For most of his four years as chair of the Science Committee, Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas has served up more spectacle than policy. As arguably the showiest climate denier and opponent of environmental regulations in Congress, Smith has orchestrated climate change hearings that are the scientific equivalent of pro-wrestling matches. Stacked with skeptics who mocked mainstream climate science, they offered virtually no chance for significant dialogue. Similarly, Smith’s challenge to the well-documented relationship between air pollution and lung disease was seen as little more than a craven nod to the energy companies that were responsible for that pollution. And his repeated use of his subpoena power has served mostly to attract attention and make life difficult for the scientists and government workers he has targeted.
But Smith, who has boldly argued against funding for an institute that studies the toxicity of substances such as lead and asbestos, and has rushed to the defense of Monsanto’s RoundUp, is no longer just throwing bombs from the margins. With Trump in the White House and Scott Pruitt at the helm of the EPA, Smith now has the power to turn his visions of regulatory rollback into realities.
Already this session Smith revived two bills that, before the election, had been dismissed as nuisances. The Honest Act, which grew out of a strategy developed by the tobacco industry, is designed to prohibit the EPA from using public health research; the other bill, known as the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, was crafted to allow industry representatives to serve on scientific boards. Both bills were passed by the House in March.
And Smith just helped industry score another long-shot victory that would have been unthinkable before Trump. Back in 2015, after the EPA concluded the Northern Dynasty Minerals Company’s proposed 30-square-mile gold and copper mine would result in the destruction of up to 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of Alaskan wetlands and endanger the region’s salmon resources, one of the world’s largest, the agency limited the company’s ability to get permits for the project. So Northern Dynasty sought help from Smith.
At that point, financial concerns along with opposition from broad range of Alaskans, including native groups and commercial fisherman, had dimmed the chances that the company would ever plumb the Alaska wilderness for gold — so the crusade seemed like more of Smith’s trademark political theater. After the presidential election, however, Smith’s pet project took a different turn. In February, he sent another letter to the EPA about the mine, this one bearing congratulations to the recently confirmed EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, and explaining that EPA’s intervention in the project was based on a “questionable scientific assessment.” Last week Pruitt reversed the EPA’s stance, clearing a path for Northern Dynasty to move forward.
Smith has always been well liked by the energy industry — he has received more than $700,000 from the oil and gas industry over the course of his career, more than from any other sector — but his newfound power has clearly delighted climate deniers, as evidenced by the hero’s welcome he received when he gave the keynote address at the Heartland Institute’s Climate Conference in March.
Not everyone is pleased with Smith’s successes on behalf of polluting industries. National environmental groups are beginning to target Smith for being “one of the worst climate change deniers in Congress,” as Craig Auster of the League of Conservation Voters described him. And just as he is reaching the height of his power in Washington, Smith is facing a wave of outrage from constituents in Texas that could present the first real challenge for his seat in 30 years.
A lawyer who majored in American Studies and worked briefly as a business reporter before entering Congress, Smith doesn’t have a background or a degree in science. Like many Christian Scientists, he seems to eschew medicine. (Smith’s first wife, Jane, who was trained in the Christian Science practice of healing through prayer, died in 1991 in a Christian Science hospice, reportedly after refusing medical treatment.)
Smith often says he is seeking a return to “sound science” with his efforts to roll back regulation. But he is facing growing criticism from scientists and environmentalists around the country for making a mockery of the House Science Committee, or “the Exxon Committee on Science Fiction,” “the POTUS Ad Agency,” and “the environment-ruining dream team,” as some of its many haters on Twitter have referred to it.
The House Science Committee hasn’t always elicited such reactions. “It used to be a committee that was basically nonpartisan,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat who has served for 24 years on the committee. “We always had meaningful dialogue,” Johnson told me. “But it’s gotten to the point where we are labeled as a scientific committee made up of people who don’t believe in science. This is the most extreme experience I have had.”
Perhaps no one is more familiar with that extreme partisan atmosphere than Michael Mann, a climate scientist who has been mocked and jeered by Smith. “He’s a henchman,” Mann said of Smith. Both men went to Yale, and Mann said he believes the Congressman is well educated and smart enough to know that what he’s saying about climate change isn’t true. “That leaves only two possibilities: First, that it isn’t the science he’s rejecting, it’s the implications he doesn’t like. The other possibility is that he’s doing the bidding of the powerful fossil fuel interests that fund his campaigns.” Either way, said Mann, “He’s setting the world back.”
A Republican from an oil state now serving his 16th consecutive term in Congress, Smith has never faced a serious electoral challenge. When he first ran for Congress in 1986, he won with more than 60 percent of the vote. The next time out, he got 93 percent. And he has enjoyed comfortable victories since. For four of those elections, the Democrats in his strangely shaped district, which includes San Antonio as well as parts of Austin and Texas Hill Country, didn’t even bother putting up a candidate.
