Environment & Energy Report

Virginia Democrat Melds Environmental Advocacy With Faith

March 14, 2019, 11:10 AM

It took a crushing political defeat for Rep. Donald McEachin to become the lawmaker he is today.

The 57-year-old Virginia Democrat devotes much of his attention to environmental sustainability and justice. But conservation wasn’t always at the forefront of his agenda.

“I would best be described as agnostic” on environmental issues as a Virginia state delegate in the 1990s, McEachin told Bloomberg Environment. He lost the Virginia attorney general’s race in 2001 by 20 percentage points, took a break from politics, and went back to school to study theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond.

It was at seminary that he learned about “creation care,” the concept of environmental stewardship through a Christian philosophy. When he jumped back into elected office several years later to serve in the state Senate, one of his most devoted volunteers was also an ardent environmental advocate.

More than a decade later, in 2016, McEachin won his seat in Congress, representing a district that stretches from southeast Virginia along the North Carolina border to areas south and west of Richmond.

He has earned key committee assignments—Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources, and the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis—to shape the conversation and legislation on climate change and conservation in a Democratic-controlled House.

Environmental Justice Bill

McEachin is also emerging as a key opponent of offshore drilling and defender of marginalized communities threatened by toxic pollution.

His district is home to the state’s largest coal-ash pit near the James River. He co-sponsored a bill last Congress to create an Office of Environmental Justice in the White House and another requiring federal agencies to consider environmental justice in permitting decisions.

“I think he brings [to the Natural Resources Committee] a perspective that is rooted in environmental justice issues that are important to him, and I think they should be important to us as well,” Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the committee, told Bloomberg Environment.

Grijalva said he hopes the authors of various environmental justice bills, including himself, McEachin, and Rep. Nanette Barragan, (D-Calif.) will work to consolidate their bills into comprehensive legislation this Congress.

McEachin is also vice chair of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition and co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’ Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force.

Elected to the U.S. House after nine years in the Virginia Senate, McEachin sees the federal government as a much more effective platform for climate-change policies.

“One of the challenges I saw on the state level is that we were almost like playing whack-a-mole,” he said. “Here’s a problem, let’s knock it out, here’s another little problem, let’s knock it out.”

At the federal level, he said, lawmakers can take the time to develop a comprehensive approach to transition from a fossil-fuel economy to what he calls a green collar economy.

Focus on Environment ‘Like a Laser Beam’

McEachin hasn’t signed onto Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) Green New Deal resolution (H.Res. 109).

Although he said he appreciates the sense of urgency behind the resolution, which calls on the U.S. to phase out fossil fuels from the economy over the next decade, McEachin said he prefers to focus on legislation that will directly address the environment. The Green New Deal also calls for full employment and comprehensive health care.

“I think we need to focus on the environmental piece like a laser beam,” he said.

McEachin’s deeply religious Baptist background heavily influences how he approaches policy. In the last month, he’s read “Apollo’s Fire,” a book by Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who announced his presidential bid, and Obery Hendricks‘ “The Politics of Jesus.”

Some conservative Christians cite the Bible to conclude that humans have “dominion,” or control, over the Earth, a theme that plays in conservative politics.

McEachin interprets it differently.

“The actual translation of that word dominion is more in line with caretaker,” he said. “We’re meant to be caretakers of creation.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at tstecker@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Susan Bruninga at sbruninga@bloombergenvironment.com

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