‘Keep going’ attitude brought Rep. Mimi Walters to Climate Caucus
By Breene Murphy
For the October 2017 CCL meeting, the Orange County Central chapter celebrated with cake, champagne and Martinelli’s apple cider. Their representative, Republican Mimi Walters had just joined the Climate Solutions Caucus along with Representative Pete Aguilar.
The group was so excited. Rep. Walters’ League of Conservation Voters scorecard was just 5%, but joining the Climate Solutions Caucus showed her new and future commitment to exploring and supporting smart climate policy.
“We were all aware of the issues,” chapter leader Bruce Tierney said. He is clean cut and in shape. He looks as disciplined and determined as he is. “We’re taking away denial as a conservative badge of honor.”
Three years earlier: The first meeting
The Orange County Central chapter had its first meeting with Rep. Walters in 2014. They prepared to share how the market-based approach of Carbon Fee and Dividend could make a positive impact on the climate, without growing the government. Rep. Walters listened carefully and complimented the team, saying, “You guys are doing it the right way.”
Both Rep. Walters and the team talked about cap and trade, and how there was a mutual dislike for that solution to climate change. As they continued to share the market-based solution to climate change, and how simple it could be to implement, Rep. Walters remained more than engaged in the discussion. She even added a golden opportunity at the end of the meeting.
One of the members of the team asked if she had an aide that specialized in the environment, and Rep. Walters responded with, “Maybe that’s a role you could fill for us.” The team thought it was their big opening.
Full court press
Emboldened by Rep. Walter’s compliments, Bruce said, “We put on the full court press—calling, letters, letters to the editor, you name it.” But their aggressive follow up with the staffers seemed to work against CCL Orange County Central. The staffers seemed frustrated that Rep. Walters had given this group of outsiders any standing in their circle.
“You hear about millennials and assume that they would be open to talking climate change, but that wasn’t the case here,” Bruce said. “The staffers would frequently let us know, ‘We hear from CCL more than any other organization. Trust us, we’re aware of the issue. But there’s too much going on right now.’”
The team remained resolute to the process. They continually expressed appreciation and respect for staffers’ time. By the end of each meeting, the tension would release, but they saw no movement. “She’s not going to sign the resolution, and she’s not going to join the caucus,” they feared.
Despite the obstacles, Bruce helped the team focus on the little victories that they had earned with Rep. Walters. She showed genuine interest in Citizens’ Climate Lobby and shared details about her friendship with Rep. Elise Stefanik, the youngest elected Republican in history and a climate action supporter. Even the form letters back to constituents were changing: in 2014, the letters explicitly stated that climate change was not human caused, but by 2016, references to humanity’s role in climate change emerged.
With the presidential election in full swing, the chapter received a recruitment boost when a former journalist, and now psychologist, Alexa Foster joined. “At that point, I felt I couldn’t stay on the fringes any longer,” Alexa said. “CCL seemed like a really smart group in the way it targeted congressional leaders.”
The icebreaking mistake
Even with the initial positive comments from Rep. Walters and Alexa’s focused help, scheduling another meeting became more difficult. Alexa would bring in 30-50 letters at a time, but the response only seemed to harden.
Then, in early 2017, Alexa thought she had made a terrible mistake. As part of the team trying to schedule an in-district meeting with Rep. Walters, Alexa had been doggedly trying to connect with staffers to set up a meeting, while cc’ing the SoCal CCLers. After one more email into the void, Alexa responded to her team that, despite their fear of annoying staff, they should continue asking for a meeting because they “had nothing to lose.” And then she realized that she had hit “reply all.”
Despite feelings of embarrassment, Alexa sensed that the staffer had taken notice and might have empathized with her mistake. She seized that moment. She followed up with an email saying, “Oops,” and that they’d still like to get a meeting on the books. The staffer responded to the “oops” email within an hour.
Reflecting back, Alexa said, “I definitely feel that mistake gave me an unexpected opening.”
Not wanting to waste a great opportunity, the Orange County Central team created a cheat sheet for Rep. Walters, to make sure that she had all the answers as to why this carbon fee and dividend would benefit her constituents and align with her values. They also brought a photo of the Climate Solutions Caucus members as a conversation starter.
Rep. Walters again complimented the team on their approach and thanked them for their time. They all posed for a photo with her. But they weren’t expecting this:
Despite the excitement from the April meeting, the continued development of the relationship, and the changes in the form letters, there was no progress on Rep. Walters’ voting record. That changed in July 2017 when Rep. Walters joined the 46 Republican congressional representatives in vetoing the Perry Amendment, which would have eliminated funding for the military to track climate change and its threats to military bases.
An airport hello
While sitting in the John Wayne Airport terminal getting ready for a work trip, Bruce caught a glimpse of Rep. Walters walking by. He felt anxious about approaching her. “I didn’t want to appear like a stalker,” he said. Despite those fears, he got up and walked over to her. She ducked into a Hudson News, and he stopped to thank her for voting the way she did on the Perry Amendment.
Rep. Walters seemed genuinely excited at the appreciation and said, “It’s a great time right now. We’re going to get so much done in Congress—we’re going to repeal Obamacare and pass tax reform.” Bruce later told me, “It really showed that she felt comfortable enough to share what mattered to her, too.”
Mimi joins the Climate Solutions Caucus
When Rep. Walters did join, there was a tremendous sense of surprise and accomplishment, plus the aforementioned champagne, Martinelli’s, and cake. The chapter had a larger celebration at Walter Piper and Rosemary Pugh’s house on October 22. They even got another picture with her at the GOP Convention in Anaheim.
Of all that happened, what stuck with me was how Alexa and Bruce described the uncertainty of Rep. Walters’ position right up until the last minute, and why Alexa, Bruce, Kathy, and everyone at CCL Orange County Central was so successful.
“There is some mystery about how all this comes together,” Alexa said.
Bruce added, “You never know how far you have to go. You just have to keep going.”