Why climate groups deserted Sanchez
We won’t suffer fair weather friends or faux leaders
A POLITICAL LIGHTNING BOLT hit the Massachusetts State House on September 4. Jeffrey Sanchez, the longtime incumbent and chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, was defeated by Nika Elugardo, a first-time candidate, community leader, and former staffer to Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. Sanchez outspent Elugardo 3-1 and was backed by much of the establishment, ranging from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey to the Boston Globe and 11 unions.
Yet on Friday, August 3, three days after the end of the legislative session, a trio of grassroots climate organizations – 350 Mass Action, the Massachusetts Sierra Club, and Sunrise Movement – all proudly endorsed Sanchez’s opponent, and threw their collective weight behind her. Certainly, Elugardo ran a terrific campaign, and she and her talented team of volunteers and staff deserve the bulk of the credit for her spirited victory. But the environmental community was furious about Sanchez’s absence of leadership on climate action and inspired by Elugardo’s positions and commitments—including pledging to not take money from fossil fuel companies or utilities and supporting a rapid transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Our contribution to this monumental victory should not be overlooked.
With Sanchez the head of the powerful Ways & Means Committee and one of the few House legislators from a progressive district, environmental groups were quick to court his support for a variety of our priorities. But we didn’t want to just have him hear from State House regulars; we wanted to host a climate town hall with Sanchez in his district where he could hear the voices of his own constituents on our issue. A coalition reached out to him in early March, trying to set up a town hall during a less busy time. Sanchez scheduled it for mid-July, when the House starting having later nights to deal with its usual July backlog of bills that had not moved during the previous 18 months.
The town hall wound up being the same day that Sanchez released an energy bill from the Ways & Means Committee. Perhaps he expected the audience gathered to be grateful he had released any bill, but instead the 150-plus people assembled were frustrated that he had taken a weak House bill (compared to a strong Senate one), and weakened it further. After initial reports that Sanchez would be late to the town hall, he suddenly could not make it. Instead of defending his decision to voters, he hid from them. His voters noted, and were furious.
It was this type of complete disregard for the views of voters – coupled with an alternative who pledged to be a true voice of the people – that fueled dozens of climate activists to turn out, donate, and knock on doors for Elugardo. Sanchez’s behavior also persuaded 350 Mass Action and Sunrise Boston to make their first-ever state legislative endorsements, and motivated the more-established Mass Sierra Club to join them in an unprecedented endorsement against a powerful progressive member of leadership.
A couple weeks later, Sanchez gathered community leaders around him to try to make the case that he was a progressive leader. But by that point, the damage had been done. Handed a chance to lead – or at the very least publicly defend why his hands were tied – Sanchez instead expressed a deep and profound disregard for the very people he was supposed to be serving.
Legislators should take note. The climate movement in particular and the progressive movement in general will not long suffer fair weather friends or faux leaders. California is on fire. Hawaii was just hit with one hurricane while Puerto Rico is still struggling a year later to recover from another. The arctic is melting. And Massachusetts has been experiencing intense heat after witnessing multiple hundred-year floods in 2018. Half-hearted responses will be met with whole-hearted opposition in favor of politicians who understand the crisis we face and stand ready to offer the leadership we need.Already, our movement is discussing who we can run in future state legislative races to unseat entrenched incumbents who refuse to acknowledge the climate crisis in word and deed. We stand ready to work with all who are ready to work with us, but we cannot stand by and watch while the world is burning.
Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of 350 Mass Action.