Editor's note: Citizens Action Coalition (CAC) Executive Director Grant Smith resigned on June 17 and sat down at his home just south of Broad Ripple in Indianapolis with Bloomington Alternative editor Steven Higgs for a conversation about a variety of topics. Smith started at CAC as a part-time canvasser in 1982. What follows are edited, extended excerpts from their 70-minute discussion.
A version of this story appears in the July 14 issue of NUVO in Indianapolis.
Higgs: Do I recall Chris (former CAC executive director Williams) hired you because you wore a suit and tie to the interview?
Smith: No, it was because I didn't. I was in the interview wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. Another guy was in a three-piece suit. Chris was talking to him and not to me. That was in February 1982. CAC was originally the Citizens Energy Coalition and formed in '74. The name was changed to CAC in about '76. The canvass operation began in '79.
Higgs: How long have you lived in Indiana?
Smith: I'm from Baltimore originally. My dad worked at Bethlehem Steel. He was originally from Manhattan. Mom was from Baltimore. Her brothers were dockworkers and steelworkers. They lived in Sparrows Point, which was a company town.
"I would come in at 7 in some semblance of a suit, and then in the evening I would canvass."
My dad transferred to Burns Harbor in ‘68, so I went to junior high and high school at Chesterton. I was a Region rat. I went to IU and studied German and went to an exchange program in Germany for a year. I actually stayed there for three altogether, and that's where I really got into politics. That's when the Green Party there first started forming, and I sat in on some meetings.
I got back here and went to Indianapolis, where one of the guys from the exchange program was going to dentistry school. I'd just landed, didn't have much of a plan. He said, "Come out here." I lived with him at 21st and Tibbs in IU housing and then saw the ad.
Higgs: So CAC was your first career job?
Smith: The only one, actually. I went back to graduate school and was an assistant instructor in the German Department at IU-Bloomington for a couple years. I got a masters of arts in teaching German.
Higgs: What did Chris hire you do at CAC?
Smith: I was a canvasser. Everybody at CAC was a canvasser. Chris was the canvass director in Indianapolis. He came from New York and was cross training. When I was in graduate school, I would canvass during vacations to get some money.
I've been here almost 30 years.
Higgs: When did you go into the policy arena?
Smith: I came back and canvassed for four months or so in '85, and in '86 I became the Toxics Action Project (TAP) coordinator. At the time CAC had two canvasses, the TAP canvass, which grew out of landfill issue and toxics in the environment fight, and the energy canvass. TAP was not a separate operation; it was a project of CAC.
I would come in at 7 in some semblance of a suit, and then in the evening I would canvass. I would assist John (Cardwell) from 8 to 12, come back, change and go canvass and go into the Statehouse. All I had were tennis shoes. My other shoes had fallen apart.
"The powers that be just don't like the public intervening against the agency decisions they manipulate."
My first big issue was in administrative law – standing, legal standing. They had changed the law to make it a legal interest more than the loose federal standards.
Higgs: Were citizens groups like CAC having too much effect?
Smith: The powers that be just don't like the public intervening against the agency decisions they manipulate. Actually, I worked with Jeff on that one. Jeff Stant was at HEC (Hoosier Environmental Council), was executive director at that point.
So I did a white paper on legal standing. I went to the law library to see how that would look and did a white paper, and we took it to the attorney general. At that time it was Linley Pearson, who was a Republican, but very moderate. His dad was in the UAW, and he had a much more populist perspective than most people down there these days. And he actually agreed and helped us get the law changed.
After that I worked on the industrial pollution prevention issue, reducing the generation of industrial waste. Through production process changes, you avoid or eliminate or reduce toxics by substituting materials.
Higgs: Out of that grew the Clean Manufacturing Technology Institute at Purdue, right?
Smith: Right. That's what came out of that. That was part of the legislation.
Higgs: Is it still there?
Smith: No. Purdue phased it out. They did really good work for 15 years. I have all kinds of case studies, but Purdue didn't get it. They should have ramped that thing up. That's something you should incentivize.
It took a while, but I got the Chamber (of Commerce) and IMA (Indiana Manufacturers Association) actually to support the program. I had a lot of allies in the legislature on that because it was mainly a university-based program. It was nonregulatory. We did that purposely. These guys were making lots of money, hand over fist, by substituting materials and using them more efficiently.
