Forget LeBron, It’s Free Agency Season for Greens

Tom Steyer speaks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. 
Getty Images
Jason Plautz
July 10, 2014, 1 a.m.

Much of the world may have its eyes on the NBA to see where LeBron James or Car­melo An­thony end up. But there’s a dif­fer­ent — gran­ted, cheap­er and less ex­cit­ing — free agency shuffle go­ing on among the coun­try’s en­vir­on­ment­al groups.

Green groups are staff­ing up to boost their in­flu­ence ahead of the midterm elec­tions, hop­ing to cap­it­al­ize on re­newed in­terest in cli­mate change. And the in­tro­duc­tion of mil­lions in new money thanks to Tom Stey­er’s $100 mil­lion spend­ing pledge means the stakes are sud­denly high­er.

It’s not un­usu­al to see a lot of hir­ing and move­ment be­fore an elec­tion, since the two-year cycle re­quires new in­vest­ments and ef­forts. But this isn’t a typ­ic­al cycle for en­vir­on­ment­al­ists: Stey­er’s cash has made cli­mate a wedge is­sue in tight races, and groups across the spec­trum have said they’ll up their spend­ing.

And pro­tect­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s Cli­mate Ac­tion Plan — head­lined by rules crack­ing down on car­bon emis­sions from power plants — from con­gres­sion­al at­tacks has ad­ded ur­gency for greens work­ing to build a pro-cli­mate ma­jor­ity.

Nobody is get­ting a LeBron-sized $85 mil­lion max con­tract, but sign­ing sea­son is heat­ing up.

The League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters made a splash last week when it hired Daniel J. Weiss, a three-dec­ade cli­mate vet­er­an most re­cently with the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress. As the LCV’s new seni­or vice pres­id­ent of cam­paigns, Weiss will over­see the group’s ef­forts to spend more than the $14 mil­lion it poured out in the 2012 cycle.

It’s likely that won’t be the only big-name hire to come in the next few months. The Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil Ac­tion Fund is in the pro­cess of hir­ing a dir­ect­or of stra­tegic part­ner­ships, with the re­spons­ib­il­ity of rais­ing $5 mil­lion for the group’s PAC as part of a part­ner­ship with LCV. The group will also re­tain out­side con­sult­ants for its races.

A spokes­man said that Stey­er’s Nex­t­Gen Ac­tion — already flush with an ex­per­i­enced roster — will be do­ing ad­di­tion­al hir­ing at its na­tion­al of­fice and in in­di­vidu­al states where the group is act­ive. And LCV spokes­man Jeff Gohringer said the group was “con­tinu­ing to grow for the long term,” but would con­tin­ue with a tra­di­tion­ally smal­ler staff that would re­main after the elec­tions.

En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund Ac­tion Fund, however, said it will re­main a “small shop” throughout the midterms.

The spree is un­likely to stop; greens are spend­ing heav­ily to boost pro-cli­mate Sen­ate can­did­ates in Iowa, Col­or­ado, New Hamp­shire, and else­where, not to men­tion a myri­ad of House and gubernat­ori­al races. More money is be­ing spent earli­er in those races, re­quir­ing more fed­er­al- and state-level staff.

Already this spring has seen some shuff­ling of staff. CAP brought on Greg Dot­son, a former aide to Rep. Henry Wax­man, the top Demo­crat on the En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee. Stey­er’s Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate Amer­ica Inc hired the NRDC’s Dan Lashof as its chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer. There have been changes — not re­lated to the midterms — at the top in groups like Green­peace and the BlueGreen Al­li­ance, and NRDC Pres­id­ent Frances Bei­necke will re­tire at the end of the year, caus­ing more roster-shift­ing.

With Wax­man and oth­er en­ergy vet­er­ans leav­ing Con­gress — fel­low En­ergy and Com­merce mem­ber and former chair­man John Din­gell is step­ping down — there is the chance for plenty of staffers to head to en­vir­on­ment­al groups.

LCV’s spend­ing plans for 2014 demon­strate the premi­um that green groups are will­ing to pay to in­flu­ence the midterm elec­tions. In 2012, with the na­tion’s highest of­fice at stake, the group spent $14 mil­lion. This cycle, the group says it will spend even more, with the hope that the up­ward tra­ject­ory con­tin­ues.

But the first test comes in Novem­ber, when they’ll see if all that money — and the team — is worthy of rais­ing a cham­pi­on­ship ban­ner.

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