Looking A little Green

Taking the Sierra Club's helm, boy wonder Adam Werbach confronts more than his own inexperience

And Werbach is media-savvy. He majored in the subject at Brown, you know. For his interview with the New York Times, for example, he wore a suit, which the reporter noted with the kind of approving nod that only the Times can muster in print, at once condescending and laudatory. For SF Weekly, he's dressed hipper -- like, hey, this is an alternative newspaper, so cool clothes are OK. It's basic spin. The image as the message. The kind of thing you might learn in an Ivy League classroom.

Only with Werbach, it's hard to tell where it begins and ends. Try and write him off as mere loom-and-thread material and there's something in him that won't let you. He's got these amorphous ideas, which seem almost naive -- celebrate your television? -- and then you remember, wham, that this guy has figured out how to be president of the Sierra Club at a very early age. Maybe he knows something. Maybe he's right. Maybe the image is the message. Maybe the message does matter.

On the other hand, maybe it's just transcendental environmentalism. Visualizing whirled trees.

"I think there needs to be a lot of refiguring of what environmentalists are," Werbach is saying. "It's not a question of being green. It's a question of being red, white, and blue. These are basic American issues."

But once people start thinking about the environment, then what? Say everybody agrees on the fact that the air needs to be clean. What happens next?

"It's probably not going to be direct," Werbach says. "It's not going to be 'write a letter to your congressman.' It's going to be much more broad."

Like, what?
"You're asking the mechanics of day to day. That's good," Werbach says. "I haven't figured that out."

Robbie Cox, on the other hand, definitely has. "I think the Congress is becoming slicker," Cox is saying. "They're putting a kinder, gentler face on their efforts to roll back 25 years of environmental protections."

Cox is the immediate past president of the Sierra Club. The election that put Werbach into the top job also put Cox, who had stepped down after two years as president, into the vice president seat. He's talking on the phone from his home in North Carolina, his voice not so much drawly as gentle, like clothes on a line above a summer lawn. Cox, who is 50, is a professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Being president was exhausting, he says. He'll settle for the No. 2 spot. And why not? His job responsibilities don't seem to have changed that much. A new face might be out front but, behind the scenes at the club, Cox talks like he's still the guy in charge. In fact, weeks after Werbach's election, Cox is still issuing directives to other board members, according to Sierra Club elder statesman Brower. "Those should be coming from Adam," Brower says, sounding peeved.

But power is difficult to relinquish, as anyone who has ever had it knows. Particularly when the stakes are high.

"This Congress, from the beginning, has been impervious to the voters' expressions of concern over the environment," Cox is saying. "They have responded essentially to their corporate backers."

And so the Sierra Club, Cox explains, will be fighting back. This fall, as the country rolls toward its biannual congressional elections, the Sierra Club will unveil a $1 million war chest, money that will be spent in specifically targeted elections to help re-elect friends and defeat foes.

Instead of contributing the money to individual campaigns, Cox says, the club is going to spend it the way the big corporate boys do, staying independent and slathering it on unrestricted by federal campaign finance limits. The Sierra Club can do it because, unlike most other environmental organizations, the club doesn't have a 501(c)3 nonprofit status, which means that contributions made to it are not tax-deductible. As a result, the Sierra Club can get directly involved in political efforts, which tax-deductible organizations, with few exceptions, cannot.

And campaign financing isn't Cox's only focus. Over the last two years, Cox has presided over a restructuring of the Sierra Club -- in part to stem the tide of red ink that was washing over the organization. It's been a controversial effort in some quarters. Not the saving money part, but the hows and whys of the reorganization.

For more than two decades, the Sierra Club has focused its efforts on lobbying in Washington. "Inside the Beltway," it's called -- finding the power brokers at the table, pulling up a chair, and hammering out a compromise. It's a strategy that, to a large extent, has left the individual Sierra Club chapters high and dry. Sure, they've been sponsoring bike trips and selling calendars, but when it came to actually influencing public policy, they received little encouragement or direction.

In fact, the club has taken for granted its community support. Particularly when the Democrats won the White House. We all know the environment is important, right?

But these days, due in part to the Republican ascendancy in Washington, the club has had to go back to its roots. Grass roots, that is. Cox and Executive Director Carl Pope, who runs the day-to-day operations of the club according to the board's direction, have cut some committees, rearranged others, and started pilot programs to try to train Sierra Club groups to organize their communities. The moves have saved money, Cox says, and strengthened the club as a whole.

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