It had very impactful results. The wood finishing industry in Jasper, the RV industry – they would organize entire industries that were clustered in a place. … The results were quite fantastic.
The bill passed in 1990, we got it funded in '92, and I think the thing really got off the ground in '94.
Money in politics
Higgs: How were you able to accomplish that?
Smith: At that time in the General Assembly – which is very different now – if it was a reasonable idea, people would actually listen to you. Now they don't listen to you unless you bring a check along.
I think the money in politics, it's really perceptible, if you were there in the mid-‘80s to the 2000s. It's very perceptible. The reception you get, the access you get or don't get, the lack of any rational thought at all around an issue, the total, I don't know, it's just like the constituents don't exist.
"At that time in the General Assembly – which is very different now – if it was a reasonable idea, people would actually listen to you. Now they don't listen to you unless you bring a check along."
One of the worst things is people don't pose questions, they don't sit there and ask – like the really horrendous utility bills – about the impacts. They don't question what the utilities say.
Higgs: Which people?
Smith: The legislators. There's no questioning. The hearings are dog-and-pony shows.
Higgs: Talk about that legislative devolution.
I think there are two factors there. One is that legislators weren't used to CAC. They weren't used to getting thousands of letters and calls on issues. And No. 2, I think the attitude was different then. The attitude at that point was you had people that wanted to do the right thing, and they needed a reason to do the right thing. And one of the reasons was, "Hey, I'm getting a lot of calls from my constituents, I don't go with you on this one."
The thing now is, they pass stuff with no public support at all. They don't question the really horrible stuff, and when you propose something, they say, "Where is all the public support?" Well what about all that public support for the horrendous bill you passed last year? They weren't screaming for that, were they? So it's just this game and just this false logic.
So you had people who were actually doing the right things. The Indiana Senate was much closer. It was 26-24 up until the '92 election. There was a lot more leverage. You had a lot more progressive leadership in that caucus.
On the House side, even when it was Republican-dominated, you had populist Republicans who stood up against utilities. The Marble Hill scandal (nuclear power plant in the 1970s) didn't help them. People refused to take money from them, due to the Marble Hill and other issues.
And you had populist Republicans who were actually very good legislators. Like Stephen Moberly or Vaneta Becker at the time. Mary Kay Budack, Ralph Ayres. These people would actually stand up for the public and stand up to these people.
The press in decline
Smith: You also had the other aspect of that, which was the press. The press was on top of these things. In my estimation, if this were the mid-‘80s, early ‘90s, Edwardsport would have been dead a long time ago, and half those people would be in jail, including half the commissioners on the commission, plus part of Daniels cadre. It would have been dead already.
Now you can't even get the press to cover it. The editorial boards won't even meet with you to discuss it.
"Right now, on Edwardsport, we have one reporter writing about it consistently. That's it, which is insane. ... It's just pathetic."
This whole Lucadia issue, the Rockport (substitute natural gas) plant, it would have never got off the ground. The press complemented what we were doing and was interested.
Part of that is just the huge turnover rate, the lack of funds for any investigation. They had beat reporters that were on the utilities. They don't have that anymore. It's made a huge difference. Right now, on Edwardsport, we have one reporter writing about it consistently. That's it, which is insane. At the Star, John Russell.
Even in the Duke territories like the Kokomo Tribune, the Columbus Republic or the Terre Haute paper (Tribune-Star). Anybody in the past would have been saying, "Wait a minute." We would have been getting calls. Now, no calls. Nothing.
We called down to the Columbus paper and said we would like to meet with you on this issue.
"Why would that be of local interest?"
"Could it be rates? You're going to get hammered. This thing is in massive cost overrun."
"Well, a lot of people try to meet with us, and we really don't have the time."
"Well, if we write an op ed will you publish it?"
"Well, I don't know."
It's just pathetic.
Corporate influence in politics
Smith: Part of it is the influence of these companies, too. They're a lot bigger.
At the federal level, they weakened and eventually got rid of the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUCHA), which would have made Duke as it is now impossible. They passed the PUHCA to avoid what happened in the '30s, which was huge consolidation and massive debt contributing to the Depression, which was the collapse of Wall Street.
Part of that was the utility guys and people buying up massive amounts of utility companies and leveraging them. Sound familiar?
"Consolidation has nothing to do with efficiency. It has to do with money and influence."
They got rid of that, and these companies are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and they have a lot more political influence. These companies get massive and throw money around like nobody's business.
