Environmental Groups Don't Know How To Pressure Collin Peterson

by: Chris Bowers

Thu Jun 18, 2009 at 11:30

For a few weeks now, House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (Dfl-Minnesota) has been holding up the American Clean Energy and Security ACT (ACES). At first, he was only demanding a few billion dollars in handouts to agribusiness. However, his demands are now escalating, as he is building a broad coalition to weaken the bill as much as possible.

In fact, now he is blocking part of President Obama's financial reforms, too. Apparently, there is no end to Peterson's power.

Over the past few days, I have been writing about how there has been little to no response to Peterson's actions from climate change activists and organizations (see here and here). Now, yesterday's 4-page New York Times spread on Peterson (yes, he is earning quite the power, media, and lavish praise for doing the bidding of evil) explains why. Environmental groups hate Peterson, but have no idea how to apply pressure to him:

"He's tough -- he doesn't always get the value of conservation," said one environmental lobbyist who did not want to be named because of ongoing negotiations with the Agriculture Committee. "His policy and heart and soul are all in supporting big ag."(...)

Environmentalists that were at odds with him on some issues said they could find no effective way to pressure him -- that attempts to do so would often just send him in the opposite direction.

OK--this finally makes sense. Environmental groups are aware of Peterson. They hate Peterson. They are trying to fight Peterson behind the scenes, even. However, they have no idea how to use public pressure on Peterson to influence his actions.

Admittedly, figuring out a strategy to pressure Peterson requires some difficult and unconventional choices. A conservative, ten-term Democrat from an R+5 district with no media market is a tricky case, especially when he is completely in the service of Big Ag. However, it is still doable for any non-partisan group that is willing to play real hardball. And, if there is any member of the House with whom we need to play real hardball right now, it is Collin Peteron.

(Warning: What I write below will freak out many Democrats. However, from the perspective of a non-partisan advocacy group, it is a viable solution to dealing with the specific case of Collin Peterson. Further, that many people would freak out at even the suggestion of this idea is probably one of the reasons why environmental groups have no response to Peterson's ongoing efforts to water down the ACES).

More in the extended entry.

Chris Bowers :: Environmental Groups Don't Know How To Pressure Collin Peterson
Here is how you pressure Peterson if you are a non-partisan green group: overtly target the left-wing voters in his district during a general election. Run ads that highlight Peterson's terrible record on climate change and the environment, with a goal of pushing left-wing voters to either stay home or vote third-party (the latter is particularly viable in Minnesota, which is one of the most pro-third party states in the entire country). Make it clear that not only don't you care if this results in Peterson's defeat by an even more anti-climate change candidate, but that having an even more anti-climate change candidate defeat Peterson is actually your goal.

From the perspective of a non-partisan climate change organization, a relatively powerless, more conservative anyone is preferable to a very powerful, conservative, committee-chairing Collin Peterson. This is even the case if Peterson is replaced with an even more anti-climate chnage member of Congress. Given the wide Democratic majority in Congress, and given the specific case of Collin Peterson, exchanging a ten-term committee chair with a freshman member of the minority party results in a net loss of conservative power over climate change legislation. Further, such a radically aggressive act of pressure would demonstrate to the new Agriculture Committee chair that environmental groups are willing to take out anyone who fraks with climate change legislation.

I am not even saying that I am advocating for this. What I am saying is that all of these non-partisan environmental groups do have a realistic way of pressuring Collin Peterson. They can either choose to use it, or keep watching him water down their legislation. It is a rare case where progressive power on an issue can be increased by electing a less progressive candidate on that issue. For a non-partisan issue group, it should be pure gold.

This strategy is akin to the en passant rule in chess, in that is both rare and a result of an attempt to create an abnormally advanced and powerful position for an otherwise weak pawn. In this case, Collin Peterson is the pawn trying to move two squares when he should not be allowed to do so. The opposing player just has to understand the rules, and her / his own position of power, to prevent it from happening.

Update: Because some people don't seem to understand what I am suggesting non-partisan environmental groups should to Peterson, let me make it clear: pressure Peterson from the left in a general election with the goal of electing a more conservative Republican.

I am not naive enough to think that a left-wing third-party candidate would actually win in Peterson's district. Further, I am not naive enough to think that a nattional left-wing third-party would somehow increase progressive power. Those are separate discussions that have been beaten to death. I am just trying to think of a way for Collin Peterson to lose his Agriculture Committee Chair before he destroys the planet. Doing so will take something highly unusual and extremely aggressive.

