Tom Carper is known as one of the most conservative blue-state Democrats in the Senate — a reliable hawk with close ties to the finance, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries and a voting record to match. His list of legislative accomplishments includes approving the Iraq War, a scale-back of Dodd-Frank’s post-2008 era regulations on the financial sector, and a consistent, 40-year bank-friendly record.
Now facing a challenge from his left in a Democratic primary — Air Force veteran and community organizer Kerri Evelyn Harris — he’s eager to tout his progressive credentials. Carper’s weapon of choice? His environmental record.
As Carper rose through the ranks of the Senate, his decision to prioritize his climb up the ladder of the Environment and Public Works Committee over his position on the Banking Committee has left him with the institutional support of national environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters, or LCV, and the National Resources Defense Council, or NRDC.
In narration over dramatic music, a recent ad from the Carper campaign, titled “Fierce,” highlights the Trump administration’s push to expand offshore drilling. “Sen. Tom Carper has a simple message for Trump,” a female narrator intones, adding Carper’s response: “Over my dead body.”
That message may not be so simple after all. While Carper has opposed offshore drilling in Delaware, he’s voted four separate times in support of drilling off the coast of Virginia (2007), on the Outer Continental Shelf (2003), and in the Gulf of Mexico (2001, 2006).
Donald Trump’s support for offshore drilling, meanwhile, didn’t stop Carper from voting to confirm Rick Perry to be head of the Department of Energy. (Carper did oppose Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.)
He also voted repeatedly in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline. (He later stated that he only backed the project because Republicans had promised to in turn deliver their support for geothermal and offshore wind capacity in exchange, and said that he pulled his backing once they failed to deliver.)
This Senate term alone, Carper has accepted $163,468 from energy and natural resources companies, along with $73,510 from agribusiness corporations. That’s more than his opponent, Harris, has raised in total.
A spokesperson for the Carper campaign declined to comment as to whether he had spoken with these donors about his votes on issues that impact their industries, or whether he had changed his position on offshore drilling since his earlier votes in favor of the practice.
Like more than 1,000 candidates this cycle, Harris has sworn off donations from fossil fuel companies, and corporate donations more generally. “Regardless of where you look with his policy decisions, we are seeing that his policies reflect his allegiance to his donors,” Harris told me by phone. “It’s not just Senator Carper. The majority of Congress has come to the belief that in order to get elected at that level, you have to accept funds from large corporations. And when the choice is between the people and corporations, they choose the corporations.”
Asked about his record on offshore drilling, Harris said Carper is a “’not in my backyard’ kind of person. He doesn’t seem to realize,” she added, “that we have one planet, and we’re affected by everything that happens negatively to this planet. When we’re looking to keep below 2 degrees Celsius of warming — that’s all we have to do to devastate our earth — there is no room for saying ‘not in my backyard,’ but it’s OK over there.”
As Harris alluded to, when it comes to carbon emissions, the planet is indifferent as to whether they originate in Virginia or China or Delaware — one of the lowest-lying states in the union. According to a 2015 analysis by Oil Change International, fully developing just the world’s already-known oil reserves would be nearly enough to push the United States past the 1.5 degree warming target outlined in the Paris Agreement. Harris supports a Green New Deal involving massive investment in sustainable infrastructure, and transitioning the U.S. off coal, oil, and gas by mid-century.
How strong environmental protections are in Delaware also hinges on precisely whose backyard we’re talking about. A 2017 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that in the industrial corridor in the north of the state, where much of Delaware’s black and Latino population lives, health risks from pollutants are much greater.
While a spokesperson for Carper reiterated his commitment to expanding renewable energy and curbing carbon dioxide emissions, calling climate change “the greatest environmental threat of the 21st century,” she declined to comment as to whether Carper believes that the U.S. should transition off of fossil fuels.
Still, the League of Conservation Voters waded into the Democratic primary to hand Carper their endorsement. Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president of government affairs, told me that Harris did not seek her group’s endorsement, and that the idea of endorsing Carper had been floated long before she entered the race “because he is an environmental leader who has done has done so much to fight back against Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt’s myriad assaults on the environment and public health.”
Harris, she noted, also began to look like a more viable contender thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win in New York in late June. That said, the LCV endorsement was announced on July 17, several weeks after Ocasio-Cortez’s election and endorsement of Harris. Asked whether candidates’ campaign contributions are considered in deciding on criteria for the endorsement process, Sittenfeld said that while the organization has been having conversations on the subject, “to date we have not made that a dealbreaker for us,” and that they instead focus largely on the candidates’ records. The Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund endorsed Carper as well, in January.