So, that's another factor, the consolidation in these industries. Consolidation has nothing to do with efficiency. It has to do with money and influence. Like Duke wanting to merge with Progress Energy. They can't build a nuke plant because they aren't big enough, but getting bigger means more political influence, as well.
You can't have a rational discussion now. You can with some people. There's the individuals who will stand up, who will raise hell, like Matt Pierce from Bloomington or Win Moses or Ryan Dvorak, people of that ilk. You have some independently minded Republicans in the Senate, but the leadership puts a lot of pressure on people when it comes to campaign contributions and voting against these horrible bills, even raising criticism against them or attempting to.
It's changed. And so demonstrating public opposition or support of something isn't enough.
The unions decline
Higgs: It seems that public involvement and interest have declined. Has the public given up?
"You don't have movement building in labor unions. That's why they're shrinking."
Smith: You're talking about a different generation. You had labor guys who were actually advocates. They were part of movement building. They were on the picket line getting shot at. Much more progressive.
And their perspective was not only loyalty to the union but to the public. But you don't have that anymore. You have bureaucrats that are looking out for their own interests. You don't have movement building in labor unions. That's why they're shrinking. I mean, look at the construction trades, hailing Daniels as a great visionary while he's attacking collective bargaining. What's that all about?
And there's no social conscience involved in any of that. So you have a totally different perspective. I mean, the union we worked with was the UAW, which was highly progressive at that point. All the old guard. We had a guy up in Kokomo who not only had a great sense of humor, but if you said we have to have a meeting, he'd turn out 500 people by himself because he was well-connected.
These communities are falling apart because of our policy to encourage factories shipped overseas, our policies of destroying wages.
Public involvement declines
Smith: And then you have less and less public involvement. Maybe it's based on the number and amount of issues and amount of information, and the ability to respond to these things and understand these things.
"The perception is that people aren't that astute, but if you've canvassed, you always have a great respect for the grassroots and a lot of faith in it."
But also you have a shift in that involvement, which is people on the Internet, which can also make a difference. CAC is working on utilizing that better. Everybody is, I mean, look at Egypt. Look at Tunisia. Look at Syria. Those are movements by college students. So, it's very encouraging. Here, we don't seem to have that. I don't know what happened to that. I'm not a sociologist.
But our members do respond. They do write letters. It's really tough to get them to meetings, obviously.
Higgs: Is citizen organizing tougher today?
Smith: Oh yeah.
The cool thing is these small towns where you have problems, like these biomass plants, where you have a town of 4,000 with 500 people at a meeting. That's a pretty good percentage. We've had really good success working with folks in New Carlisle on the coal plant up there. You use the canvass to complement what they were doing. And these guys were raising money themselves. They had their own paid media campaign. We used the canvass in swing districts, county councils, and killed the plant.
The perception is that people aren't that astute, but if you've canvassed, you always have a great respect for the grassroots and a lot of faith in it. You see these people, like the whole merchant power plant battle. These towns become experts on these issues, and they are very astute at organizing.
These people aren't stupid, but that's how they're treated, it seems, a lot of the time, by the media or legislators.
Hold the politicians accountable
Smith: You just have to hold politicians accountable in a very direct way with people. Like up in New Carlisle, they had meetings with the county council and had somebody sitting there who said, "If you're going to vote this way, we're going to run Joe against you." That gets their attention.
"You have to knock some people out of office to get a seat at the table, unfortunately."
I think on the state level, that's what we should work toward. You have to knock some people out of office to get a seat at the table, unfortunately. If you support somebody, that doesn't matter to them. They'll forget you in about 10 seconds after they walk out the door. But if you knock somebody out of office, that gets attention.
I think that's where we have to go again. We have to lead with the voting records, we have to lead with these people who are responsible for Edwardsport, these people are responsible for these massive rate increases because they either don't understand, they don't care or they're bought off. And either way, either reason is not good. It means they're not paying attention. Or they're just too influenced, and it doesn't seem like constituents even come to mind.
Look at the Democrats. They walked out. Who did they walk out for? Their biggest contributors. What about the rest of us? You know? How many bad bills were down there? You know, the abortion bill, the utility bill. They walked out because of the unions, the people who gave them the most money, not because of the general public.
There just seems to be a total disconnect, and there just doesn't seem to be any loyalty to the people. There's no understanding of what they go through, how they survive or not survive. I mean, if you have the middle class having problems, just think of lower-income people.
