Progressive candidates are embracing clean energy as a campaign issue

If Trump isn't going to do the right thing, "we're going to have to do it at the governor's level."

Rebecca Otto, Minnesota State auditor and candidate for governor in the  Democratic primary, on the roof of her clean energy home. CREDIT: Shawn Otto.
Rebecca Otto, Minnesota State auditor and candidate for governor in the Democratic primary, on the roof of her clean energy home. CREDIT: Shawn Otto.

According to polling and public opinion analysis, support for strong action on climate change and clean energy is an across-the-board winning political issue.

Yet progressive candidates for high office have historically downplayed those issues, as has the Democratic party — both in the 2016 national election and even in the wake of the recent unprecedented string of superstorms.

But a new generation of candidates are taking a new approach, refusing to be silent or even defensive on these issues, which are overwhelmingly popular with voters. They understand that Americans are increasingly concerned about climate change and want to see climate action.

ThinkProgress spoke with four such candidates who are currently running in Democratic primaries. Each has their own remarkable story:

  • Rebecca Otto, Minnesota’s state auditor who’s running for governor, is a former science teacher who is shouting from the rooftop — her solar rooftop — about her clean energy plan for the state.
  • Sean Casten, a clean energy entrepreneur, is running for Congress in Illinois’ 6th District on a clean energy platform. Why? “Once an engineer, always an engineer.”
  • Sam Jammal, a former Tesla and SolarCity employee running for Congress in California’s 39th District, is bringing his expertise and passion for clean energy and the good-paying jobs that come with them.
  • Diane Russell is running for governor after 8 years in the Maine House of Representatives. She plans to undo the anti-renewable, anti-climate policies of Maine’s current governor, Paul LePage, who she calls, “Trump before Trump.”

The state auditor with a plan to price carbon

Rebecca Otto is the 18th State Auditor of Minnesota. She is the first woman Democrat to be elected auditor and the only Democrat ever re-elected auditor. According to her website, in her first victory in 2006, she won the election by the largest margin in 112 years. Moreover, the seat had been held by a Republican for 134 years of its 149-year history. Otto is now serving her third term — after winning in a 81-to-19 percent landslide against a self-financed opponent who outspent her by 4 to 1 in 2014.


Otto doesn’t just talk the talk — although she calls her plan “the most aggressive clean energy plan in the nation, which is also the greatest economic opportunity in a generation” — she also walks the walk.

In 1994, Otto and her husband — a climate and science blogger — build a clean energy home, where they still live, which has been toured more than 10,000 times.

“I am a former science teacher and my husband and I have always stayed up on science. In the early 1990s we realized what the evidence was indicating about climate change,” Otto told ThinkProgress. “We were about to start a family and felt that ethically we needed to be part of the solution for our son’s sake.” 

Otto’s plan, RenewMN, prices carbon at the state level and is revenue-neutral.

“We will return 100 percent of the revenue back to state residents,” she said. Three quarters of the revenue would be returned as dividend checks that are expected to be about $600 per person, annually. The remaining 25 percent would be used for clean energy tax credits.  According to Otto, the plan will create between 70,000 and 235,000 well-paying jobs in clean energy.

It’s a winning formula.

“The response so far has been very positive,” Otto said. “Young voters are especially passionate about it and are stepping up to help my campaign in a big way. They understand the urgency of our situation and want government leaders who have a plan to change what we are doing.”


She noted that the plan appeals to a broad spectrum of people. “Recently when I was finishing up an interview, a reporter pondered out loud, ‘Why wouldn’t everyone support this plan?'” she said. (In fact, a group of Republican former cabinet members has proposed a similar plan for the United States, but it does not appear to have gotten any traction with the current administration or Congress.) 

The clean energy entrepreneur who wants to save the climate 

Sean Casten “grew up around climate and business,” as he puts it. His father, Tom, is one of the country’s leading clean energy entrepreneurs and advocates for climate action, having built up a business doing cogeneration — the highly efficient combined generation of heat and power (which I wrote about here in 2008).

“That instilled a passion in me to do the same, first studying biology as an undergrad and then getting an M.S. in Biochemical Engineering, doing research to develop cellulosic biofuels,” the younger Casten told ThinkProgress. “My first job out of graduate school was at [consulting firm] Arthur D. Little where I was in a group that did technology consulting for a host of emerging clean-tech businesses.”

(I met Casten’s father in the mid-1990s, when I was helping to run the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and have since met Sean in professional circles.)

After consulting, Casten went on to “start several businesses with missions to profitably reduce greenhouse gas emissions – in all cases, using existing technologies to identify waste in industrial facilities that we could recover and convert into useful heat and power.” Over a 10-year period, Casten’s businesses launched 70 projects and invested $200 million in improvements that lowered their customers’ energy bills and reduced carbon emissions by at least 50 percent, he said.


He also participated in crafting the bill that became the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a nine-state program in the Northeast that caps carbon emissions and invests in efficiency and clean energy projects.

Now, Casten is running for Congress to make it easier for clean energy businesses to grow and thrive. “Like most in the clean energy industry, I soon came to appreciate that while there were a lot of opportunities for folks like me, the policy barriers to clean energy are massive,” he said.

Across the board, “we so desperately need to see a return to fact-based policy making in Washington,” he said. But “climate policy remains my passion.” Casten would like to bring some of the ideas he developed with a friend, Ken Colburn, who is now at the Regulatory Assistance Project, during the early stages of RGGI.

Getting a nationwide RGGI through Congress — much less signed by this president — would be a daunting if not impossible task, but it’s not the only thing on his agenda.