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but but but (4.00 / 2)
people might get mad at us and stuff! we won't get to go to the cool parties anymore!

seriously, i think this is exactly the sort of thing we should be doing, and it is this bizarre pose of environmental and similar "non-partisan" groups, where they pretend that really everyone only wants to do the right thing and we're all friends, that leads to us getting screwed more often than not. i don't knnow if they actually believe that or if they feel obligated to pretend in public.

it seems like another situation where we need an inside/outside approach: the craaaazy rude mean hurtful outside people who try to actually defeat incumbents, heaven forbid, and the polite inside people who can say, "you can talk to us or you can talk to them."

not everything worth doing is profitable. not everything profitable is worth doing.

For the Record: (4.00 / 7)
I'm not "freaked out" in the slightest.

The era of supporting any Democrat for the sake of putting Democrats in power is over. If there's a third party candidate available, great. If not, the Republican will do.

We've got to put to an end the notion that liberals will support Democrats simply because they have no where else to turn.

I'm advocating it (4.00 / 2)
The only other alternative is having Pelosi strip Peterson of his chairmanship, and we all know that won't happen.

John McCain won't insure children

[ Parent ]
Yup (4.00 / 2)
Well said. In fact, sometime after the 2008 elections Chris said it himself: the time for focusing on "more Democrats" is over. We've got enough. Now we need "better Democrats" and if bouncing one of our own is necessary to save the whole freakin' world from climate change, so be it.

[ Parent ]
The harm of defeating Peterson (D-ADM) is minimal (4.00 / 4)
Our margin in the House is all but invulnerable for now and without the individual power that derives from cloture in the senate, the policy outcome difference in replacing Peterson with a worse Republican is effectively zero to positive so long as we retain overall control.

Besides, it seems #2 in committee seniority, Tim Holden (PA-17), cannot possibly be worse (LCV rating of 70%, for what that is worth; Petersen enjoys an impressive 20% ranking).  Pennsylvania ag is not as beholden to mega-corps as MN-7 in which corn, hogs, and soybeans dominate (though there is much dairy as well).  Plus, Holden makes a big deal of supporting alternative energy on his website.

My instinct tells me Holden in better overall on the issues and there is no net loss on legislation in replacing Petersen with even a more conservative GOPer.  And the lesson to the other Dems from the strategy described here would surely be palpable.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?

"attempts to do so would often send him in the opposite direction" (0.00 / 0)
I don't think that Peterson is the only politician who has this sort of reaction to outside pressure, so pressure for the sake of pressure is not always a good idea.

This is a guy who has gotten 70% in his district the past two cycles.  I think he is rather firm in what he believes and unlikely to cave to pressure.  Outside of spending a ton on opposition research in hopes of finding a scandal, I think that the only way to get him out of office is to give him a non-political reason for retiring.  I have no idea what that might be.

So, the best course for environmental activists may be to ignore him and try to work around him as best as possible.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

Not an answer (4.00 / 1)
You are probably correct that he cannot be pressured into shifting positions.  Ignoring him, however, is surely the least effective method of pressuring him.  What ever chance there is to get him to shift, looking the other way ain't it.

But on the assumption he cannot be pressured, the only solution is to take away his power to block needed legislation.  There are two ways to do that: strip him of his chairmanship (won't happen) or get him out of the game.

Ignoring him to work around him is the status quo; the one in which he is effectively derailing climate legislation with his ever escalating demands.  The status quo strategy is not working.  So long as he sits in the chair's seat he is in a position to extract pounds of flesh.

Please explain how ignoring him and working around him will solve the problems he presents.

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts? Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? And cold comfort for change?

[ Parent ]
It doesn't solve any problems (0.00 / 0)
My point is, since you can't really remove him unless you can wave a magic wand and create health or family problems that cause him to retire, then he is firmly entrenched in the job. He sounds like the sort of person who will become more of a problem if you try to push around, so absent any reasonable means of pressuring him, then the best course (or least harmful) is to leave him be for the most part.  Is that really such a hard notion to accept?

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
What problem does doing nothing solve? (4.00 / 2)
The problem that not enough people think progressives are chickensh*ts who spend their time cowering in a corner and begging people not to hurt them?

And how do we know what would happen?

