of endorsements that the NJEF issued were down from 30 to 40 in years past to 22 this year.

Tittel said today that some legislators of both parties who “used to be environmental champions,” like Assemblyman John Burzichelli, (D-3), of Paulsboro, were not given support this year. Another legislator who was dropped from the Sierra Club’s endorsement list, Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., (R-21), of Westfield, was given the thumbs-up by the NJEF.

Whereas the NJEF states that it has been holding the Democrats to a higher standard, Tittel said Sierra Club has been going the other way.

“In the past, we endorsed at least a dozen Republicans,” Tittel said, but this year it was down to one in each house: state Sen. Kip Bateman, (R-16), of Branchburg, and state Sen. Sean Kean, (R-11), of Wall, who is moving down to the lower chamber. Tittel attributes the less-friendly GOP to Christie’s “natural agenda pushing that party to the right.”

Maybe because of that shift, Pringle said, he is looking for candidates “expending meaningful political capital to do the right thing.”

Beck, Whelan endorsements: Environmental groups not on same page