Insurgent, left-leaning candidates haven’t fared well with endorsements from green groups overall, which in several cases have backed the establishment opponents of more progressive candidates who — like Harris — have sworn off donations from fossil fuel companies and run on ambitious climate and environmental platforms. The Sierra Club in Michigan backed Gretchen Whitmer against Abdul El-Sayed — who ran on a detailed environmental justice plan — in that state’s gubernatorial primary. In New York, the Sierra Club backed incumbent Joe Crowley against Ocasio-Cortez, whose platform includes support for a Green New Deal and transitioning entirely off fossil fuels by 2035. The Sierra Club has not waded into the Delaware Senate primary.
Neither has Climate Hawks Vote, a more progressive environmental group. “Carper has been good about traditional old school pollution even though his climate record is decidedly more miKXLed,” wrote political director R.L. Miller in an email, making a reference to his support of the Keystone XL pipeline, and adding that the group “almost never” endorses a candidate if they won’t pledge to reject fossil fuel money.
The Sierra Club is agnostic on the question of campaign contributions. “When we consider supporting candidates, we look at their record as a whole from where they stand on protecting our lands and wildlife to stopping toxic trade deals and advancing clean energy to tackle the climate crisis,” Sierra Club National Political Director Ariel Hayes said via email. “We have no litmus test — we have to weigh the positive and the negative in each specific instance in order to determine who is best positioned in the long run to work alongside us to protect the environment, climate and public health.”
Asked about how LCV decides to weigh into primaries, Sittenfeld said that “when we think about getting involved in a primary, we historically have a high bar for doing so. In general, we look for where is there a really clear material difference between the candidates who are running.”
Decisions on endorsements are made at the national level by LCV’s national political committee after candidates fill out a questionnaire on a range of issues, from conservation to voting rights. After an endorsement is decided on, the group will send out a press release and support the campaign on its social media sites, as well as making a PAC contribution; for this cycle, LCV is Carper’s largest non-corporate donor. Depending on the race, they’ll also recruit volunteers to knock doors and phone bank for LCV-endorsed candidates, although Sittenfeld said that was “not happening” in the primary.
Unlike LCV endorsements, most Sierra Club endorsements happen mainly at the state level. “Our endorsements originate from the ground up. The process differs between federal and state specific races, but in both cases, it is driven from the grassroots level up. We also do not endorse in every race,” Hayes said.
Sittenfeld noted, as well, that LCV communicates regularly with Carper on a number of issues — as it does with most all of the candidates it supports — and has cultivated its organizational relationship with him mainly since he become the top-ranking member on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, or EPW, in 2017. Given his reputation as a centrist, she says, “I think people were really nervous,” but added that LCV has been “extremely pleased” by his willingness to go after the Trump administration “and efficacy in doing so.”
It’s not as if Carper doesn’t boast an impressive set of environmental credentials. As chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Workers Committee, Carper — alongside Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, helped lead the charge on Capitol Hill to investigate Scott Pruitt’s myriad conflicts of interests and challenge his policy priorities, sending 70 oversight letters to Pruitt from his EPW post. He sparred publicly with Kathleen Hartnett White as she sought to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which has been credited with her eventually withdrawing from that nomination process. In 2002, he introduced one of the first bills to cap greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, the Clean Air Planning Act, and has been a reliable proponent since that time of increasing fuel efficiency standards, as well as preserving and extending tax credits for clean energy. Since Trump took office, he’s been one of the loudest voices calling out the administration’s climate and energy policy.
Carper certainly isn’t alone in having a mixed-bag record on environmentalism. Many Democrats — even self-styled climate champions — are in a kind of collective denial about the scale of changes needed to actually take on the climate crisis — and the conflict with polluters that will almost certainly entail. In part because climate change has been such a back-burner issue in American politics — and because Republicans have been so reliably obstinate on the issue — presenting a foil to the GOP isn’t exactly hard. Compared to outright Republican climate denial, proposing tax credits for clean energy and common-sense regulations looks an awful lot like resistance. Compared to the physical realities of climate change, not so much. Of course, incentivizing renewables and pushing for moderate emissions reductions is better than nothing. Yet it’s wildly out of synch with the kinds of changes that science demands — as one researcher put it to me recently, a “wartime footing” involving the rapid decarbonization of the world’s economies.