The first visible signs that the political tide was beginning to turn emerged in October, when his hometown paper, The San Antonio Express News, declined to endorse his re-election bid. In an editorial, the paper took issue with what it called “his bullying on the issue of climate change.” The results of a poll published 10 days later showed eroding support for Smith, with 45 percent of voters saying they were less likely to vote for Smith after learning he had taken Exxon Mobil’s side in the dispute over the company’s handling of climate change.
But the real shift came on election day, when Trump got 52 percent of the vote in the 21st district. As elsewhere, many of those who didn’t vote for the president found themselves in an emotionally and politically heightened state. After seeing many of these distraught people in his office, a San Antonio therapist named Jason Sugg decided to start a support group. Ten people attended its first meeting in January. Four months later, more than 4,200 people have joined what has become the TX21 chapter of Indivisible, including some life-long Republicans who supported Smith in the past.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of the opposition to Smith is the extent to which it has attracted people who haven’t been politically involved before.
While the group initially emerged to fight Trump, the presidential race focused Smith’s constituents on their congressman’s environmental policies, which in turn has helped fuel an explosive wave of energy to unseat him. Smith had no Democratic challengers in 2014 and only one poorly funded opponent last year. But with a year-and-a-half still to go before the next election, nine people have already announced their intention to run for his seat. While they span the spectrum from Joseph Kopser, a former Republican and Army veteran, to Derrick Crowe, who describes himself as an “unabashed nerd and unrepentant pacifist,” all have taken issue with Smith’s stance on climate.
The race to unseat Smith has also drawn attention from national environmental groups. 314Action, a new group dedicated to helping scientists run for public office, is targeting Smith through its “Under the Scope” program. The group plans to invest in ads for the winner of the primary, according to Ted Bordelon, communications director 314Action, who described the group as an “Emily’s List for Nerds.”
Anti-Smith sentiment has even emerged in the Hill Country, the reddest and most rural part of Smith’s district. On a recent Saturday, a group of local residents gathered under a live oak tree on the ranch of Joyce Humble and Terry Casparis to talk about unseating their congressman. Most had met one another in the months since the election. “I didn’t know anyone out here who was like-minded before the election,” said Humble, a retiree who spends about 20 hours a week doing political work. “Now I know tons of people!”
Ashley McAllen, who sat across from Humble, is a physician who has temporarily stopped practicing medicine to devote himself to progressive politics in the area. While the Hill Country is still a Republican stronghold, McAllen said growing concerns about water entered politics here after the area underwent a severe drought a few years ago. “More people here believed in global warming during that drought than ever before,” said McAllen. Though the rains have returned, some wells are still running dry, and McAllen feels that Smith’s climate denial will clash with locals’ knowledge that climate change is already affecting them. “They know something is different. They can see it in their creeks.”
Colin Strother, a Democratic consultant who lives in the 21st district, agrees that changing environmental realities are affecting Texas politics. “Water conservation and aquifer storage and recovery, these are conversations that are happening in every single community in Smith’s district as a matter of survival,” said Strother. “Everyone is dealing with issues that 20 years ago no one had ever heard of.”
Yet Strother believes whoever winds up challenging Smith still faces long odds. The only way to win, according to Strother, is to focus on all of Smith’s vulnerabilities, including his inaccessibility to constituents. “When LBJ represented this district, he used to hover his helicopter and yell down to farmers through a bull horn. But if you’re not a member of the Republican club or part of the wealthy moneyed donor community, you’re never going to see Smith,” said Strother. Defeating Smith, he said, will require bringing environmentalists together with “people who want the son of a bitch to show up once and a while.”
The absence of their congressman has been a recurrent theme for TX21 Indivisible, which since January has been regularly requesting Smith’s presence at a town hall meeting. One member composed a song inviting Smith to meet with her. Others have made cardboard cutouts of Smith to stand in for him. And for the past few months, a small group has visited Smith’s San Antonio office every Tuesday morning to express their concerns and ask their congressman to speak with them in person.
Trish Florence is a regular at these meetings. The single mother of two autistic sons, Florence never felt she had time for political activism. But since the election she has spent up to 20 hours each week planning protests, making signs, and otherwise holding her elected officials accountable. “I don’t feel like I have a choice,” said Florence, who recently helped deliver a “severance package,” complete with a giant pink slip and model of the earth, to Smith’s office. After he voted for TrumpCare, Florence left her congressman another gift: photos of her boys with lists of their preexisting conditions written on the back.
A few weeks ago, one of Florence’s sons tagged along on a Tuesday visit. Jack is 11 and extremely worried about climate change. When one of Smith’s staffers came out to greet them, Jack explained the science behind global warming — how greenhouse gases can trap the sun’s heat and cause the earth to heat up. Florence hopes the meeting was helpful for Jack. “He learned that he can do something and can have a voice,” she said. Smith’s takeaway was less clear. He wasn’t in the office, though his staff member promised to deliver the message.
Correction: May 20, 2017
A previous version of this article stated that the HONEST Act and the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act became law in March. In fact, they were passed by the House in March.