Beginner's Pluck: Challenging ‘Big Industry’ on Vehicle Emissions
Member, California Assembly
About a year ago, having faced down a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign and shepherded to passage one of the more ambitious environmental bills in recent memory, Fran Pavley decided it was time to take a deep breath. “My staff,” she quipped, “says they think we should focus on puppies and children.”
Clearly, they needed a rest. As a freshman member of the California Assembly, Pavley had rocketed to prominence when she sponsored a landmark bill to limit greenhouse gases that cars and light trucks are allowed to emit. A former junior high school civics teacher who went on to serve as the first mayor of the Los Angeles suburb of Agoura Hills, Pavley debuted as a legislator by pressing a measure even her own staff advised her to avoid.
On the surface, it seemed simple enough: It requires the state’s Air Resources Board to adopt “cost-effective” and “reasonable” restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions from cars and light trucks by 2005, with automakers having until 2009 to comply. But in the context of national environmental politics, the idea quickly attracted attention beyond Sacramento. Because of its size and its consumers’ buying power, California has for decades had an outsized impact on the automotive market; any legislation related to cars would automatically affect automakers nationally. Not surprisingly, they didn’t much like what they saw in Pavley’s bill.
At the same time, environmentalists worried about greenhouse gases saw California as the logical place to push emissions limits, given the Bush administration’s opposition to the idea and the state political leadership’s general friendliness toward green legislation. BlueWater Network, an environmental group based in San Francisco, came up with the idea of regulating the gases that come directly out of cars — vehicles produce most of California’s greenhouse gases — but no legislator was willing to take on the industries that were sure to fight such a measure.
At least none were until Pavley came along. Ignorance, in this case, was probably a blessing: “I didn’t realize,” she later commented, “how much of a challenge it would be to take on the automobile industry and the oil companies.” They mounted a $5 million campaign to sink her bill, enlisting the state Chamber of Commerce and conservative radio talk-show hosts, and running radio and television ads that generated tens of thousands of angry calls and letters to legislators.
But Pavley, 54, was a quick learner when it came to the art of swaying the opinions that ultimately mattered — those of her colleagues in the Assembly and Senate. Affable and respectful in conversation, she proved an indefatigable lobbyist for her own measure, meticulously touching base with legislators of all political persuasions, enlisting environmental groups, Silicon Valley businessmen and religious leaders, working with a pollster to show hesitant lawmakers that there was popular support for her idea. “What I learned,” she says, “is that building coalitions is essential to securing successful passage of any legislation, and so is building relationships with fellow legislators.” In the end, she prevailed.
As both its supporters and its opponents expected, her measure has taken on a life of its own beyond California’s borders. It inspired similar legislation this year in seven other states, and though the bills died in four of them, Connecticut passed a measure stating that the state environmental commission can adopt the California standards, while bills imposing the California standards on greenhouse gas reductions remain alive in New York and New Jersey.
Meanwhile, with her year’s respite almost over, Pavley is determined to build on her gains in the environmental arena. In fact, the state just acted on one of her longtime priorities, announcing in October it would purchase the 3,000-acre Ahmanson Ranch as open space rather than let it be developed. Other issues garnering Pavley’s attention: that one out of every seven schoolchildren in Fresno uses an asthma inhaler, that Los Angeles suffered through its worst smog in five years this past summer, and that air pollution now tops the list of citizens’ concerns in the state’s Central Valley. “There was one other thing I learned,” she says, “and that’s that linking public health issues to traditional environmental issues is very important.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photos by Steve Labadessa