Helping to turn a purple state green

With Virginia's bold action on climate change, clean energy and plastic pollution, among other environmental issues, it's safe to say the once-purple commonwealth is trending green. 

Mary Katherine Moore

As any fan of those color-coded Election Night maps knows, Virginia politics has trended from red to a purplish blue in the past 20 years or so.

Now the commonwealth (not a state, as any true Virginian will remind you!) is also trending green, taking meaningful action on climate change, clean energy and plastic pollution, among other environmental issues.

The election of pro-environment Democrats to the governor’s office and the General Assembly certainly has played a role in this development. However, three other factors have also contributed to the greening of Virginia — and Environment Virginia, led by state director Elly Boehmer, has had a hand in all three.

Landmark victories for Virginia’s environment

First, take a look at what Virginia has accomplished for the environment in just the past year. 

  • On April 19, 2020, the governor signed into law the Environment Virginia-backed Clean Economy Act, committing the state to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. Virginia became the seventh state to make such a commitment and the first to do so in the South. 

  • On July 8, Virginia joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a consortium of Atlantic coast states that are working together to cut planet-warming pollution from power plants. Virginia is also the first Southern state to join the initiative.

  • On March 19, Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law the advanced Clean Cars program. Under the program, Virginia will, along with California and 12 other states, set the nation’s strongest standards for limiting auto tailpipe emissions and making more electric vehicles available.

  • That same week, the governor also approved a statewide ban on take-out polystyrene foam cups and containers, a pernicious and long-lasting form of the plastic pollution that’s killing wildlife in our oceans and other waters.

  • On March 23, Gov. Northam made one of the strongest executive orders in the country when it comes to eliminating unnecessary plastic waste in state government. The governor announced an executive order that will eliminate the use of disposable plastic bags and single-use foodware at all state agencies within 120 days, and phase out the use of other single-use plastics in the state agencies and public universities by 2025 

Taken together, these achievements put Virginia at the forefront of state leaders on global warming, clean energy and plastic pollution reduction — and makes the commonwealth one of only five states to have adopted the advanced Clean Cars program and committed to 100 percent carbon-free electricity.

How did all this progress happen in such a short period of time? According to Environment Virginia’s Elly Boehmer, success hinged on three factors.

Elly Boehmer, far right, and other Environment Virginia advocates meet with then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Credit: Christopher Crews

Factor #1: We found the right policy “handles.”

The world is awash with well-intentioned ideas for solving environmental problems — many of which Elly has seen struggle to gain traction in the Virginia General Assembly.

For an idea to become a bill that can garner sufficient public and political support to pass into law, it needs to have a “handle” — something that lawmakers and the public alike can grab onto, so they understand what the bill will do and how it will make an impact.

Drawing on the experience of other state environmental groups, Elly has more than a few great policy handles at her disposal — including the 100 percent carbon-free electricity bill spearheaded by Environment California, the advanced Clean Cars program initiated in California and adopted by 12 other states, and the plastic foam ban first implemented in neighboring Maryland in October.

Factor #2: We demonstrated the public’s support.

Lawmakers are human. They want to be liked, especially by their constituents. And that’s not such a bad thing in a democracy.

That’s why Elly and Environment Virginia look for environmental solutions that will not only make a real difference, but will also prove popular with the public. Even better is when we show lawmakers these ideas are popular with the public.

Here’s an example of now having the right policy handle and demonstrated public support can add up to a winning strategy.

In August 2019, Elly led our campaign staff in meeting with Del. Betsy Carr, a longtime environmental leader representing areas in and around Richmond. This meeting was the culmination of two summers’ worth of Environment Virginia’s door-to-door campaigning, from the suburbs of D.C. to Shenandoah and Virginia Beach, for a ban on single-use polystyrene cups and takeout containers. 

For years, Del. Carr had filed a different plastics reduction bill, to no avail. At their meeting, Elly made the case that things would be different this time. The conversations our staff had in communities statewide proved that the problem of plastic waste was on Virginians’ minds. With every viral clip of animals choking on trash and gyres of garbage in the ocean, the need to act gained urgency. No one wants a world where a cup or container we use for a few minutes ends up polluting our environment and harming wildlife for hundreds of years. The moment called for a policy solution that enabled Virginians to live their values. 

Elly handed Del. Carr a box of thousands of signed petitions from constituents supporting a statewide single-use foam ban. Del. Carr agreed on the spot to be our sponsor—and holding the box high above her head, she said she’d take it everywhere she’d go to promote the bill.

A box of Environment Virginia petitions about to be delivered to U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner in 2018. Credit: Yasir Alhumaidan, Yas Photography

“Having the public support was huge,” Elly said. “With every issue we work on, there are a lot of paid lobbyists that are having a lot more meetings than we do. So the fact that we can go toe-to-toe with them because of our grassroots support is essential.”

During Elly’s tenure at Environment Virginia, the group’s canvass became one of our nation’s largest, most vibrant such programs, gathering hundreds of thousands of petition signatures from Virginians. We put the canvass on hold during the pandemic, but Elly is looking forward to getting it up and running again.

Factor #3: We helped close the deal.

You can have the best idea and enormous public support, but there is still a lot that can go wrong for a bill winding its way through the legislative process — especially when there are special interests seeking to derail it before it reaches the governor’s desk.

That’s why Elly’s work isn’t done until the ink on the governor’s signature is dry. Environment Virginia sets up dozens of meetings with delegates each legislative session (all via Zoom this session), persuading lawmakers who are on the fence, confirming yes votes, building coalitions, and guiding bills through the last, but by no means peril-free steps of the sausage-making process known as legislating. 


Will Virginia keep trending green and continue on its way to environmental leadership? We certainly hope so. Meanwhile, Elly and her team will keep working to find the right policy handles, demonstrate sufficient public support, and be there to close the deal. 

“These victories have taught me that it doesn’t stop,” said Elly. “We’ve made these great commitments, which are so exciting. But it’s never going to be just one bill that solves a problem; it takes a host of them. So, we need to continue to find the ideas that make the biggest impact and pass those one at a time.”

Elly Boehmer leads activists on their way to deliver Environment Virginia petition signatures. Credit: Yasir Alhumaidan, Yas Photography


Top Photo Credit: Virginia Department of Transportation via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Mary Katherine Moore

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