Green vs. Green

A Bitter Struggle in New York City Splits the Sierra Club

Indeed, Jezer's run for chair of the Atlantic Chapter was truly a campaign. She wrote letters and made calls, contacting all 11 of the state's regional groups. Once in office, she concentrated on bringing in her own people to head the various chapter committees. There are about 26 seats on the Atlantic Chapter's board of governors. The New York group automatically gets five. Given its constituency, it should also have been able to elect some of its members to the board's five at-large seats. Instead, Jezer controlled those votes. When she was done, she had the majority necessary to outvote the New York group.

"She put a lot of energy into con-solidating power and influence in the state," says Blechman. "The rest of us never bothered because we're more interested in environmental issues. She has basically outmaneuvered us and is in charge."

Jezer tapped a well of hostility toward the city group. For years, the New Yorkers dominated the Atlantic Chapter, leaving the other groups to feel like "forgotten stepchildren," as David Orr puts it. "They had long meetings that went till midnight, which effectively removed anyone who came from distances," says Jezer. "It was kind of like New York City would wait for everyone to leave and they would vote in everything."

illustration by Jeff Crosby

The New York group perceived Jezer as high-handed, authoritarian, and a phony environmentalist. She, in turn, thought their agenda was "more and more myopic." Its leaders had spent years fighting the official vision for the development of Hudson River Park, which they called "Son of Westway." It is a lonely position. The park has now been endorsed by the governor, the mayor, government agencies, and numerous mainstream environmental groups brought together by the Hudson River Park Alliance. That group is chaired by Albert Butzel, an attorney who in the 1970s represented the Sierra Club in its landmark lawsuit against Westway.

Being in the minority, however, "doesn't make them wrong," says Lower Manhattan assembly member Deborah Glick. "There were very monied interests on the other side. And what a surprise—real estate in Manhattan won."

The relentless resistance by members like Jim Lane, Brandstein, Blechman, and Young came at a cost. Former state senator Franz Leichter, often a friend of underdogs, recently sent out a letter claiming the group had been rendered "ineffective by disunity and factionalism." There were violent feuds even within its ranks. When Frank Eadie, as chair of the water and oceans committee, defied the group's position on the Hudson River Park, "we voted to remove Frank," Young says. Both Eadie and another disgruntled group member, John Klotz, signed up with other state Sierra Club groups, wound up on the Atlantic Chapter's board of governors, and became Jezer's allies. "It was just too acrimonious," says Klotz.

Recent years have been marked by endless skirmishing. In 1998, Jezer was picked to join a Pataki task force on refinancing the Superfund program, which cleans up toxic sites. The New Yorkers spent months fretting about what horrors Jezer might sanction during closed-door meetings. The chapter had no official position on the Superfund. "None of the real activist groups that actually do work on Superfund were on the task force," Hays says. "There were people like NRDC, EDF—bought-and-paid-for foundation puppies—and Rhea Jezer."

"What I'm proud of is I was able to get the respect of the governor," Jezer says.

The task force ultimately made no recommendations, but the New York group members are convinced they had reason to fear. Aaron Mair, whom Jezer had recruited to serve as chair of the chapter's environmental justice committee, showed up in print endorsing a policy The New York Times's Raymond Hernandez said would be "heresy" to some environmentalists. "He believes it would be easier to attract a developer if the law didn't require that the land be cleaned to a pristine condition, but rather just enough for another industrial plant," Hernandez reported.

To make matters worse, both Jezer and Mair have been named to the board of the New York League of Conservation Voters. The NYLCV, says David Orr, "is really created in Carl Pope's image. Endorse candidates in as many races as you can," with emphasis on backing winners, even if they are sometimes environmentally flawed. The NYLCV endorsed Pataki in 1998, and group leaders made it clear they would raise a stink if Jezer attempted to do the same.

"If you lock up the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, you lock up the environmental endorsement. That's all you have," says Young. "The potentials are immense."

Endorsements were a continual source of tension, particularly since 1998 was an election year. Blechman says the New York City Group fought to endorse Lower East Side progressive Margarita Lopez for a City Council seat in the Democratic primary. "[Assembly speaker] Sheldon Silver's assistant was running against Lopez and Rhea wanted to be in good with Silver, so they would not honor our endorsement," says Blechman.

Jezer insists the problem was that the group hadn't interviewed Lopez's opponents, as club rules indicate. That was no good under any circumstances, says Jezer, and especially not "when she happens to work for Silver! It's politically stupid!" Blechman went ahead and praised Lopez in the group's newsletter, the City Sierran. "We were being feisty," she says.

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