Why Won’t Brenda Lawrence Back a Green New Deal?

On a recent Sunday afternoon, close to a hundred people filled a union hall near a massive Chrysler plant just outside Detroit.

They were a mix of black and white and young and old, from Detroit and the surrounding Oakland and Macomb County suburbs. But they were united in their support for the Green New Deal, which they enthusiastically applauded.

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, however, wasn’t having it.

Standing in front of the crowd, she read a list of environmental protection funds she’d supported in her role on the House Appropriations Committee.

When asked whether she supported the Green New Deal, she hedged.

“I do support the concept of it,” she said, “but it’s a theory, it’s a philosophy.”

She didn’t explain why that had stopped her from joining dozens of her House colleagues who’ve signed on to sponsor the official Green New Deal resolution.

A Deal That Delivers for Detroit

In so many ways, the Green New Deal seems tailor-made for Michigan, and especially Detroit, which makes up a large part of Lawrence’s district.

The call for a national public-sector mobilization against climate change, creating millions of good-paying union jobs, resonates with Detroit’s role as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War Two, when federal dollars helped redirect the Motor City’s industrial might towards defeating fascist Germany and Japan.

Today, Detroit suffers endemic unemployment, and many neighborhoods are burdened with fossil fuel pollution, making the promise of job-creating investments in clean energy technology more important than ever.

So it’s not surprising that two metro Detroit members of Congress, Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and Andy Levin (D-Royal Oak), signed on to the resolution for a Green New Deal as original co-sponsors.

But why hasn’t Lawrence joined them?

Other Congressional Excuses

Lawrence’s district, after all, is a “safe” Democratic district, drawn by Republican gerrymandering experts to cram in as many Democratic voters as possible. 79% of 14th District voters chose Clinton over Trump in 2016.

The district also encompasses many of the most distressed areas of Detroit, including much of the city’s East Side. In addition to some wealthier enclaves, like the Grosse Pointes and West Bloomfield, it includes the city of Hamtramck, where General Motors recently announced it would be shutting down its Chevy Volt plant on the Detroit-Hamtramck border, and the industrial satellite of Pontiac, already devastated by decades of previous GM plant closings.

It’s easier to see why some of Lawrence’s colleagues, like Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and Hayley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) haven’t backed the Green New Deal. Both represent outer suburban districts previously represented by Republican incumbents, and are hesitant to stake out bold progressive policy positions in their conservative districts.

Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, like Lawrence, represents a safe Democratic district, but after all, she is a former lobbyist for General Motors. Her late husband was a vociferous opponent of new fuel economy regulations and anything else that scared the Big Three.

So what gives for Lawrence?

I managed to catch the Congresswoman as she exited the union hall, and asked why she hadn’t signed on to the Green New Deal resolution.

The resolution, she said, which calls for shifting to 100% renewable energy over 10 years, was simply “so vague.”

“It opens a Pandora’s Box,” she said, citing the enormity of the task of eliminating vehicle pollution. What if the Big Three couldn’t manage to do it, she asked.

A Clear Moral Imperative

The Congresswoman is correct that the Green New Deal resolution, as written, doesn’t set out specific strategies for getting to a zero-emission transportation system, other than “zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing,” “clean, affordable and accessible public transit,” and “high-speed rail.”

What it does do is set out a clear goal: eliminating carbon pollution in order to save the planet, in a way that also puts Detroit back to work and stops poisoning the most vulnerable.

A historical precedent is instructive.

When Congress voted to enter World War Two, U.S. representatives did not try to be generals. Indeed, seeing as Japanese aircraft had just destroyed much of the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and Nazi armies stood within 15 miles of Moscow, there was no assurance that the war could be won within five years, or even won at all.

The path to victory was not defined. But what Congress and President Roosevelt did know was that entering the war against fascism was in the self-interest of the United States and a moral imperative for humanity.

Today’s danger is different. But the logic is not.

Congresswoman Lawrence needs to understand that, and take a stand for the Green New Deal.

You can call her office at (202) 225-5802.

Graphic by Danielle Aubert.

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