Farewell to an Unlikely Hero

Yesterday was the farewell service for West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate's longest-serving member and one of my unexpected private heroes.

Byrd did not come to the Senate in the era of environmentalism, and his voting record over the years put him at odds with the Sierra Club more often than not. He was the initiator of the Senate resolution that made it clear, even before the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated, that the US Senate would not ratify it, thus denying the Clinton administration of the Congressional support it needed to act on climate. Most of the time he was a reliable friend of West Virginia's coal-mining interests, not because he was fond of them or in thrall to their power but because he believed that protecting them was in the best interests of the coal miners and the coal communities he represented and defended with every ounce of his formidable legislative clout.

Byrd held on to his vision of the Senate as a place that should be subject to veto by a minority, as a counterweight to populist majoritarianism. Byrd was the key force in preventing the Senate from confronting the cancer that the 60-vote rule became after 1990. He held on because he failed to recognize that the conservative project of making the Republican Party an ideological monolith had not only replaced Byrd's Senate with a parliamentary hybrid but had also made minority veto a fundamental threat to the American future. So, on some really, really big issues, I think he got it wrong.

But what I admired about him -- why I call him a hero -- is that he refused to compromise with the increasing trivialization and mean-spiritedness of American politics. He believed in loyalty, saw politics as an ambitious and consequential calling, and respected others who shared those qualities. In 1990, in an epic battle with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, Byrd failed by one vote to force public utilities to install scrubbers to clean up their sulfur pollution. Mitchell wanted them instead to have the option of simply purchasing lower-sulfur coal strip-mined from Wyoming in place of West Virginia deep-mined coal. Among Byrd's allies were the United Steelworkers, who had long been the strongest labor advocates of clean air. The Steelworkers asked the Sierra Club to support Byrd -- and while the politics were bad, and while most environmental groups went with Mitchell, the Club supported the Byrd amendment because, on the merits, he was right. We never again were allowed in Mitchell's office. We went on to work quite a bit with Byrd.

Then in 2007 the Bush administration made its final desperate effort to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil industry. Byrd was a swing vote. Bush prepared an extraordinarily generous package of pork and subsidies for West Virginia -- the kind of financial aid for the state that was at the center of Byrd's career. I called Leo Gerard, the President of the Steelworkers, and reminded him that when Byrd had been right on the merits, the Sierra Club had stood with him in 1990 even though the politics were bad. I asked Leo to call Senator Byrd and ask him to cast his vote on the Arctic on the merits, even though it would mean turning down the bribe that Bush was offering.

Leo called Senator Byrd. The answer that came back, informed by the long memory of a vote 17 years earlier, was simple, "My staff thinks I should vote for it. But I'm going to vote on the merits." The Arctic was saved. Robert Byrd was its unlikely savior.

And while Byrd clung stubbornly to vision of the Senate as a place above partisanship, even at the end of his long career he was still adjusting his approach to new realities. The coal industry he had long supported had been replaced by one hostile to its workers, dependent on destroying their communities, and powered by destructive mountaintop-removal mining. Massey Energy, one of the worst actors in the coalfields, came to symbolize this new reality for the senator. In October of last year, Massey refused to pay for the cost of relocating a school that sat only 300 feet downhill from a new coal-slurry impoundment that the company was building -- an impoundment that threatened the health and lives of the children.

"Such arrogance suggests a blatant disregard for the impact of their mining practices on our communities, residents and particularly our children," Byrd said in a statement. "These are children's lives we are talking about... If Massey were not operating near Marsh Fork Elementary, we would not be debating what to do about moving these young students someplace safer. This is not the taxpayers' burden to remedy. This is Massey Energy's responsibility to address."

In December Byrd rocked West Virginia by publishing an op-ed entitled, "Why Coal Must Embrace the Future." His piece ended with this clarion warning to the state he loved and had served so long:

"Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose."

In the months that followed, he refused to join his fellow West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller in trying to eliminate Clean Air Act authority over carbon dioxide pollution. When EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson decided that her agency needed to set firm standards for water pollution from mountaintop-removal mines, Byrd shocked the coal industry by supporting her.

A week later, when the disaster at Upper Big Fork mine killed 29 coal miners, Byrd again took on Massey Coal CEO Don Blankenship with the same passionate intensity he once brought to his attack on George Bush's Iraq war. "

"I am sick. I am saddened and I am angry," Byrd said.

Don Blankenship, had tried to justify his record: "Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process. There are violations at every coal mine in America, and (the Upper Big Branch Mine) was a mine that had violations."

Byrd's response: "Well for this Senator, the more I learn about the extent of these violations by Massey at the Upper Big Branch Mine alone, the angrier I get. 57 citations in the month of March alone! Closed over 60 times during the past two years to correct problems!"

And finally, in one of his last Senate votes, Byrd joined a narrow majority of the senate in turning back Senator Lisa Murkowski's effort to suspend Clean Air Act rules requiring the clean up of carbon dioxide pollution from, most notably, the burning of coal in power plants.

For Byrd, there were issues that were simply too important for political trivialization, issues that required a senator to do what was right -- and the threat of climate change, the need for modernization in the energy industry had finally become one of them.

I fear we may not see his kind again for a long, long time. When you hear voices trashing politics and politicians, remember -- leadership is found in unusual places, and heroism isn't always predictable.