RFK Jr. blasts Bush, champions Kerry

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has made a career out of championing environmental causes, told a Seattle audience yesterday that U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., should be the environmental movement's candidate of choice for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Calling Kerry "as much of an environmental champion as Al Gore," Kennedy boasted to a crowd of about 50 that Kerry holds a 96 percent approval rating with the League of Conservation Voters, has long pushed for "the Holy Grail" of automobile fuel-efficiency standards, and had a history of activism dating to Kerry's role as a Massachusetts organizer for the first Earth Day in 1970.

But Kennedy, a Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, vice president for Riverkeeper and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, reserved the bulk of his 45-minute speech for a wide-ranging critique of President George W. Bush. Bush, he said, has pushed to roll back 200 environmental regulations and has the worst environmental record of any president "in American history."

The endorsement by an environmental celebrity like Kennedy appears to be the biggest attempt to date by a Democratic candidate to claim the environment as his issue in this state. But even among Seattle environmentalists, the driving factor that will attract a following may well be a candidate's ability to unseat Bush.

With Kerry's track record as a decorated Vietnam veteran and his grasp of foreign policy, "I think he has the best chance of winning," Kennedy said.

Cliff Traisman, lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters, which hosted Kennedy, said among environmentalists, he hears the most talk about Kerry and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — even though Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has the second-highest rating on the League of Conservation Voters report card, at 93 percent. The league rates only candidates with congressional track records, and has not rated Dean.

"The big issue is viability," Traisman said. "My sense is environmentalists want to support somebody who can beat George W. Bush, period. Whoever makes the most compelling case is who we want to rally around."

But Patty Kuderer, Washington communications director for Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, one of the few candidates with a state campaign staff, pointed out that Ralph Nader, who in 2000 was bolstered by support from environmentalists, has been an active Kucinich supporter. "I think that speaks volumes," she said.

And Betty Means, with the Dean campaign in Washington, said environmental issues are only part of the equation: "People are concerned about a great many things — jobs, the economy, foreign policy and the current administration. People have come to Howard Dean because they've heard him, and his message, and really got behind his honesty and straightforwardness."

Meanwhile, Chad Colby, a Republican National Committee spokesman, said Kennedy's "passion for the environment is laudable, but his partisan rhetoric is shameful" and suggested he and Kerry were "Not-In-My-Back-Yard Democrats," because Kennedy opposes and Kerry hasn't committed to supporting a controversial wind-energy project on Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com