But it’s not as if there aren’t proposals nearly this ambitious on the table, even in the Senate. Harris has said she would support Merkley’s “100 by 50” Act, to transition the U.S. entirely off fossil fuels by 2050. Carper has not spoken in support of that legislation, and his spokesperson declined to comment when pressed. She also hopes that future climate bills will include plenty of input from the communities that stand to be hardest hit by climate impacts, and give them a seat at the table. “Until we have more voices involved in the environmental justice fight helping drafting that type of legislation, my concern is that in the name of advancing economically, we’re still going to step on communities of color and low-income white people,” she said.
Speaking in favor of placing more stringent regulations on polluters, Harris told The Intercept that “the truth is that a business has one job and that’s to make money. They’re going to cut out any expenses that they can,” she said. “Sometimes it costs you money to be good stewards of the environment. If you’re not told you have to do it, the majority of companies are going to say, ‘Let me make my bottom line work for me and the government will clean up the rest.’ We don’t have time for the government to clean up the rest.”
Carper’s donors may hope he sings a different tune. Among his biggest campaign contributors has been the Blackstone Group, the private equity giant. Blackstone also finances the energy company PBF Holding Company LLC, which opened a refinery in Delaware City earlier this year. At the ribbon cutting ceremony for the facility — which mainly processes crude oil from Latin America — Carper called the reopening of the facility a “huge win for the state of Delaware,” appearing alongside Blackstone President and COO Tony James, who said that “saving this refinery is what private equity is all about.”
Several other banks that have contributed generously to Carper’s campaigns are major financiers of fossil fuel infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, including Bank of America, Citibank and JP Morgan Chase — Carper’s biggest donor over the course of his Senate career, having given him $147,279 since 2002.
Carper is also a member of the bipartisan Senate Chicken Caucus, formed at the behest of the National Chicken Caucus to advocate in Congress’s upper house on behalf of the poultry industry — the source of one of Delaware’s longest-running public health crises.
When the town of Blades reported that their drinking water was contaminated in February, state officials were quick to respond, with Gov. John Carney personally delivering water bottles to residents. Carper — along with fellow Democratic Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester wrote that “access to safe and clean drinking water is an absolutely essential and basic human necessity, and we are extremely troubled by the situation in Blades.” No such statement came when the residents of Millsboro — an unincorporated, largely African-American town 20 miles south of Blades, where the median income is around $20,000 below the state average — first reported that their groundwater was being contaminated by chemicals sprayed indiscriminately by the chicken manufacturer Mountaire Farms some 20 years ago. Mountaire was also the fifth-largest contributor to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Residents and advocates familiar with the situation in Millsboro have likened their situation to a “mini-Flint” and have been attempting to bring attention to the issue for well over a decade. Nitrate levels in the drinking water there are six times the legal limit. State and federal inspectors first found evidence of the pollution in 2003, but very little has been done since.
“Some of the wells are deep enough that it took 30 years to contaminate,” Harris said of the situation in Millsboro, and Sussex County more generally. “At what point did our state and national governments say enough is enough? The hard truth is they still haven’t. We have people dying and being born with birth defects because of the poisoned water we have here.”
Carper has accepted around $20,000 from corporate PACs linked to chicken industry companies, including from the National Chicken Council. Christine Brennan, the spokesperson from Carper’s campaign, declined to comment when asked about the situation in Millsboro.
Though largely silent on what’s happening there, Carper has gone explicitly to bat for the chicken industry at the federal level. This February, he co-sponsored legislation (the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act, or FARM Act) to exempt agricultural producers from reporting waste emissions under the federal Superfund law, a move Brennan described as an effort to “provide certainty for chicken farmers regarding EPA’s reporting requirements for animal waste emissions.”
Climate and environmental politics have long had a kind of apolitical sheen to them, of the sort found in corporate greenwashing campaigns, Davos, and vendors dotted around U.N. climate talks. For years, climate issues been siloed off from more traditional venues for left policy like labor and economic justice fights. As Carper’s career helps show, there’s a throughline between his storied alliance with the banking sector and his reticence around embracing a climate agenda. Figuring out that link isn’t overly complicated: Just follow the money.
Given how loudly money talks in Washington and the mounting reality of climate change, you might think that politicians accepting money from the same corporations that are wrecking the planet would be automatic grounds for green groups to turn down their endorsement requests, if not throw their backing behind more progressive opponents. The fate of the planet, after all, depends on it. At least for now, you’d be mistaken.