Destroying the middle class
Smith: At the federal level – the destruction of wages since Reagan and the destruction of benefits, now they're going after Social Security and Medicare – what's left? How can you base an economy on poverty?
"The Republicans say we don't like redistribution of wealth. Well, yes they do, from the middle class to the upper echelons."
The Republicans say we don't like redistribution of wealth. Well, yes they do, from the middle class to the upper echelons. That's what they're into. Even if you don't even think of the ethics of that, from an economic standpoint, it's insane.
I ran into this guy, for instance, in Anderson who was saying the hospital there was freaking out because the UAW retirees there are dying out, and after that nobody is going to have any money. They're just going to have a lot of people coming in who can't pay.
And then these people that act like vultures when it comes to the middle class pocketbook, I mean, if you run it dry, where are you going? It's totally self-destructive.
Legislators serve contributors
Even when they dissent, the legislators who dissent, they get bullied or threatened because of the campaign contributions. "We don't want to lose any of those." It doesn't matter what party it is.
And the people they run for office, with few exceptions, they come up through this party structure. Leadership wants people they can control. You're not going to get very many mavericks.
"It seems like the entire debate is pure theater. Everybody is just taking money behind the scenes and you're not getting anywhere."
Especially in D.C., in Congress, these people are privileged. When you listen to the debate, it has nothing to do with the bill. Democrats are spinning this stuff as progressive legislation, when actually it's what the Republicans proposed 10, 15 years ago, and the Republicans are attacking it as some socialist legislation.
It seems like the entire debate is pure theater. Everybody is just taking money behind the scenes and you're not getting anywhere.
Higgs: And that's just what makes it into the public eye. There's no pretense about the vast majority of it that is kept out of public view.
Smith: It's totally Orwellian. I mean, we've reached an Orwellian point in public discourse that has no basis in anything other than we're just protecting our butts and, you know, taking the money.
I mean we're so controlled by corporate interests. If you look at the energy issue … we can't have an energy revolution because of these 19th- and mid-20th-century industries that are totally entrenched. And it's killing the economy.
Look where the Europeans are on this. Look what they're doing. They're basically bringing the price of solar down by themselves, with their public policies. Just think what you could do here.
There's plenty of money around, it's just put in the wrong places and concentrated. When they say, well, like in Indianapolis, you don't have a plan for the libraries; you don't have a plan for the schools; but you build a stadium that we don't need that bankrupts the CIB (City Capital Improvements Board). And you bail out the Pacers, which costs more than if you supported the schools.
"The priorities are all wrong. They're based on the profit motives, the quarterly profit motives of developers, the profit motives of law firms, the profit motives of utility or health insurance companies."
My thought is, there's no plan for the libraries because law firms and developers can't make big money off of these existing public assets, unless it's the downtown library, which was a complete boondoggle because they were involved.
They found $9 million bucks to negotiate the Citizens Gas deal, but it cost $1.5 million to keep the libraries open, and they couldn't get money for that.
To me it's just a matter of priorities. The priorities are all wrong. They're based on the profit motives, the quarterly profit motives of developers, the profit motives of law firms, the profit motives of utility or health insurance companies.
If you turn the economy over to people who think on a quarterly basis, you can't possibly have a sustainable society. You can't possibly have an energy policy that makes any sense whatsoever. You can't possibly have transportation policy that makes any sense whatsoever. You just can't do it.
That's what they've done. All they're doing is implementing their business plans, which is corporatism in the vernacular, fascism if you get into the academic realm. And that's kind of where we are.
It's a corporate-dominated society. Look who owns all the press.
Higgs: And the Supreme Court.
Smith: It's like the gilded age. The Supreme Court was packed with railroad attorneys. I read four or five years ago the income distribution was like the 1890s, you know.
It's insane. The tax rate under Eisenhower was 90 percent. Now if you have a billion dollars and you get taxed 90 percent, you can't live off a hundred million, or whatever?
CAC and the future
Higgs: When did you become executive director, and where is CAC today?
Smith: I was appointed in May 2004.
The initial issue was rebuilding in terms of staff and approaches to things and just looking outside the box, how we an approach whatever we were doing. My whole thing from assuming that position in '04 was generational transition. You have to get to a point where you can hand it over.
There was a huge gap between the older staff and anybody in between, really. So, one of the issues was we have to get the right people in the right places. I think that was the best thing that happened on the programmatic side.