'Everybody' used to know that Lieberman was untouchable in Connecticut. Even if it's going to take more than a cycle to get rid of him, the Lamont campaign made a big difference in terms of putting a scare into other members of Congress. If Peterson ended up merely isolated out of the deal, that works for me, too.

Moreover, Peterson isn't sitting back and doing nothing. He's rapidly becoming as a big a problem as he can, as the House leadership has allowed him to do. Their craven failure to discipline him for extreme disloyaltly in 2006 is exactly why we're in this mess.

[ Parent ]
If Peterson were weak, I'd agree (0.00 / 0)
I supported taking a shot at Lieberman, but Peterson is much stronger.  I honestly think he is likely to get over 50% even with a well-funded third-party candidate from the left.  I think the likeliest path to taking him down would rely on getting lucky on things that aren't substantive issues.  If you had money to throw around on opposition research to find out if he had an affair that you could use against him, then I would support that.

Overall, I think Peterson would have more to fear from the extremely remote possibility that an angry environmentalist might be motivated enough to pick up a gun than from anything the left can do to him electorally.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
What was the extreme disloyalty in 2006? (0.00 / 0)
And sadly, I generally agree with Anthony's point.  While Chris has outlined the only and correct way to put pressure on Peterson, I don't think it would actually be a powerful enough lever, and I do think (based on the quote Anthony led this thread with) that it would just as likely backfire.

In other words, while trying to defeat a committee chair is a correct, and possibly the only strategy, in Peterson's district I think it still wouldn't work.  If you imagine a well-funded campaign against him, and you imagine his well-funded self-defense, and the argumentative content of the two campaigns, I think Peterson wins.  There will not be enough voters in his district willing to buy "Colin Peterson wrecked climate change legislation" over "Colin Peterson has been looking out for Minnesota families and farmers for 20 years.  Peterson worked to write a fair climate and energy bill that protects American security and Minnesota farmers."  In the end, I think our side could only take away maybe 5% of the electorate from him, and I doubt that would be enough to defeat or even nearly defeat him.  It's possible that it might be; the GOP would have to be making a serious run on him of their own, which they haven't done in years.  We'd need to have placed calls to the GOP and received confirmation that they were willing to make a real challenge too before the threat becomes real.  Because we can't take away nearly enough on his left to defeat him on our own.

There are districts where we could do that; CT-Sen was a great example of a constituency where the left-leaning part of the electorate was numerically large enough to matter even without a GOP challenger.  Most of the New Dems sit in districts where this could work (Harman and Tauscher, for instance).  But in that particular district there just aren't enough hardcore progressives willing to turn their back on their own guy for us to sway.

And if our threat never amounted to more than knocking his victory margin from 70% to 65% -- meaning it's all insult and no injury -- then we've had no further effect than pissing him off.  There needs to be some real injury for the desired political calculus to kick in, and I honestly don't think we could injure Peterson much in that district even if we tried really hard.

Which is why Anthony was arguing for oppo research and hopefully an affair or corruption, because a straight argument about climate change just won't be enough to hurt him significantly.  He might have to fundraise and hustle a bit, but not enough to reorient his decision calculus in the way we want, and the fundraising would drive him even deeper into the arms of Big Ag, if that's possible.

[ Parent ]
Excellent suggestion, Chris. (4.00 / 1)
The planet is too important than to let Democratic Party politics as usual prevail.

The EPA should just adopt cap and trade or set regulatory limits.  They have the statutory authority.  

I'd Go Further (4.00 / 1)
     If you're going to oppose him, which I support, then the progressives in his district should definitely vote for the Republican candidate. The point is to get him out of office, and that's the only way to do it, assuming he can't be taken out in a primary.

He might be too popular for that to work (0.00 / 0)
This is, after all, a guy who got more than 70% in a district that went for McCain.  How many progressives do you think there are in his district?

I'm a bit surprised we got someone who voted against NAFTA and the Patriot Act out of that.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
Another angle (4.00 / 1)
Collin Peterson is the most conservative committee chair in the House based on Progressive Punch scores.  He has the worst lifetime score, the worst for the session, the worst score in the crunch (for a chair).  His only rival, Ike Skelton, shows huge improvement for the session.

John Dingell was ousted and his scores are a lot better.  The next caucus can simply vote for someone else as Committe chair.  Simple, effective, and self regulating.

