Tennessean: Op-ed by Gail Kerr: Lamar Alexander takes a stand for air quality

Posted on June 18, 2012

A refreshing breeze is wafting through Tennessee politics.

One of the state’s favorite sons is bucking his own party to stand up for something he feels passionately. Good for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. Of course, gentle breezes can be followed by storms, and this is no exception. He’s catching hell for saying what he thinks.

Alexander, for the second time in a year, is backing a clean-air rule written by the Obama administration. The first time forces coal-fired power plants to clean up their act and stop blowing their nasty smoke across Tennessee borders. This time, it is about requiring they slash emissions of mercury. The change is adamantly opposed by the Republican party, of which Alexander is a member.

The result? Blow back. Tennesseans are seeing their favorite senator and former governor attacked by a group called American Commitment in mudslinging commercials that say Alexander and Obama are waging a “war on coal.” The change would produce “billions in new costs, higher electricity prices, and fewer jobs for Tennessee workers,” the commercials say.

Alexander disagrees. He argues that if the state’s air is bad, car manufacturers such as Nissan and Volkswagen can’t open plants here because of federal pollution regulations. That costs future jobs. And, he said, there are 1,200 Tennesseans working for companies that make the pollution control equipment that will lower the bad emissions. Coal mining? Has 546 jobs, he said.

Tennesseans know that Alexander has long had a passion for the outdoors, environment and clean air. His hometown is Maryville, a scenic town perched on the edge of the Smoky Mountains. Anyone who has attended his speeches over the years has heard him say, at least a thousand times, that they are the “Great Smoky Mountains — not the Great Smoggy Mountains.” He famously walked the state from Mountain City to Memphis when he ran for governor, and took six months off when his second term was done to live and hike in Australia.

Clean air was probably the main issue he had in mind earlier this year when he resigned from the third-ranked GOP position in Senate leadership “to spend more time working for results on the issues I care most about.”

Little political risk

Realistically, there is little political risk for Alexander in stepping across the aisle on an issue like this. He is not running for higher office. He’s always been a popular, personable political figure across the state. His re-election numbers are comfortably safe. A May 2012 political poll taken by Vanderbilt University showed that 52.4 percent of those polled approve of the job he is doing.

Plus, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which produces Tennessee’s electricity, is already working to clean up its emissions, so the rule change has minimal impact, making Alexander’s position moot to that agency.

Still, in this day and age when politicians get spanked for even having a civil conversation with the opposing party, it rejuvenates the atmosphere to see Alexander willing to take a stand on something he believes with all his heart.

It would be nice to see more of it. From all of them.