California In The Cross Hairs Of Climate Change
Tom Steyer isn’t the only ambitious fundraiser working to get climate hawks elected. Meet Nick Josefowitz. Both men live in San Francisco, but while Steyer is playing on the national scene, Josefowitz is focused on his home state. He recently founded a new political action committee, Leadership for a Clean Economy, to raise money for future leaders on climate change policy in the California state legislature. Josefowitz made his fortune founding RenGen Energy, a developer and operator of solar power plants, and at the age of 30 he has already retired to focus on environmental activism.
LCE is similar to organizations like EMILY’s List in that it does not actually collect and disburse money itself. Rather, it examines candidates and recommends the most worthy ones to a network of donors who can then make direct contributions. In California, such contributions from an individual to a candidate are limited in size to $4,100. Some PACs raise and spend unlimited amounts to promote candidates, but Josefowitz decided not to go that route. “We think raising money directly for candidates is more effective,” he tells Grist. “Candidates know more about how to spend their money. If you do an independent expenditure, the first thing you do is spend $30,000 on a consultant, which is money straight down the drain.” Indeed, many PACs, especially on the right, have been caught spending most of the money they raise on operational expenses rather than activities that directly help candidates.
Given that the Democrats hold wide majorities in the California State Assembly and State Senate, it may seem odd for LCE to focus environmental dollars there. Shouldn’t the environmental movement’s top priority be helping Democrats hang on to the U.S. Senate and regain seats in the U.S. House?
“It is clearly important to stop the Koch brothers-funded Republicans from taking over the Senate,” Josefowitz wrote in an MSNBC op-edlast week, but even if Democrats succeed in that mission, “we will have another two years of bitter, partisan trench warfare in Congress without any progress.” Until the political climate changes in D.C., we have to focus on the states, where things actually get done, he argues.
But California already has the most advanced clean energy standards in the country, so why spend money and effort there? “California is one of the states that has done the most, but it hasn’t done nearly enough,” says Josefowitz. “If all the states in the Union looked like California today, we’d still have an extremely long way to go. California still needs to keep pushing the envelope. A lot of the things California is most famous for — for example, its 33 percent renewable portfolio standard, cap-and-trade, the low-carbon fuel standard — sunset in 2020. We need to set more aggressive targets for 2020, 2030, 2040 and ‘50.” Also, California is huge — if it were its own country, it would be the world’s eighth largest economy. And where California leads, other states follow. A dozen other states have chosen to adopt California’s ambitious fuel-economy standards for cars, for example.
Josefowitz believes it’s insufficient to have a state legislature full of Democrats who vote the right way on the environment. The climate crisis demands more than just passive supporters in the majority; it needs leaders who will write bills, garner public attention, and corral votes. In California, thanks to term limits that hold every legislator to no more than 12 years in office, senators and assembly members can quickly become leaders, without having to wait decades to assume powerful positions like in most states or in Congress. That means eco-minded campaign donors can get a lot more bang for the buck in California than on the national stage.
“Because of the constant turnover in Sacramento because of term limits, electing one or two dedicated climate leaders can have an impact that it won’t in D.C.,” says Josefowitz, who speaks with an English accent left over from a childhood in London. Born in New York, he is an American citizen, but he only moved to San Francisco two and a half years ago. On the East Coast, where Democratic urban machines are often deeply entrenched, it might be hard for a newcomer like Josefowitz to have an impact. But in California, he is already ensconced in a network of wealthy, eco-friendly donors.
And so Josefowitz has set out to find candidates who might play the role in California’s state legislature that Californian Henry Waxman has played in Congress: the environment’s indefatigable advocate and master legislator. Since state legislators cannot spend decades working on an issue in Sacramento, it’s critical that they come in with an understanding of complex sustainability issues and policies, Josefowitz argues. This year, only two candidates, both running for Assembly, have earned LCE’s support: Suja Lowenthal, a member of the Long Beach City Council, and Joe Krovoza, the mayor of Davis. Winning LCE’s approval is arduous, requiring the candidates to demonstrate both knowledge and achievement on the issues, through a series of interviews and questionnaires. The vetting is done by Josefowitz and LCE’s sole employee, Political Director Rachel Van Wert, with input from donors in the network.
“It was almost like they were doing opposition research,” jokes Krovoza. He won them over with his deep environmental knowledge. He was able to tick off a litany of climate actions he has taken in Davis, such as setting a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, and requiring solar panels and bike crossings as conditions of approving a new mixed-use development. And even while serving as mayor, Krovoza has continued his work as director of external relations for the Institute of Transportation Studies at U.C. Davis. “I know the Sustainable Communities law and AB 32 inside and out,” boasts Krovoza, referring to the California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Law, which promotes smart growth, and the Global Warming Solutions Act, which created the state’s cap-and-trade system.
LCE has had a tangible impact on Krovoza’s campaign. “I’ve raised about $300,000; I think they’re at about $30,000 for me,” he says. “And they’re cranking away. They’re calling all the environmentalists we can identify in the district. That’s been huge for me. They’ve been my advocates in the environmental community in the district. Some of the environmentalists are active in the Democratic Party. Some of them have volunteered to walk [knocking on doors for the campaign], some have volunteered to put up a road sign.”
Krovoza was introduced to Josefowitz by Bob Epstein, who sits on the board of the Institute of Transportation Studies and chairs the NRDC Action Fund. “When Nick said he was interested in developing environmental champions, I said, ‘Great idea,’” recalls Epstein. “There are very few politicians now who are well versed in issues. They tend to float at the conceptual level and rarely know the details. Every cycle in the California legislature there is less leadership [on the environment].” Frequently, state legislators are more focused on running for higher office than on getting things done in Sacramento. Those are the kinds of candidates LCE avoids.
Josefowitz has found his climate leaders for 2014; his PAC won’t be endorsing any more people this year. Now he’ll be looking out for the next batch of promising politicians.