Ellen Cohen Profile – Fighting for Clean Air in Houston's District 134

June 5th, 2006

It’s difficult to overstate the gravity of the air quality situation in Houston. In recent years H-town has nosed out Los Angeles for the ignoble distinction of Worst Air Quality in the Nation. And it shows in soaring asthma rates and cancer clusters around toxic hot spots. People, quite literally, are being killed by unregulated (or under-regulated if you insist) industrial filth.

There isn’t a magic-wand solution to the problem. It’s huge and complex. But the unwillingness of those in power to even begin to do something about it is truly astounding. And when thoughtful legislators try to move the ball, their efforts have invariably been shot down by the Craddick-controlled majority.

Case in point. TLCV’s 2005 legislative scorecard included three amendments that would have addressed toxic air emissions – problems highlighted by the award-winning Houston Chronicle series, “In Harm’s Way.” Surprisingly, twenty of the thirty-four House members who represent constituents living in the Houston area voted against all three of these amendments. This utter disregard for the health and safety of Houston residents inspired this front page, above the fold story in the Houston Chronicle.

That brings us to Ellen Cohen – who presents one of the key, bright-spot possibilities for chipping away at the big polluters grip on the legislature in November. Cohen is running for Houston’s House District 134 against one of the Legislature’s worst members, Martha Wong.

The district was represented by long-time environmental stalwart Debra Danburg until it was carved up in redistricting to get rid of her. In Wong’s two regular sessions since she took office, she has proven herself to be a true enemy of public health and the environment. In 2003 she scored a 0% on TLCV’s scorecard. In 2005 she got a shameful 8%.

The Houston Chronicle named Wong one of the Toxic 20 early this year for her votes against the amendments mentioned above. These amendments would have – horrors! – improved the state’s health screening levels for pollution, required industry to actually measure all the pollution leaving their sites, and set fines for unregulated releases of pollution that plague industrial neighborhoods. Wong has to go.

Cohen, who has made air quality a keystone issue in her campaign, said she would have voted for the amendments. “We have to know what’s in the air to know what to do about,” she said in a recent interview. “Better monitoring is a no-brainer.” She also points out that while there are many at the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality that are trying their best under existing rules, TCEQ’s record on penalizing polluters for violations has been pitiful.

A cancer survivor herself, Cohen says she is disturbed by reports in Houston of high levels of air-born carcinogens from industrial sources. But she also recognizes the threat that Houston’s air quality problem poses to the local economy. “When my opponent says she’s pro-business, I think she doesn’t understand what we need to do to attract business,” Cohen said. “We have to clean up our air to make it attractive for industry to move here. You have to understand that when major employers consider sites for relocation, quality of life issues for their families is one of the key things they look at.”

Cohen says Wong is out of step with District 134, which includes Bellaire, West University, River Oaks and parts of Meyerland and Montrose. After it was redrawn in the scandalous state redistricting effort, it became a 53/47 Republican/Democratic district – if you go by the Sharp/Dewhurst race in 2002. But Cohen says a Democrat can win it.

“We know that the district is really more independent than it is Republican. And it’s a pretty environmentally-sensitive district,” she said. “I’m fiscally conservative and socially progressive. That appeals to most voters here.” She also points out that in knocking on doors and meeting with community groups, she’s hearing a lot of dissatisfaction with Wong among the Republican Party faithful.

Groups that normally go with incumbents are hedging their bets and giving to her or to both campaigns. And community leaders who traditionally back Republicans have leant Cohen their name. Ultimately, though, Cohen says her grassroots campaign will carry the day in November.

“I have a cadre of volunteers,” she said. “We have a series of people every weekend. We’re covering every precinct – we’re going to go to more than 5,000 houses in between now and November.”

Cohen also has the backing of your Texas League of Conservation Voters. TLCV recently announced its formal endorsement of Cohen, and we look forward to doing what we can to help her take back that House seat from the interests that would have us choking on the air we breathe.