By Emily Rusch
Vice President & Senior Director for State Organizations, The Public Interest Network
Virginia has changed, and not just due to elections.
The proof is in not one, not two, but three important pieces of environmental legislation the state has adopted. Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam signed advanced Clean Car legislation and a bill banning single-use foam products statewide into law. These victories follow one of last year’s great state-level successes, when Virginia became the first Southern state to commit to 100 percent clean power by 2045.
It’s natural to attribute this progress in Virginia to electoral outcomes — and, undoubtedly, having forward-thinking decision-makers to work with is an important piece of the puzzle. But in every state, even the most green-minded leaders need impactful policy ideas to advance and the right backing to see it through. The role that issue advocacy groups play in shaping a vision for progress and building that backing is often as essential as it is underappreciated.
At The Public Interest Network and our flagship environmental advocacy group, Environment America, we’re pleased to have played a leading role in all these victories and to see our emphasis on winning progress in the states yield more results.
To illustrate my point, I’d like to share a short story from Environment Virginia State Director Elly Boehmer.
In August 2019, Elly and Environment Virginia campaign staff met 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 weighed heavy 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 enables 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.
Elly didn’t stop there. She built and coordinated advocacy strategy for the coalition supporting the bill, which included business owners and the faith community, and she hosted educational events and river cleanups to continue raising awareness of Virginia’s plastic pollution problem. In the 2020 legislative session, despite the oncoming pandemic and thanks to the combined efforts of state leaders and Environment Virginia staff, members, activists and allies, our foam ban went from nowhere to within one vote of final passage. This year, we got the job done.
With many state legislative sessions moving forward, it’s time to get back to work. But I want to say thanks and congratulations to Dels. Carr and Lamont Bagby as well as Virginia’s environmental community for all your work.