The upset in Alabama’s Dec. 12 special election spells the return of a species thought to be extinct in the U.S. Senate—a senator from the Deep South with a strong pro-environment platform who supports the Paris climate pact.
The GOP will still control the Senate after Doug Jones’ slim victory over Republican Roy Moore to fill the seat left vacant by Jeff Sessions’ appointment to be U.S. attorney general.
But Democrats, who have railed against President Donald Trump’s cuts in climate research and his environmental rollbacks, have a new ally from a southern state that hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1992.
The win showed Democrats can win in red states if they back environmental protection and expansion of health care coverage, as long as their candidates get a healthy turnout, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Bloomberg Environment. The Alabama victory is a jolt in the arm for the party, which hopes to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans next fall, he said.
And, he said, it “tells you if you have good candidates who are prepared to stand up and speak to the needs of working people and the environment, they will do well.” Sanders, though an independent, caucuses with the Democrats.
‘Another Bright Light’
Jones is a strong backer of the U.S. leading on climate issues, Angela Anderson, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate and energy director, told Bloomberg Environment that. Jones supports “the Paris Agreement but also the U.S. obligation to meet its responsibilities in terms of our role in creating climate change,” she said.
“That’s obviously incredibly helpful, and there’s all kinds of issues where members of Congress need to exert some oversight on this administration’s attempt to institutionalize climate denial,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, he’ll be another bright light.”
The state’s voters “have chosen a senator that will stand up for our shared conservation values,” Conservation Alabama Executive Director Tammy Herrington said.
In his campaign’s environmental platform, Jones joined critics who say Trump has detached from international engagement, particularly with his vow in June to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate deal.
“Unfortunately, President Trump and many of his nationalist advisors seem determined to wrap us in our own cocoon,” Jones added.
“By withdrawing from the Paris Accords, the President has moved us further from the international community,” Jones said, while the “consequences of our unchecked use of fossil fuels for our planet and health have been clear for decades. Period.”
Jones also backs more support for renewable energy.
Energy Committee Seat in Play
Another closely watched issue is whether Jones will be awarded a plum committee assignment.
Outgoing Alabama Republican Sen. Luther Strange has a coveted slot on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but that doesn’t mean his Democratic successor can expect that seat to be his.
Even before Jones’ election, Republicans only had a slim majority on the energy panel: 12-11. Thus an early Republican priority will be ensuring any reshuffling of committees avoids the prospect of tie votes in the energy panel.
If Jones is sworn in as scheduled later this month, the 52-48 Republican majority will shrink to 51-49.
Jones, a former prosecutor, said in his platform that he recognized a need to “streamline regulations and reduce impediments” particularly for small- and mid-sized businesses in Alabama. That view may align him with deregulatory Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
“I am the son of a steelworker and the grandson of a coal miner. I have enormous sympathy with the families in our state that have seen their incomes decline or their jobs vanish as coal prices have dropped,” Jones wrote.
Rather than promising to bring those jobs back, Jones said, the nation should step up retraining of those workers and ensure they have access to better healthcare.
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(Updates with additional reporting, comments throughout.)