We have a superb lobbyist who is now interim director, Kerwin (Olson). We have Zac (Elliot, Statewide Organizer); he's brilliant. He's very good, very good intellectually, in many ways. Within a month or so after we put him on this demand-side management stuff, in negotiations with utilities, people were calling him, even the consumer counselor's office. We have a phone canvass director, Laura (Sucec), who is very good, very task-oriented.
"My whole thing from assuming that position in '04 was generational transition. You have to get to a point where you can hand it over."
The one constant, which makes us the grassroots organization we are, is the canvass. It's very difficult to fund (c)4 activity (political lobbying) without a canvass. You have foundations, of course, but that's even becoming more difficult on the (c)3 side, on the educational side. On the (c)4 side, there's not many ways you can fund that.
You do get large donors, but most people want to give to the (c)3 and take a tax deduction. We do have our endowment, which supports the (c)4, which is good.
Higgs: What impact has the economy had on your fundraising?
Smith: The downturn in the economy hurt the canvass, hammered the endowment. Our endowment fund manager is excellent. We've gained more than half of that back, which is pretty good.
It has hurt the canvass in a certain way. On the phone side, we have a very good staff. They're doing very well. On the field side, it's somewhat more difficult. But what you want from the field canvass is to break even. The net comes out of the phone.
Higgs: The field canvass purpose is to get the message out, right?
Smith: Yeah. It's a part-time job. Field canvass has much more overhead in vehicles and other things. Getting to break even is not always easy.
The economy, I would say, has impacted, but people are still very responsive.
Higgs: You have a core constituency. What's your membership?
Smith: We have like 40,000 members, statewide, and we have people who sustain membership, like giving annually or quarterly or whatever, monthly. There's quite a few of those. Most folks are very appreciative of the work.
We did a demographic survey of our members. It was like age and whether you're employed and general stuff, like your income line, if you consider yourself a moderate, conservative or liberal, educational level.
A lot of our members, educationally, like 30 percent of them are in graduate school of some kind. So they're pretty smart cookies. Most of them graduated college in some respect.
The majority of them are moderate to conservative. Only about 15 percent in the survey considered themselves liberal.
Higgs: So what's next for you?
Smith: I left a few weeks ago and am working for the Civil Society Institute out of Boston. It's a progressive think tank that actually supported CAC and did work for them.
Their focus the last few years has been energy issues. Their current focus is dealing with the clean energy concept standard, where they throw everything but the kitchen sink as clean energy, nuclear, coal with carbon sequestration, garbage, natural gas.
"I left a few weeks ago and am working for the Civil Society Institute out of Boston. It's a progressive think tank that actually supported CAC and did work for them. ... It's not a huge cultural change for me to go work for somebody like that."
It's redefining renewable energy standards, sort of what the legislature did here this year, where coal and nuclear are incentivized to the hilt, not the renewables. You end up with a skewed approach.
It's hardly a market-based approach when you're socializing most of the risk of coal and nuclear plants.
If you look at the bill that was passed by the General Assembly, it would have died in the Indiana Senate but for Mitch Daniels intervening, it shifted the design and construction and operational risks of coal and nuclear plants from utilities primarily to the public.
Duke Energy in North Carolina wants to build a nuke. They're asking $340 million in ratepayer money just to design the plant. AEP's initial plan was to extend the life of the D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant but also enhance the capacity through an upgrade, where you have more highly enriched uranium. Well, they said the engineering was going to be $67 million. We heard through the grapevine, we're not sure about this, but they are close to $400 million now. So the design risks of these things are much higher.
You won't find that on a wind farm, on a solar plantation or putting solar on the roofs or distributed power. You won’t find that with energy efficiency. You won't find that with these actually lower-cost, low-risk, more easily deployable technologies.
The market principle is those who take the risk should profit, but that's not the way nuclear power works or coal gasification works.
That's the types of things that CAC looks at as well, and that's the way the Civil Society Institute thinks, and the other thing.
And they're not enamored with a lot of the inside-the-beltway environmental groups. They like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, they're not really enamored with NRDC or these others.
They're very much supportive of grassroots organizations like CAC, or small groups that fight mountaintop removal, so they're very progressive, very grassroots-oriented in their perspective. So it's not a huge cultural change for me to go work for somebody like that.
Steven Higgs a freelance journalist in Bloomington and is editor of The Bloomington Alternative. He can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.