I would not warn Peterson.  That is likely to help him mount a defense.  If I could, do this in secret.  Great.  If not, let him mount his defense knowing that the ideology of House Democrats is vastly against him.  Considering that Food Stamps comprise much of Ag's budget, it should be easy to get the guy.  Considering that he is screwing with the environment, easier yet.

Further, it is a direct attack on the power of the Blue Dogs.  Anything that weakens those SOBs is a great thing.

Blue Dogs (0.00 / 0)
Other than Peterson, the ten Democrats on the committee who have served more than two terms or more in Congress are Blue Dogs.  The only committee members not in their first term who aren't Blue Dogs are Tim Walz and Steve Kagen.  I don't think you'll be able to leapfrog the committee chair to either of them.

Things You Don't Talk About in Polite Company: Religion, Politics, the Occasional Intersection of Both

[ Parent ]
True but (4.00 / 1)
Peterson is worse than the others.

Someone from outside with seniority could come in.

Even if we get a new lousy chairman, he would likely run a little scared.

All in all, this is a viable although not ideal option.

Peterson is one of the 5 worst Democrats in the House.  He's that bad.  Dumping him sends shock waves.

[ Parent ]
Re (4.00 / 1)
I live about 5 miles to the south of Peterson's district.  As has been mentioned, he routinely gets around 70% of the vote.  I'd put the percentage of hardcore democrats in the 7th district at about 25% of the electorate.  Of those 25%, a good number are conservative dems themselves.  Even those democrats that aren't conservative, some won't be willing to vote against (or not vote for) the Democratic candidate.

While this is a good idea, it has no realistic shot at taking him out or even scaring him.  I think at most it would take 5% off his total share.  And I don't see him having a credible challenger either.  I think his last opponent, Glen Menze (who had run against him before), raised in the neighborhood of 10k total.

Really the only way to get rid of Peterson is to keep the limits on committee chairs.  That way when his third term as Ag chair is done he will retire, leaving an open seat in 2012.

Then how about running ads (4.00 / 4)
supporting him as a liberal? "Hi, I'm Chris Bowers from OpenLeft, the homosexual Muslim advocacy website, and I want to thank Congressman Peterson for his embrace of my agenda!"

We can all write letters to people in his district, a la the Dean campaign, demanding they vote for Peterson because we believe he's secretly in support of our urban atheist platform.

Damn that'd be fun.

[ Parent ]
How about a 'boots on the ground' campaign? (0.00 / 0)
What if we tried the novel strategy of sending in actual human beings to knock on doors and talk to people, thus engaging them in a meaningful, person-to-person way?

[ Parent ]
Can we wear orange hats?? (4.00 / 1)
Snarkiness aside, one of the greatest bummers of politics is that there are people who have different value systems than we do, and civil, open-minded, meaningful conversation doesn't change their minds.  It sucks.  I also want to love people rather than fight them.  

But even a civil and profound engagement with the people of the district may not convince them to dump Collin Peterson.  You could, perhaps, move enough of them left enough that he starts to get some more lefty sentiments appearing in his constituent correspondence; not that he needs his constituents anymore.  I guess the real way to win would be to argue that he is a slave to Big Ag and not to the real farmers of his district: "Collin Peterson abandoned us for ArcherDanielsMidland!"  That's a more conventional politican-as-bad-guy narrative that might work.  But "Collin Peterson doesn't care enough about climate change" is going to lose to the "fair climate change bill that protects Minnesota farmers" everytime, I think.  That's the Goldilocks narrative, balance this value against that one, and people love it, because they love to think they're getting both.

[ Parent ]
This strategy would need to be paired with a (0.00 / 0)
strong Republican candidate.

When he gets 70 percent, it's because he has token opposition.  If Republicans know Peterson is already going to be taking heat -- in a Republican district -- they will be more likely to field and finance a top-tier candidate.  A smart Republican campaign, paired with smart organizing on the left, could take away this seat.  No politician is invincible.

[ Parent ]
How about Jesse Ventura running as an independent? (0.00 / 0)
He'd give Peterson a run for his money, I'll bet.

[ Parent ]
Leaving the reservation (4.00 / 2)
Glad to see you've left the reservation, Chris.

Assuming that we are serious about this strategy, now is the time to begin developing a permanent infrastructure which can support third party challengers wherever they are necessary.  

