Green Tea, Georgia Style
A New Brew of Bipartisanship
By Andrew Bonanno MS’15 and Jeremy Cherson MS’15
It’s election season 2012 and Colleen Kiernan, chapter director of the Georgia Sierra Club, is battling a bill that would limit the right to protest in the Peach State. A broad coalition of liberals and conservatives have come together to challenge the bill, but the bill’s sponsor is attempting to peel off Tea Party opposition by making it apply only to labor unions. Kiernan takes particular note when Debbie Dooley, co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, responds, “This is a bad bill, and it needs to die!” Impressed by Dooley’s passion, Kiernan picks up the phone and arranges a meeting that will set in motion one of the most unlikely political alliances in modern America.
Over lunch, Debbie and Colleen realized there was a window of opportunity to bring their respective constituencies together and challenge the “status quo of the good ol’ boys” in Georgia politics. There were two open seats on the Georgia Public Service Commission, the body which regulates the state’s largest utility: Georgia Power. Georgia Power has a legal monopoly on energy in the state and actively opposes alternative energy development, particularly solar. This is where the values of the Tea Party and Sierra Club converged.
The Sierra Club supports solar power as a renewable, zero-emissions energy option. From the Tea Party perspective, backing solar is a way to decentralize energy production and force large utilities to compete in the free market. Thus, the Green Tea Coalition was formed, a surprising partnership that generated attention from national media outlets such as Fox News, MSNBC, and the New York Times.
The Green Tea Coalition flexed its muscles in the 2012 election, supporting two candidates for the Georgia Public Service Commission who were open to expanding solar and both were elected. Last summer, the Commission voted four to one to double the amount of solar generated electricity that Georgia Power is required to supply to the grid. At 525 megawatts, this is enough power to supply about 168,000 Georgian households with electricity.
Such victories have not gone unopposed by some conservatives, including Karl Rove and the Koch brother funded group Americans for Prosperity (AFP). AFP asserts that it is wrong to force solar on utility companies because it is more expensive than coal or natural gas. Dooley, however, advises people to follow the money. “The Koch brothers are heavily invested in fossil fuels and want to protect their interests,” asserts Dooley, adding, “it’s hypocritical for some conservatives to point the finger at [solar subsidies] while ignoring the subsidies received by fossil fuel and nuclear.” If given a fair fight in the free market, Dooley believes solar will outcompete fossil fuels.
For the Sierra Club, while some of their traditional supporters are uncomfortable with such close collaboration with right-wing groups, Kiernan points out that the Tea Party is very decentralized and shouldn’t be viewed as a monolithic entity. This can be highlighted by the emerging division between the big-corporate wing of the Republican Party and the values of some local, grassroots conservatives.
To Dooley, messaging is key. Given the right message on energy, conservatives and environmentalists can find common ground to achieve shared goals. Consider this argument from Dooley, “Who do you think should pay to clean up for the damage caused by coal fired power plants, do you believe you the taxpayer should pay for it? Or should it come from a clean up fund that these major corporations that profit from coal should be the ones that pay for it? That would get the same thing [goal of environmentalists] accomplished much faster. No conservative would say they think the taxpayer should pay for that!”
For her part, Kiernan envisions the partnership evolving on a case-by-case basis. For example, a statewide voter referendum to raise the sales tax by a penny to fund transportation projects threatened to increase Georgia’s reliance on automobile use. Kiernan reached out to Dooley to challenge the referendum. Together, the Green Tea Coalition defeated what the Sierra Club viewed as a road building tax and the Tea Party saw as an unnecessary tax increase. Working in a conservative state poses challenges for the Sierra Club, says Kiernan, and framing the issues through the lens of conservative values such as property rights is crucial to success in a red state.
The unlikely partnership highlights the potential for a new bipartisanship in the United States. Driven by grassroots activists concerned with the collusion of big government and big business, conservatives and progressives in Georgia are finding new spaces to challenge the status quo. Dooley and Kiernan agree that any chance they have to disrupt the good ol’ boys and business-as-usual is likely to foster a partnership between their seemingly divergent groups.