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Energy and anger

Politics | Cap and trade is becoming a hot issue in places like New Mexico, with voter wrath aimed at House members who supported the scheme

Issue: "At the wire," Nov. 6, 2010

SANTA FE and ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-While on the road to a campaign event, New Mexico congressional candidate Steve Pearce spent a few minutes staring at the BlackBerry in his hand, trying to answer a candidate survey that asked about his funniest campaign memory. He finally remembered the time a staffer caught his coat in the door during a plane ride and emerged from the plane in tatters. You remember the bruises, he mused, but the funny moments have a short shelf life.

Pearce drew laughs later that day when he spoke before a receptive audience at the annual New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA) meeting. Someone shouted "Amen!" when he spoke against a statewide cap-and-trade plan. Pearce deadpanned, "Thank you. We'll pass the plate later." He went on to decry excessive regulation, telling an anecdote about a government employee who informed three New Mexico businessmen, "I'm from the Department of Transportation and my job is to put you out of business." Pearce called cap and trade "one of the most destructive" policies that could befall the American economy.

In a state where the oil and gas industry provides 23,000 jobs and almost one-fifth of the revenue in the State General Fund, cap and trade may decide the close race between Pearce and Democratic incumbent Harry Teague. A moderate Democrat, Teague voted against the healthcare overhaul but for the House cap-and-trade bill, which would cap carbon emissions and make companies buy and sell permits to emit greenhouse gases. Cap-and-trade legislation eventually bogged down in the Senate, but Democrats in both chambers remain committed to it.

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Paul Gessing, president of the New Mexico--based free market think tank Rio Grande Foundation, said Teague might have a stronger grip on his seat if he had opposed both the healthcare law and cap and trade. James Taylor, senior fellow for environmental policy at the Heartland Institute, predicted, "Harry Teague's vote for cap and trade will most likely be his undoing."

Pearce is a decorated Vietnam veteran who served three terms in Congress before losing a Senate race in 2008. He speaks in blunt, definitive statements: "The stimulus doesn't work." "Gotta secure the border." He preached the same message to newspaper editors and to oil and gas employees that day: More jobs come from less regulation, lower taxes, and smaller government. He even gave the same example three times: 27,000 farmers in the San Joaquin Valley lost their livelihoods to protect a two-inch minnow.

People are angry, Pearce says, and with a passion he didn't see when he campaigned in previous elections. Voters' fears go beyond policy beefs to a belief that the system is failing-that leaders are ignoring the Constitution, that they're spending more than taxpayers have, who may not be able to retire or pay for their houses.

Over a sandwich and fries at Milly's Sandwich Shop in Albuquerque, Pearce said he was shaking hands at a farm implement auction when a voter got in his face. "He was supportive of me but just furious. I mean right here furious," Pearce said, holding his hand inches away from his face. "I'm answering each of the questions he's firing at me: 'Why can't you all fix this? Why can't you do this? Why are you always talking about that? Nothing ever changes. Y'all are all the same.'" The man calmed down after a 15-minute conversation, but Pearce has seen the same explosiveness in other voters, too.

New Mexican voters are especially angry about cap and trade. Mike Bowen, executive director of the New Mexico Mining Association, said the industries in the district are worried: "If that cap and trade goes through all the way and the cost of electricity goes up or the cost of energy in general goes up, then their cost of production goes up." Prices go up, too, and Pearce has talked to consumers and farmers who know it: "People know it's going to cost them more to live, that it will cost businesses more, which will drive out jobs."

Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson put the oil and gas com­panies on edge when he pushed a state plan to cap carbon emissions, said Gessing: "The industry is definitely feeling the need to get more active and get things going in terms of fighting back." The oil and gas industry has donated more money-over $160,000-to Pearce's campaign than to any other House candidacy this year, according to FEC data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Pearce, who says "even the scientists that are in charge" don't believe in man-made climate change, has aired an ad saying that Teague's vote on the "cap and trade tax" means "fewer jobs." The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund countered with an ad saying that a watchdog group put Pearce on a list of corrupt congressmen for cutting a deal with an oil company before voting to lower taxes for oil and gas. But the House Ethics Committee cleared Pearce, and FactCheck.org notes that Pearce actually voted for a net increase of taxes on oil and gas.

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