There are growing signs that environmental activists in California may be taking their political cues from Washington, D.C., and have decided that it's better to lose or to become irrelevant than to compromise.

When it came time to make political endorsements this spring, Sierra Club California took a pass on the governor's race, withholding support for an incumbent governor who is opposed to a fracking moratorium but who has established himself as a national champion on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Director Kathryn Phillips told me this week the decision not to endorse Gov. Jerry Brown was based on the governor's decision not to participate in any endorsement interviews. The club's policy is clear, she said: no interview, no endorsement, no exceptions.

Still, Phillips acknowledged, Brown might not have enjoyed the interview had he decided to attend.

"We probably had some pretty tough questions," she said. "His positions on a number of key issues -- fracking, the Bay Delta plan, CEQA -- have put him at odds with us."

The California League of Conservation Voters, the political muscle of environmental groups in the state, this spring waged an independent-expenditure campaign in just one race, an overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly district that runs from the liberal Napa Valley to the even more liberal university town of Davis.

The CLVC spent $50,000 to promote one Democrat who it felt had a slightly more established environmental record than one of the others. The CLVC-backed candidate finished fourth, but drew enough votes to knock out the other candidate who environmentalists liked a little bit less.


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The result, barring a dramatic turnaround in the late vote-counting, will be a race in the fall between two pro-business candidates who both oppose key policies supported by environmentalists.

Either way, environmentalists will lose.

David Allgood, political director of the League of Conservation Voters, told me his group made a miscalculation. He acknowledged that the group, relying on no polling data, backed the weakest of the major candidates.

"It blew up in our face," he said. "In 20/20 hindsight, maybe we would do it differently."

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste and an old hand at environmental politics in the state, worries about the implications of that race.

"I think many in the environmental community are confused about the purpose of elections," he told me. "Elections are about winning. Unless you succeed in getting the most votes, it doesn't matter how good your ideas are."

Sen. Fran Pavley, who at least used to be seen as a leading environmental legislator, says it appears that environmental leaders have lost some of the pragmatism they formerly employed.

"Every bill can't be a litmus test," she said, noting that she received a C-level grade on the Sierra Club's legislative score card last year.

Candidates who filled out the Sierra Club's and CLCV's questionnaires this spring faced a minefield of potential litmus tests. They were asked about fracking, climate change, clear-cutting, proposed tunnels to divert Sacramento River water, offshore oil drilling, CEQA reform, renewable energy mandates, a ban on plastic bags and more.

Phillips asserts that the Sierra Club is "as pragmatic as ever. What has changed is the nature of the Legislature."

She believes today's Legislature is dominated by "a generally more conservative group of Democrats" than in the recent past, and because of that environmental advocates have to push their agenda harder.

"The club continues to represent the public," she says, noting that polling typically shows public support for the environmental positions it advocates. "Sometimes the Legislature doesn't like to hear what the public has to say."

Phillips said environmentalists did score an important win last week in an East Bay Assembly race in which the Sierra Club-backed winner prevailed, thanks in huge part to a $1.7 million independent-expenditure campaign financed by the California Teachers Association and other unions.

Murray suggests environmentalists should take a lesson from that victory about the importance of political alliances. The winner, he said, "benefitted from his environmental message, but it took labor money to deliver it."

Allgood said the CLCV's miscalculation in the Assembly race it sought to influence rested on the fact that political interest groups "are still getting used to" the new set of strategic challenges created by the top-two primary.

Murray believes that after last week the political message for the environmental community ought to be clear. "It's a new world when it comes to the top-two primary," he said. "It's showing that we have to be even more pragmatic."