It’s not easy being a ranking member on a congressional committee, where any major legislative and policy decision is made primarily at the discretion of the chairman.
That struggle is particularly potent for Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee. The Arizona lawmaker, who is also the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wants to pass bills that address climate change. He wants to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses federal oil and gas leases to pay for public parks and historic sites and is operating on a three-year extension secured in the 2015 year-end omnibus bill. He wants to shield Native American tribes from congressional interference.
But addressing those issues via the committee requires Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, to sign off, and that didn’t happen in 2015. So Grijalva has instead channeled his energy to promote a different topic: Diversifying the environmental movement.
“From the inception of the consciousness about the environment in the ‘60s, ‘70s, the leadership formed there … it pulled in more middle class and upper middle class young folk, college folks and the basis of it was the science community, and those were very homogeneous,” Grijalva, who is Mexican-American, said. “As we got into the next 50, 60 years of the movement, the necessity to be diverse and integrated is really urgent, insofar as all these laws are under attack, and you’re going to need to have a political base and constituency base beyond what started the movement.”
So Grijalva has dedicated much of 2015 reaching out via roundtables and forums to that new constituency, with special attention to the Latino and Native American communities. His emphasis is on public education and empowerment, understanding that legislation will only get passed if there is an expanded constituency demanding it.
The issue isn’t new to him, but his ranking member position gives him a new platform. “To put it bluntly, I have standing,” he said.
For the first time, for instance, Natural Resources Democrats have a director of public engagement in Bertha Guerrero, whose job, Grijalva said, is to “reach out, extend the environmental message beyond the confines of the same crowd.”
He is getting other members involved, too. At the start of the 114th Congress, he appointed a Northeasterner, Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., to be the ranking member on the Federal Lands Subcommittee — a slot that typically has gone to a Westerner: “She doesn’t come in with preconceptions about what is and what isn’t,” Grijalva said.
He has his own experience bucking expectations.
“There’s a stereotype that members of Congress that happen to be of color … that we should only concentrate, probably, on health care, education, civil rights and a jobs agenda. Which is good, everybody should concentrate on that. But that shouldn’t limit me or any other member of Congress from having a more expansive agenda,” Grijalva said.
The 67-year-old lawmaker attributes his knowledge of the relevant issues both to his experience in local government as well as his upbringing on a cattle ranch in southern Arizona.
He said his father inspired his love of nature and also provided him a valuable lesson in how his constituents experience the environment around them.
“He just talked about how beautiful everything is and how beautiful things used to be and was a big protector of these types of things,” Grijalva said. “He lived his whole life in Arizona, and two years before he passed, he was 77, was the first time he went to the Grand Canyon. Which struck me as an experience a lot of people from my community don’t have,” Grijalva said. “You could have a national park 45 minutes from your home and your neighborhood and you’ve never been there. Your parents are busy doing other things.
“And at the same time these neighborhoods are the ones that would vote overwhelmingly to give a local government, like ours, the money to buy open spaces,” he continued. “I didn’t understand it then, but I do now.”
Over the years, he’s seen some positive changes. During the debate on how to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into the United States at the Arizona border, Grijalva said he encountered coordination between immigration activists and environmentalists that he hadn’t seen before.
“The times have kind of pushed a lot of things together, and the work is not as frustrating as it was, say, 10, 12 years ago,” Grijalva said. “It’s easier to have the conversations. Organizations are not as defensive.”
Now, Grijalva says it’s important to look forward to the 2016 elections to raise awareness about environmental issues. The Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he said, have to put the environment at the top of the party platform, from the presidential ticket down to House seats.
Grijalva said his job is to be a “facilitator.”
“I think part of the job is, you have to be the catalyst; you have to take the first step,” he said, “Get the pats on the head but you also get the smacks, and you learn from that. Because what you’re doing in terms of stating the case for inclusion and diversity … we’re not beating people over the head; we already did that. Now it’s, ‘This is the way we can do this. This is how it would be good for us to work together.’”
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