The Sierra Club is spending $625,000 to defeat a Republican lawmaker who has championed one of the environmental organization’s most cherished goals – draining the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park.
Campaign finance reports show that in September, the Sierra Club Independent Action super political action committee made several expenditures targeting U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren of Gold River, who is locked in a tight race against Democrat Dr. Ami Bera, an Elk Grove physician.
The club is paying for a hard-edged series of TV commercials and mailers in the Sacramento-area district. The ads accuse Lungren of “selling out California” and practicing “oily politics,” claiming he favors tax breaks for oil companies and offshore oil drilling.
Oddly, Lungren is one of a handful of officials who has backed the Sierra Club’s long campaign to breach the O’Shaughnessy Dam on the Tuolumne River and restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley in the Sierra Nevadas. Sierra Club founder John Muir wrote that the 8-mile-long alpine valley was almost as beautiful as Yosemite itself. It was inundated 89 years ago to provide water and hydroelectric power for San Francisco.
For decades, the Sierra Club has lobbied to restore Hetch Hetchy. Today, the club is supporting a measure on the November municipal ballot in San Francisco that would require the city to plan for draining the reservoir and returning Hetch Hetchy to the U.S. National Park Service.
The Sierra Club believes that Lungren’s support for restoring Hetch Hetchy is outweighed by his support for “the toxic agenda of the big polluters,” National Political Director Cathy Duvall said in a statement.
"Though Lungren is on the right side on Hetch Hetchy, on nearly every other issue he’s with big polluters,” she wrote.
Lungren Campaign Manager Jeff Wyly called the club’s campaign against the lawmaker misleading and unfair. Lungren’s record on the environment is “very moderate,” he said, and the lawmaker deserved some consideration from the club because of his longstanding support on the Hetch Hetchy issue.
Moreover, he contended that it’s hypocritical for the club to criticize Lungren for taking political contributions from oil companies. He noted that records show that Bera owns stock in two oil companies, Chevron and Valero Energy.
“We wish the Sierra Club would actually look at who they’re supporting,” Wyly said.
Josh Wolf, Bera’s campaign manager, said the Sierra Club had sized up Lungren correctly.
“His environmental record is terrible, and they know that,” he said.
As California Watch has reported, Lungren became interested in restoring Hetch Hetchy while serving in Congress during the Reagan administration.
In 1987, then-Interior Secretary Donald Hodel proposed studying the idea, saying he hoped to create a priceless “second Yosemite” for the nation.
Then and now, the idea was bitterly opposed by San Francisco’s Democratic political leadership. Officials including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have warned that draining the reservoir would result in blackouts and water shortages.
Some environmentalists suspect that Hodel and other Republicans who promote breaching the dam hoped to stir up trouble between Northern California Democrats and the environmental groups with whom they often are allied.
At any rate, Lungren has raised the idea of reclaiming the mountain valley repeatedly over his political career.
Lungren is sincere, Mike Marshall, executive director of the Restore Hetch Hetchy environmental organization, told California Watch earlier this year.
“Yosemite has a big place in his heart,” Marshall said at the time; he declined to comment for this story.
Depending on what happens elsewhere in the U.S., control of Congress could turn on whether Lungren holds onto his seat. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, more than a dozen committees – liberal and conservative – are running independent expenditure campaigns in the race. By law, these committees can collect and spend unlimited amounts of campaign cash as long as they don’t coordinate their efforts with any candidate.
The biggest independent campaign to beat Lungren is run by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which has spent $800,000. Other anti-Lungren expenditures include the Service Employees International Union, about $203,000; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, about $314,000; and two liberal super PACs, the House Majority PAC, about $270,000, and Friends of Democracy, about $180,000.
Campaigns to defeat Bera are being run by the National Republican Congressional Committee (nearly $638,000) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($490,000).
Their mailers and television advertisements attack Bera for supporting President Barack Obama’s national health care plan and accuse him of wanting to raise taxes. One TV ad claims Bera wants to "slash $700 billion from Medicare." Wolf, Bera's spokesman, said this is a distorted reference to Bera's support for Obama's health care measure.
The National Journal's Hotline On Call political blog has reported that the U.S. Chamber intends to pump another $484,000 into the race.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.