by Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, Chapter Political Committee Chair
Many of you know that the Sierra Club endorses candidates for public office. You may even look on candidate’s flyers for an endorsement logo during election seasons to see who has been endorsed. You may also recall our endorsements can be controversial, for example in 2016 the National Club endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Hawai‘i Chapter endorsed Kirk Caldwell.
You may not, however, know how the endorsement process works. Here’s a very brief introduction to three aspects of the endorsement process. If you want a more full understanding (and have a lot of time!), you can look at the Sierra Club Political Team Compliance Guidelines, available to members on Clubhouse.
Endorsement differs for federal, state, and local races.
All decisions about endorsements and other political action for candidates must be approved by a vote of two separate Club entities. For federal races (US Senate and House), the two entities are the National Political Team and the Chapter Executive Committee. For state legislative and county races, the Group Executive Committee and the Chapter Executive Committee vote. For statewide office (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustees), the two entities are the Chapter Political Committee and the Chapter Executive Committee.
Incumbency matters to the Club.
The Sierra Club in its endorsement process highly values incumbency. In specific situations this upsets supporters of individual candidates. For instance, the Club will endorse an incumbent with a good environmental record against a challenger who is stronger on the environment. This happens even when the incumbent is known to the Club as a strong volunteer or even a former staff member!
Why do we value incumbency? Because we try to send strong signal to elected officials that if they work for our issues, we will support them. If we abandon our incumbent friends and support their opponents, legislators will be less likely to support our positions when we need them.
The Club also considers the viability of a candidate when making endorsement decisions. What is viability? In short, does the candidate have a realistic chance of winning? Ways to measure or evaluate viability can vary, including assessing how much money has been raised, past voting patterns in the race, and the strength of opposing candidates. Like incumbency, considering viability means that we sometimes will not endorse people who clearly share our values but have a very low likelihood of winning, and this can anger some people.
Why do we value viability? Because when we endorse a candidate, we want it to mean something – to the candidate, their opponents, and voters. If the Club consistently endorses candidates who do not win, an endorsement from the Club loses its power, and could even become an indicator of a likelihood of losing.
The all-volunteer Political Committee for this election season is listed in the Mālama and our website. Please reach out and ask us questions or share your concerns. Also consider helping out – indeed after endorsements are decided, the real work of campaigning for our champions still needs to be done.