Elk Grove Assemblyman Jim Cooper used to risk his life as a captain with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s department. Now, he’s risking his political reputation if he votes against one of the most significant pieces of climate-change legislation in California history after taking a ton of money from the petroleum industry.
No one could ever question Cooper’s courage as a lawman. He worked narcotics for years, and he won a Bronze Star for Bravery in 1991 for his actions during a hostage standoff with armed gunmen at the now defunct Good Guys electronics store. It was Cooper’s job that April night to deliver a bulletproof vest demanded by the gunmen in return for releasing hostages. A firefight ensued, and three of the four gunmen and three hostages were killed. Cooper easily could have been killed, too.
Today, as a rookie Democratic legislator elected just last year, it appears that it could be Cooper’s job to help scuttle SB 350, the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015 – a bill fiercely opposed by oil interests that gave lavishly to Cooper and other politicians.
Headed to an Assembly vote this week, SB 350 would require California to cut its petroleum consumption in half by 2030. Also by 2030, California would have to generate half of its electricity through renewable resources.
These would be the boldest steps taken by any state to combat climate change caused in part by pollution from our vehicles. SB 350 would strike a symbolic blow against those who still deny the impacts of climate change. It would also represent a significant step toward addressing environmental justice in economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse communities that feel pollution most acutely.
By state law, the California Environmental Protection Agency identifies disadvantaged communities by socioeconomic status and by the public health hazards present in each community. A CalEPA database shows wide swaths of Northern California communities where people are poor and where they are exposed to more pollution than neighboring communities are.
Some of these census tracts lie within Cooper’s 9th Assembly District, which begins in south Sacramento and runs south through Elk Grove, Galt and Lodi.
Technically, Cooper hasn’t taken a position on SB 350. But his public comments have given a fair impression of someone about to vote no. By doing so, he could get stuck with the label of someone who has been bought and sold by the special interests that helped get him elected.
As Bee Editorial Page Editor Dan Morain wrote recently: “Employing the tried-and-true technique of selecting and electing legislators who are open to their arguments, if not malleable, oil companies gave to no fewer than 24 Assembly Democrats in 2014. Some more than others.
“The industry-funded Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class spent $520,000 to elect (Cooper). Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, also heavily funded by oil companies, spent $445,000 for Cooper.”
Cooper is one of five African-American and Latino Assembly members who seem poised to vote no on 350. Some in Sacramento believe that oil interests strategically recruited African-American and Latino legislators to exploit a common criticism of the environmental movement: that it is not diverse and does not care about the interests of poor people.
When I asked him about 350, Cooper compared his Assembly district to more affluent ones in Southern California.
He said only 72 people in his district have gotten solar rebates – for a total of $422,000 – while just one Assembly district in Huntington Beach received $24 million.
“We all pay for these rebates, but they aren’t coming to my community,” he said. Cooper said his poor and disadvantaged constituents depend on their cars and would be squeezed by the higher gas prices he fears would ensue by cutting gas consumption drastically in the next years.
“Could we realistically cut gas consumption that much in 15 years?” Cooper asked. “I just don’t think it’s realistic.”
But what of the poor people in Cooper’s district who may already be breathing polluted air? Parts of south Sacramento, Lodi and even one census tract in Elk Grove are designated by the state as having a mix of environmental and socioeconomic factors that can compromise health.
These are communities lacking in political power but feeling the full effect of pollution.
Cooper said he could see himself voting for SB 350, and has moved closer to doing so in the last few days. But he balks at the idea of restricting gas consumption as aggressively as the authors of SB 350 want. Cooper said he supports expansion of public transit, more incentives for working-class communities to install solar projects, and less emphasis on restricting consumption of fossil fuels without more details on how to achieve those restrictions.
He knows this makes him a target of accusations that he is a pawn for oil interests. “A lot of people supported me, and I listen to all arguments,” he said.
“I have no problem making decisions, and I support 350 if it is done right.”
What would be right in this case? It would be right for Cooper to summon the courage of his law enforcement days and to look beyond expedient answers that leave him open to seeming like a puppet.
The oil industry would recover if SB 350 is passed. But Cooper’s reputation might not if he lines up on the wrong side of history.