This month, dozens of newly elected officials took the oath of office in Southeast Pennsylvania, capping off a profound shift toward pro-environmental protection in places like Chester, Delaware, and Bucks counties. New faces include Josh Maxwell and Marian Moskowitz on the county board of commissioners, as well as 15 other candidates endorsed by my group, the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, to municipal office and several other candidates to county judgeships.
While many issues drove a surge of voters to the polls in November 2019, increasing alarm over environmental issues cemented this victory.
Political insiders often excuse inaction on issues like climate change and protecting public space by saying that voters care more about jobs and health care when they step into the voting booth.
But that’s simply not true. Take Chester County as an important case study. Our polling of Chester County voters in the run-up to last year’s elections found environmental issues to be a top priority — and the election results proved this to be true.
Concerned by the rollback of environmental protections at the federal level — particularly the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord — many voters also felt under assault locally as valuable open space is gobbled up by new development and dangerous new natural gas pipelines, like the Mariner East Pipeline, are built within hundreds of feet from their homes and schools.
The environmental tide began to turn in 2018, when candidates we rated as pro-environment won in key suburban legislative elections after pledging to limit the growth of the fossil fuel industry.
Building off these successes, we decided to invest in the Southeast in 2019 — believing that a slate of environmentally focused elected officials could help achieve key victories in the fight against climate change, including protections for clean air, clean water, and open spaces.
We focused our efforts on local and county-wide races in Chester County, after seeing election resources from other groups flood into the other suburban counties and identifying it as the county where pro-environment candidates needed the most support — and also where longstanding support for environmental protection crossed traditional ideological divides.
Our team of canvassers knocked on 39,456 doors, and as an organization we sent out 106,200 pieces of mail, called 181,032 voters and ran a robust social media and digital advertising campaign that was seen more than 1 million times. Our message prioritized transitioning to a clean energy grid, investing in SEPTA, strengthening environmental protections and committing to fight dangerous new pipeline projects.
We’re now looking to take the lessons we learned this election to apply them to this year’s state legislative elections.
Pro-polluter politicians remain in control of the General Assembly largely because they continue to hold onto legislative seats in suburban counties. Their constituents, however, are now decisively voting for their environmental values.
Our goal isn’t just to turn Harrisburg pro-environment. It’s to ensure that all candidates running for office across Pennsylvania have to make the health and safety of our air, water and energy a key part of their platforms.
And it’s also to ensure that climate change and environmental protection become priorities at every level of government.
Together with strong pro-environmental leaders in Philadelphia and the other suburban counties, the slate of Chester County commissioners sworn in earlier this month has the potential to implement cutting-edge environmental policies that affect the entire region.
Increased collaboration between pro-environment elected officials in the city and suburbs will create needed changes to influential authorities including the SEPTA Board of Directors. A new SEPTA board could reduce pollution by increasing service to get more cars off the road, modernizing and electrifying its busses, and speeding up its transition to environmentally sustainable energy sources like wind and solar.
It will also mean better regional planning to reduce sprawl and preserve open space, and better programs to weatherize the homes of low-income residents to reduce consumption while saving money.
It’s time to bring our success in the suburbs to the whole region.
Josh McNeil is Executive Director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania and Vice President for Civic Engagement at PennFuture.