This can either mean reinforcing an existing third party in a given state (e.g. the Greens where they are not totally dysfunctional) or developing one where it doesn't exist.

Bear in mind that while Peterson might be the worst, he is not the only one who could benefit from a bracing encounter with electoral democracy.

I hope this is not the last that we hear of this discussion.

Umm, no (0.00 / 0)
While I believe this is a bit of a departure, and he's traveling today or he could say so himself, I don't believe he's advocating building up a national third party.

[ Parent ]
Chris's dilemma (0.00 / 0)
That means it's a race for Chris Bowers' political soul between:

-Chris recognizing the logic of his position requires his advocating just that


-the DNCC offering him a good paying gig with benefits.

A win win situation!

[ Parent ]
If you think that, (0.00 / 0)
... then you don't know Chris at all.

[ Parent ]
Right, because anyone who doesn't share your beliefs regarding third-party politics (0.00 / 0)
is a bought-and-paid-for sell-out.  

Woof.  Great to see you're starting your third-party campaign with well-reasoned and persuasive arguments like that.  That'll work.

[ Parent ]
That wasn't an argument. (0.00 / 0)
Democrats have low standards, evidently.

[ Parent ]
It was a personal insult. (0.00 / 0)
I called it an "argument" instead because I was trying to show, rather than tell, that it was an insult.

Not that it seems to have made any difference.

[ Parent ]
Big, scary, right-wing like fear mongering on global warming? (4.00 / 2)
I like this idea, Chris.  Unfortunately, if the comments above are correct it probably won't help.

If money was available, one could launch a campaign on the effects of global climate change on agriculture.  The reality is agriculture will be seriously hurt by global warming and Peterson is a short sided coward for ignoring it.

If global warming fear mongering with dramatic examples of how bad it will be for agriculture can be combined with challenging Peterson's manhood for being too chicken-shit to step up to the plate, perhaps that would apply real pressure.

Anyone have a few million dollars lying around for an ad campaign?

Knowing that there's very little in the way of a progressive base to appeal to, (0.00 / 0)
then Mark is right, the appeal would have to be a global warming argument aimed at self-interested farmers specifically.

You could wrap a few narratives together, something like: "Droughts in the summer.  Floods in the spring.  Heatwaves that bake our crops and turn our topsoil to dust.  This is the future that global warming promises for Minnesota farmers.  Collin Peterson says he's protecting us by weakening the Climate and Energy Security Act in the House, but he's really trading away our future, to do the bidding of ADM, Monsanto, and the Big Ag companies that pay for his expensive campaigns.  Stopping climate change is vital to securing our way of life, but Collin Peterson is blocking progress.  Join us, and help us stop Collin Peterson, so we can give to our children the farms our parents gave to us."

That at least anticipates his argument and frames it negatively: he's not protecting us, he's betraying us for Big Ag.  It replaces the goldilocks idea with the politician-as-liar-and-traitor idea, which is also powerful.

[ Parent ]
NYT (0.00 / 0)
Is Peterson's company one of the institutional investors in the NYT?

I think Chris has a terrible idea (0.00 / 0)
those groups would do much better to hire Jane Hamsher or Dave Johnson to run a blog based pressure campaign.

Which Peterson would listen to because ...? (4.00 / 3)
Help me out here. Apart from the merits of Chris' idea, your suggestion addresses none of the structural flaws mentioned above, and you don't have a credible argument for why a campaign based on liberal blogs would remotely matter to him.

[ Parent ]
totally agree they should start running the ads now (0.00 / 0)
and it is a strategy we should consider in other places as well.

Problem is (0.00 / 0)
I bet you couldn't find 100 left-wing people in his district within a month. And even if you did. He wins by 2-1 margins. That wouldn't have any effect on him.

Colin Peterson is stubborn. Always has been. Always will be. And quite frankly until he retires he will be a thorn in the side of progress.  

John McCain: Beacuse lobbyists should have more power

Bad policy (0.00 / 0)
Waxman decided to try to pass a bill by buying off everyone and screwing consumers/voters--well, they forgot to buy off the AG folks & now there's not enough money so they'll be giving away offsets. Bottom-line, this is Waxman & Markey's (and the enviros that went along with it) own fault and now they have now idea what to do.

I swear, if I get another "Strengthen & Pass" message in my email box I'm going to scream. WTF does strengthen & pass mean? Is it good? Or is it bad?      



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