As climate change and immigration lead priorities for the new House Democratic majority, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva may just be the man for the moment.
The question however is: Did Grijalva find this moment or did the moment finally find him?
“It took time,” the Arizona Democrat said. “I think people have come to the conclusion that one has to look beyond the obvious and understand that [on] environmental issues, particular to climate change, we’re all in the same boat.”
The 70-year-old son of a Mexican immigrant, Grijalva is the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. With it comes a platform to focus public attention, and legislation, on public lands and environmental issues with a progressive bent and a consideration of racial justice.
His committee’s first major hearing will be on the effect of climate change on public lands, Grijalva said. He also expects to hold hearings on the environmental complications of President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall and has staked out a big policy fight by vowing to try to reauthorize the nation’s fishery laws, where climate change impacts will be an issue.
Republicans on the often-contentious committee likely will oppose many of Grijalva’s initiatives, and a Republican Senate majority, not to mention Trump, will stand in the way.
But environmental groups are excited about Grijalva.
“Congressman Grijalva is without a doubt one of conservation’s biggest champions on Capitol Hill,” said Alex Taurel, conservation program director for the League of Conservation Voters.
“He’s an authentically progressive American who does not in any way imbibe Beltway values,” Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said. “He doesn’t speak bureaucratese.”
Rep. Jared Huffman, the California Democrat likely to chair the committee’s Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee, who is also working on the fishery legislation, said he finds Grijalva “almost like a poet philosopher in his wisdom.”
Grijalva, who co-chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus for 10 years, sits squarely to the left politically of the chairmen of the two other House committees with jurisdiction over climate issues: Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey at House Energy and Commerce, and Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon at Transportation and Infrastructure.
His progressive allies describe him as a “true believer” on environmental issues who can be trusted to advance bold legislation now that the Democrats’ planned select committee on climate change will have no legislative authority.
“I trust Grijalva by a mile over the others,” California Democrat Ro Khanna said. “By far. It’s not even close.”
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A political awakening
Grijalva first began to see ties between environmental issues and racial justice in the 1990s when he got involved in the battle over a drinking water contamination issue in Tucson. TCE, a toxic solvent used to clean airplane engines, had leached into groundwater and reached some of the city’s aquifers, tainting the water for communities largely of color.
Grijalva organized public hearings to elevate the drinking water problem, which showed him certain communities could be more susceptible than others to becoming victims of pollution as a result of systemic racial inequality.
That idea is now part of the environmental mainstream but when Grijalva arrived in Congress in 2003, his interest in conservation policy was met with skepticism from environmental groups who didn’t understand why a Latino congressman would care.
“I think some people, some in the leadership of the big green organizations, didn’t see me as a prototype to lend a voice or lead on some of these issues, and I think that’s just a function of stereotypes, about what should interest me and what shouldn’t,” Grijalva said.
“Environmental issues — especially public land issues — were seen as separate from those other issues and that while I could lend leadership to [some issues], maybe I didn’t have the track record to lend leadership to those other ones,” he said.
Grijalva said he “grinded” through work on the Natural Resources Committee, and eventually he said the environmental groups “began to trust not only my instincts but the fact that I knew what I was talking about.”
One sign things had changed came in 2012, when his name was floated by some to replace Ken Salazar as President Barack Obama’s Interior secretary. Yet it was only after he won the ranking member spot on the Natural Resources panel in 2014 that he felt he had the environmental movement’s trust.
“I think a lot of time the [Natural] Resources Committee for members is a starting point, not an ending point. I think at some point when people realized that this was my starting point and ending point, it was like, OK,” he said.
Grijalva almost didn’t get the position. California Rep. Jim Costa had the seniority but couldn’t secure the votes for the job.
Another Californian, Grace F. Napolitano, was next in line, but she wanted to give Grijalva the job because she thought he could do it “with the same zeal he had as a member.”
“It was just natural,” Napolitano said.
Environment and the wall
The environmental movement now more closely resembles Grijalva’s views, as groups become more entwined with immigration and civil rights groups on issues like the border wall.
In Congress he has opposed the Homeland Security Department’s ability to waive environmental laws for building barriers on the southern U.S. border.
Last year his office filed a lawsuit against the department over its use of the authority, and while it failed, similar challenges from environmental groups are still working their way through appeals processes, efforts also supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Grijalva plans to hold hearings on the environmental impacts of the wall and DHS’s waiver authority. He refuses to support any comprehensive immigration package that does not include elimination of the waivers, which would likely be a nonstarter for Republicans.
He said he tells environmental groups the only way to succeed in the future is to keep America’s diversity in mind, looking at how environmental issues can connect with people of color.
“The constituency for the things you care about is a different constituency. It’s diverse. It’s urban. It’s younger. The sooner they become part of that loyal constituency like they are, that’s our protection for these lands and waters. And that requires diversity, period,” he said.
A very public spat
Grijalva’s latest moment in the sun became a controversial one sparked by a Nov. 30 op-ed he wrote for USA Today calling on Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary at the time, to resign over ethical questions and policy decisions.
Zinke shot back on Twitter suggesting Grijalva had a drinking problem and claiming he improperly paid a former staffer to hide allegations of workplace misconduct, including excessive drinking.
“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” Zinke tweeted. “He should resign and pay back the taxpayers for the hush money and the tens of thousands of dollars he forced my department to spend investigating unfounded allegations.”
In 2015, Grijalva did pay $48,000 to a former staffer after she had worked there for three months over claims he created a hostile workplace environment and was intoxicated at work. Last month, the House Ethics Committee notified him it had cleared him of wrongdoing associated with the payment. Grijalva has publicly admitted he had a problem with alcohol years ago but got professional help and no longer has an issue.
Grijalva said he expects to call Zinke to testify next year about the role he played in reducing the size of national monuments, saying he “at some point has to answer for” the “decisions he made.”
However, he doesn’t want to give their conflict “any more attention than it has.” While the tweet made him “really, really angry” and he wanted to rebut with a similar potshot, he said he realized “there’s bigger fish to fry.”
Natural Resources ranking member Rob Bishop of Utah, who swapped places with Grijalva, said he wouldn’t have any issues with the new chairman calling Zinke to testify but expects the Montana Republican to turn the offer down.
“I guess you can invite anybody you want to. I mean, we’ve invited people to testify and they just told us, ‘Hell no.’ I think that may be what Mr. Zinke’s response would be too,” Bishop said.
Grijalva’s supporters in Congress want to move on from the Zinke story and say the Arizona congressman is too focused to let oversight turn into mudslinging.
“Certainly, we would like to question [Zinke], but I think we’ve got to look forward more than look backward and try to rectify the things that need to be rectified,” Napolitano said.
The Interior Department has not responded to multiple requests for comment.