“At a smaller level there are a ton of small but massively impactful things that could be done within the context of existing climate policy,” he said. And he knows his stuff — one example of his ideas would be “to make modest changes in the Major Modifications definition innate to the New Source Review rules in the Clean Air Act so as to eliminate the existing disincentives to invest in energy efficiency.”

So far, Casten said, voters have responded positively. “I decided from the start that I would be a candidate that I would want to vote for as a voter – someone who tells us what they really think…. And so far, that approach has worked pretty well,” he said. Illinois’ 6th district covers an area “from Argonne National Lab in the southeast to Fermilab in the Northwest,” so its voters aren’t your usual cross-section of the country.

“It’s a very highly-educated, scientifically minded set of voters,” Casten said. “They are people who value facts, and are generally pretty centrist —  bipartisan — in their world view. The second-most important issue to voters in our district after healthcare is climate change.” he said.

“These people get it.” 

The civil rights lawyer who wants to bring people together with clean energy 

Sam Jammal’s biography does not read like a clean energy executive’s. Growing up in California as the child of working class immigrants from South America and the Middle East, Jammal saw discrimination firsthand and decided become a civil rights lawyer. He has worked as an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, as legislative counsel for Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), as special assistant to the undersecretary of industry and security at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Obama Administration, and as a chief of staff for Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA). But his first college internship was at the Sierra Club. “That’s where I got my start in politics, in the environmental community,” he told ThinkProgress.

After seeing how dysfunctional Washington was, Jammal left in 2015 to become director for policy and electricity markets and regulatory counsel for SolarCity, a major manufacturer and installer of solar energy services. There, he ran a “community relations campaign, focusing on “how to bring more voices to the table on clean energy.”

The biggest aspects of his job were helping people understand that everyone can benefit from solar and trying to figure out policies to get solar in every neighborhood.  Every day, he would talk to different groups — from the Sierra Club to the NAACP to the Christian Coalition. Bringing those voices together that helped him to see “the unifying themes” he said. “Innovation, jobs, saving money — and not really liking monopolies, particularly utilities… You can actually bring people together with the clean energy economy,” he said.

SolarCity — another Elon Musk company — merged with Tesla in 2016. And at that point, Jammal’s job expanded to including backup battery storage using Tesla’s Powerwall system, as well as electric vehicles.

So why is Jammal running for Congress?

“Congress was broken when I was there,” he said, “but it is even more broken when it comes to clean energy and climate, because you’re fighting against some of the most powerful interests in the world who prefer to keep the status quo because it helps their shareholders.”

Jammal was in Nevada when the state raised rate on solar customers — ignoring its own data showing that rooftop solar owners provide more value to the grid than they get back.

“We had utility companies functionally try to eliminate our industry across the country,” he said.

And he has fought to preserve and expand solar where it is challenged. He worked on the ballot measure to save solar in Florida, where they were outspent 30-to-1 but still won.

“If you put it on the ballot, solar wins,” he explained. While foes of renewable energy, like the Koch brothers, are powerful, “if you build coalitions and get information about the benefits of solar to the public, you can win.”

Jammal’s Latino heritage, his background in clean energy, and his desire to make a difference all come together in his run for Congress.

“Part of why I decided to run is that as a Latino American, with Donald Trump as president, you have to step back and think, ‘How can I contribute?’ but I also started thinking, ‘What can I contribute differently?'” he said.

“Beyond that, it came down to my experience in clean energy, and knowing that we do need more advocates in Congress who: one, understand the technology; two, understand the potential; and three, understand how we can actually achieve it.”

“If we’re going to get to 100 percent renewable energy, which is feasible today, the challenge isn’t technological, it’s political,” he said. And good paying jobs are a huge part of that push.

“American manufacturing is coming back, and it’s coming back in clean energy. The number one manufacturer in California is Tesla. Solar is good working-class jobs,” he said. One fifth of solar workers in California are Latino, and most of the the solar market in California pays in the range of $40,000 to $70,000 a year.”

The Mainer who wants to save her state from LePage’s policies — and climate change

Diane Russell has seen first-hand how climate change is affecting Maine —  the maple trees, the lobster industry. She was born and raised there, and last year she finished serving eight years in the Maine House of Representatives. (She was also a Bernie Sanders delegate at last year’s Democratic National Convention.)

Maine State Rep. Diane Russell speaks during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 25, 2016. CREDIT: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Maine State Rep. Diane Russell speaks during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 25, 2016. CREDIT: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

A key reason Russell is running for governor is to undo the anti-renewable, anti-climate policies of Maine’s current governor, businessman Paul LePage — “Trump before Trump,” as she calls him.

“When Paul LePage took office, we had one of the top [renewable portfolio] standards in the country,” she said. “We were one of the top in the Northeast, and now we’re one of the lowest because Paul LePage has made it his priority to undermine any efforts to address climate change.”

Russell is concerned about the rate the climate is now changing and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and she wants to do something about it.

“We need to make sure we are investing in clean energy, and it’s not just to feel good,” she told an audience at a political event in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. “Investing in energy efficiency alone significantly reduces both the economic cost and the carbon output. And in a state where we have the oldest housing stock in the country, and 80 percent of our homes are fueled by oil, energy efficiency has a huge impact on our carbon output, and that’s something we need to continue to invest in moving forward.”

Like other clean energy candidates, Russell made the connection between what is happening at the White House and what needs to happen everywhere else in the country. “As governor of Maine, I will be signing on to the U.S. climate alliance, which is essentially Maine signing onto the Paris climate accord,” she said. “Because, at the end of the day, if the guy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn’t going to do the right thing, we’re going to have to do it at the governor’s level, at the state level.”