Memo to Great Lakes advocates: Stop fighting the last war
Great Lakes advocates make their annual trip to Washington next week to lobby the federal government to support Great Lakes restoration.
It’s a familiar trek.
Advocates strategize and listen to short speeches by members of the Great Lakes congressional delegation who praise their efforts and tell them about budget realities. Toss in a cocktail party, a few comments by an executive branch staffer then it’s off to congressional offices to make their pitch for money.
It has historically been good work and I’m sure years ago it contributed to what is now the federally funded Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
But it’s also an example of the generals who fight the last war. A strategy that worked in the past isn’t necessarily the right one for the future.
Here’s a relevant example.
Last week I attended a seminar at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics where former high-level campaign executives for President Barack Obama explained their strategy for winning two presidential elections. Ones they weren’t supposed to win. In both cases they would have failed if they had followed the safe, tried and true path – fought the last war.
To win, they had to challenge accepted campaign norms and be willing to take smarter risks than their deeper-pocketed establishment opponents.
Great Lakes advocates could learn from their example.
Budget battles are no longer an annual event in Washington. They’re part of the daily fabric in a dysfunctional federal government. And whatever happens with skirmishes like the fiscal cliff and sequestration, money for the Great Lakes is not going to increase. In recent budgets $300 million seems to be codified as the working number.
Advocates should still make their case for funding, it’s necessary. But federal money won’t protect the Great Lakes.
If they want to be really productive next week, they should work to refocus the initiative so it isn’t a mile wide and an inch deep. They could lobby to keep an expenditure like $600,000 for the Chicago Botanic Gardens under the guise of restoring the Great Lakes from happening again.
Similarly, there are better uses for the nearly $3 million that the Army Corps of Engineers will spend to turn Chicago’s Northerly Island into an eco-tourist destination. Imagine what Michigan advocates for the battered Rouge River could do with that money. Now that would be a really good use of federal dollars.
Wetland irony: Destroying while restoring
While advocates turn their attention to Washington, there is opportunity to make a real impact by focusing on what is happening in the states:
- Wisconsin is on the cusp of passing a really bad mining bill that threatens Lake Superior. High-quality wetlands will be destroyed which is ironic because wetland restoration is a priority for the advocates going to Washington. What if a coalition of Great Lakes activists had made the battle over that mining proposal a regional one versus letting it play out only in Madison? Could there have been a better outcome?
- There is a move afoot to significantly increase crude oil shipments on the Great Lakes from Duluth. Other than oil companies, who thinks that’s a good idea? A regional campaign may be able to head that off before it gains momentum. Preventing problems before they happen is the most cost-effective way to protect the Great Lakes.
- Groundwater is under attack in Michigan where more than 1,000 new high-impact wells have been dug and in Ohio which has the most liberal water withdrawal laws in the region. Toss in massive withdrawals for fracking and the current drought and protecting groundwater could become the most significant need for regional Great Lakes action.
Federal money won’t do anything to protect the Great Lakes from mining threats, risky oil shipping ventures and massive groundwater takings. In fact, continued hyper-focus on it detracts from the work
that needs to be done on the ground in the states.
The same Great Lakes advocates and coalitions that helped pass the Great Lakes Compact and secure federal money for restoration have the ability to change the discussion at the state level.
But first they have to be willing to recognize the problem. They have to be willing to take a risk and deviate from a narrow, money-focused strategy (the last war).
That may require a direct and honest discussion with their funding sources and the courage to deviate from consultants’ advice to stay on message at all costs.
Which takes me back to the Obama campaign seminar.
A young tech executive on the panel told the story of needing $500,000 for some tech wizardry that could help the campaign get at voters who could truly be persuaded. He decided to go for it and made his pitch. The traditional script would have generated a no from his boss. But the campaign didn’t have the luxury of playing it safe – fighting the last war. They knew that was the path to defeat. The money
was approved and critical voters were reached.
The Great Lakes will always need advocates in Washington and this isn’t a call to abandon a D.C. presence. But current and future needs are at the state level. That’s where they can have the biggest impact.
State houses are where those folks trekking to Washington next week need to be.