Stacey Champion took on the Tea Party — and won
Imagine living someplace where the political hijinks are so outlandish that people refuse to believe that they’re really happening. (Oh, right.) Stacey Champion lives in just such a place. It’s called Arizona.
“We have these extremist legislators — some of the shit they say would blow your mind,” says Champion, an environmental consultant and PR specialist who lives in Phoenix. “‘Al Gore created climate change’ — they really believe this stuff.”
You laugh, but for those who care about the Grand Canyon State, it creates a conundrum: Recent proposals from Tea Party Republicans — to raise money for the state’s schools by making the state the nation’s nuclear waste dump, for example — have stretched the popular imagination to the breaking point.
People assume that such spectacularly bad ideas will run up against political checks and balances and die early deaths — and often they do, even in Arizona, says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. But sometimes they don’t, and sometimes these proposals are pushed through in such a sneaky fashion that no one has a chance to shoot them down.
That’s where Champion came in.
Last spring, Champion caught wind of a bill moving quietly through the legislature that would prevent the state, county, or city governments from “adopting or implementing the creed, doctrine, principles or any tenet of the United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development” — a pledge to promote eco-friendly development and eradicate poverty that was adopted along with Agenda 21. It would also ban state and local government membership in ICLEI, a nonprofit that has become the object of wing-nut conspiracy theories everywhere.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Judy Burges, had used a special “strike everything” amendment to sneak the bill through the state Senate and into the House. (Strike everything is the legislative equivalent of a body snatcher, allowing a lawmaker to substitute a totally different bill into the text of an existing, unrelated one — the original bill, in this case, was called “unemployment insurance; technical correction.”) It was on its way to a final vote in the House, and looked like it might pass.
Champion was irate. She lobbied the environment reporter at the Arizona Republic to cover the bill (she did) and pushed the mayor of Phoenix, who was elected on a green platform, to speak up (ditto). She fired up her social networks and created an online petition, which was eventually signed by more than 600 people. And she went to the Capitol to watchdog the bill each time it was scheduled for a final vote.
“Stacey was the mosquito buzzing in their ears, pushing the mayor to speak up and getting some additional media attention on it,” says Bahr.
Champion’s main arguments, which she laid out in a blog post, were economic ones. Sustainability efforts create jobs and improve human health, she said, and sustainability has become a central tenet to responsible business. Nonetheless, she got plenty of blow-back. “I was getting attacked by the Tea Party people,” she says. “I had a guy on Twitter call me a Gaia-worshipping prostitute.”
The story eventually made national headlines, and the bill died after the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry came out in opposition, citing concerns about the state’s image. (As Bahr puts it, “Looking crazy is not good for business.”)
“I have never had to fight so hard,” Champion says.
What’s next for Champion? She plans to continue to agitate for a greener Arizona. She is now pushing for a better recycling program for Phoenix (schocker: she’s already started a petition), and wants more climate change and resiliency planning. In her free time, she organizes the city’s Park(ing) Day festivities and monthly networking events under the banner of Rogue Green. And if/when Judy Burges next decides to rail against sustainability, she can be assured that Stacey Champion will be there to rail back.
“It’s a batshit crazy place,” Champion says. “I’ve had numerous come-to-Jesus moments with the fact that this is my home, but it is — and as long as I’m here, I have to do everything I can to be the voice of sanity.”
Ed’s note: Two other things you should know about Stacey Champion: Yes, that’s her real name, and no, she’s not the Stacey Champion who tried to mail a puppy to her son in Georgia.