Even In His Backyard, Obama Hesitates on Great Lakes

Barack Obama, locked in a fierce competition to claim the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, today dispatched an environmental advisor to share with advocates for America's Great Lakes how deeply the senator supports protecting and restoring one of the nation's most important freshwater ecosystems.

By doing so, Obama became the first presidential candidate on either side of the aisle to directly address the environmental and economic importance of sustaining Great Lakes waterways. All of the candidates were invited to attend the Third Annual Great Lakes Restoration conference in Chicago. Organizers, in fact, scheduled time for an in-depth panel discussion.

But the campaigns are focused intensely these days on early primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. Not so much on the 78 of 270 electoral votes - including key battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio - in the greater Great Lakes region. So, for twenty minutes at least, Senator Obama had the Great Lakes stage all to himself.

But even the man from Illinois was a no show. Deborah Shore served as his representative. She detailed the senator's impeccable record on the environment. How he introduced legislation to reduce mercury pollution. How he called for hearings into a plan by British Petroleum to increase pollution in Lake Michigan. How he promotes energy innovation and supports more modern fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

Ms. Shore explained to the 250 plus business leaders, activists, and local officials gathered for the event that Sen. Obama, who hails from Chicago, lives just minutes from the Lake Michigan shore. She reminded folks how the senator worked in bipartisan fashion to slow the introduction of exotic species into the Great Lakes and how, "as president, Barack Obama will push for passage of the Great Lakes [restoration act]."

Indeed, Sen. Obama is one of only two presidential candidates signed on in support of the federal legislation to launch a $26 billion cleanup of Great Lakes waterways. But when pressed to help elevate Great Lakes issues to the national stage, and back the talk with real money, the Obama campaign seemed surprisingly unsure.

"Is the Senator going to mention Great Lakes restoration specifically when he talks about the environment, particularly in presidential debates?" asked Grenetta Thomassey, policy director for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.

"I can't say for sure. But we will relay the interest of this group and so many others that he do so," said Ms. Shore, a commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in Chicago.

"Fast forward one year," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office. "President Obama has been able to shepherd through the Great Lakes [restoration act], and now it's time for him to unroll his budget. Will he, in his budget, commit to funding the act fully."

"I don’t know," Ms. Shore said. "But let's see if we can get there."

"We have to make sure that every presidential candidate that comes through the region takes a position on Great Lakes restoration," said Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. "And not just a rhetorical position. George Bush talked about Great Lakes restoration. But he never really showed us the money."

"We need to see action," Quinn added. "We need to see strong support for real investment in our Great Lakes."