U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers helped make the Great Lakes the country’s third coast, political watchers said after the Michigan Republican announced his retirement Wednesday.
“He treated the Great Lakes like it is, which is a coast of America,” said Bill Rustem, who was an environmental aide to former Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken.
The 76-year-old moderate from Grand Rapids helped gain the visibility and funding for the Great Lakes that have long been available to the East and West Coasts, said Rustem, now the president of a public policy consulting firm in Lansing, Mich.
Ehlers had faced a primary challenge from first-term state Rep. Justin Amash, 29, who has support from local tea party activists. Conservative activist Michael Van Kleeck has also filed as a Republican.
The news disappointed many Great Lakes environmental advocates, who admire Ehlers’ support of environmental causes that were often unpopular within his party.
Andy Buchsbaum, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes region, called Ehlers’ retirement a loss.
“He has been knowledgeable, passionate, and principled in his defense of the lakes,” Buchsbaum wrote in an e-mail.
Richard Hula, chair of the political science department at Michigan State University, called Ehlers “a real vanishing species.”
“You have one of the last moderate Republicans around, and obviously someone with a good deal of seniority,” he said, adding that even serving in the minority party in Congress, Ehlers has clout. “So that area will be weakened, no question.”
But Hula said Ehlers’ departure wasn’t likely to affect national climate change legislation.
“I don’t think anything’s going to get through Congress,” he said. “I think something like this might have had a lot more impact in a different Congress, but given the complete partisan gridlock that you’ve got, in a curious sort of way, it becomes less significant.”
After earning his doctoral degree in nuclear physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1960, Ehlers taught physics for 16 years at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. He served eight years on the Kent County Board of Commissioners, including three years as chairman. He was a volunteer science adviser to then-Congressman Gerald R. Ford.
Ehlers served 11 years in the Michigan Legislature, before his election to Ford’s former seat in Michigan’s third congressional district in 1993. He serves on the House Science and Technology Committee and is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education. He is one of only three physicists in the U.S. Congress.
“Having somebody in there who understands science is important for environmental decision making,” Rustem said.
Kerry Duggan, deputy director and development director at the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, credited Ehlers for a willingness to spend time on complex issues.
“His door was always open, and [the Great Lakes] would be the first issue he’d want to talk about,” she said.
Ehlers earned a 70 percent rating on the national League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard in 2007, and a 69 percent rating in 2008. The scorecard uses votes to rate members of Congress on conservation and clean energy issues. Ehlers’ 2008 ranking was higher than all but three Republican members of Congress.
During the 1980s Ehlers chaired the Michigan Senate Environmental Committee.
“He was actually a pretty progressive Republican on environmental issues,” said David Dempsey, the author of several books about Great Lakes protection and who had been environmental adviser to former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard. “We got a fair amount of good legislation both out of him and through his committee.”
Dempsey said Ehlers’ signature legislative contribution is the Great Lakes Legacy Act, a 2002 federal law that authorized $270 million for the cleanup of toxic hot spots. Ehlers teamed with Minnesota Democrat Rep. James Oberstar to introduce a successful 2008 reauthorization of the bill.
“That was good leadership,” Dempsey said.
Michigan Sierra Club’s development director, Jan O’Connell credited Ehlers for a number of stances that weren’t always politically popular.
“He was very aware that global warming is an issue, that it’s manmade and we’ve got to deal with it,” she said. “He was in favor of [vehicle fuel-efficiency] standards, which is a pretty tough issue in Michigan with the auto industry.” And he opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.
Rustem said Ehlers’ legacy as a “champion for the Great Lakes,” includes work to prevent the spread of invasive species in the lakes. Ehlers sponsored the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, which restricted diversion of the lakes’ water to arid regions. He was a lead Republican cosponsor of the Clean Water Restoration Act. He has voted to expand the use of wind, solar, biomass and hydropower.
“He’s left a legacy for us all,” Rustem said. “I think much of what he set out to succeed, he succeeded at.”
Michigan State Sen. Patty Birkholz called Ehlers’ retirement “just a huge loss to Great Lakes issues.” A Republican, Birkholz chairs the nonpartisan Great Lakes Legislative Caucus, a group of legislators from eight Great Lakes states and three Canadian provinces.
“He has been so effective and persistent in dealing with Great Lakes issues, certainly from a scientific point of view, from an ecological sustainability point of view” and regarding the health of the entire Great lakes, she said.
“He’s just been just fantastic as a federal legislator and we’re going to miss him a whole lot.”