Maryland’s Montgomery County Council passed the nation’s first county-level carbon tax on Wednesday thanks in part to a little heckling from a group of rowdy Tea Party protesters.

It would be hard to dream up a more delightful twist to cap off a campaign that was about as dramatic as they come in the world of county politics. Desperate to prevent what they rightly saw as a precedent that could unleash an avalanche of similar laws across the country, the Mirant Corporation — owners of the big coal plant that was facing the $15 million tax — spared no expense in their efforts to kill the bill. They ran an all-out astroturf campaign that was about as dirty as the energy they produce — outrageously mischaracterizing the bill as anti-environmental, and setting up a website that is known to have generated at least one fraudulent email.

Local climate activists with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and other groups responded with a salvo of real, unpurchased and unmanufactured grassroots emails, petitions, and phone calls to the councilmembers, but right up to the key council subcommittee vote on Tuesday, there was a serious concern that Mirant’s underhanded tactics might win the day.

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That concern nearly turned to panic when we arrived at the bill hearing on Tuesday to find the room packed with a mob of global-warming-denying Mirant employees and Tea Party activists the polluters had trotted out in hopes of delivering the knockout punch.

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They outnumbered us five to one, and they wasted no time turning the hearing into scene reminiscent of August’s infamous healthcare town-hall meetings — with members of the audience booing and heckling the councilmembers and those testifying in favor of the bill, including Chesapeake Climate Action Network director Mike Tidwell. It was a circus of ignorance and incivility like nothing I’d ever experienced, and presiding over it all were the Mirant executives whose testimony echoed the boldfaced disrespect of their cheering section, mocking councilmember Roger Berliner’s bill as “anti-environmental” and “more sound bite than sound policy.”

Fortunately, the councilmembers found the spectacle that Mirant put on as disgusting as we did, and following a verbal smackdown from councilmembers Berliner and George Leventhal, councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg let Mirant and the Tea Party protesters know just how badly their uncivil tactics had backfired: “I’m afraid your testimony and your presence here today have had the opposite effect of what you intended,” she told them just before asking to be added as a co-sponsor of the bill. Her decision put the vote count over the top, and soon thereafter the committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill. The bill passed the entire county council the next day in an 8-1 vote.

The only thing better than watching a big energy baddy like Mirant go down in flames is watching them get taken down thanks in part to a colossal backfire of teabagger fury. Against the ugly backdrop of the Mirant campaign, the honest, civilized tactics of Montgomery county climate activists — those hundreds of real grassroots phonecalls, emails, and petitions — stood out in even sharper relief and rightfully won the day.

It was a real vindication. Thanks for the boost Tea Partiers. Keep it up.

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