Doyle Canning is a 21st Century Trailblazer. In the Age of a Global Climate Emergency, We Need Climate and Environmental Justice Activists in Congress. Doyle will be the First.

May 12, 2022 | PDA Blog

by Alan Minsky, Executive Director – Progressive Democrats of America

You wouldn’t know it from the mainstream press, but one of the most important elections of 2022 is happening in the southern part of Western Oregon this week. The people of the 4th district have an opportunity to choose climate activist and lawyer Doyle Canning as the Democratic Party nominee in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Peter DeFazio.  If Doyle were to win the primary and the general election in this “likely blue” district, she would be as strong a climate advocate as has ever served in the US Congress.

As such, every living being on planet earth should be rooting for Doyle to win.  We need a canary in that coal mine.

Doyle’s career work has focused on climate and environmental justice matters, but it’s important to note that she is far from being a “single issue” candidate.  A local public figure, who has run for Congress previously, Doyle has consistently supported progressive policy positions on healthcare, economics, racial justice, civil rights, labor rights, foreign policy, all down the line. She has also worked as an advocate and organizer for progressive initiatives at the federal, state, and local level. I’ve spoken with many people who’ve worked closely with Doyle. There is a consensus that she possesses a rare combination of traits – strong personal convictions, a tireless work ethic, a mind for detail, and exceptional communication skills – that would make her a great Member of Congress.

Doyle’s progressive beliefs are a perfect match for the 4th District. Bernie Sanders won the 2016 Oregon Democratic Primary by double-digits, and by an even greater landslide in the 4th. (Bernie had withdrawn from the race before the 2020 Oregon primary). Medicare for All and the Green New Deal both poll very well there.

So, everything should be aligning perfectly for Doyle to win the primary on May 17, right?  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  

In an all-too-familiar scenario, the Democratic Party establishment of Oregon had already determined its hand-picked successor to DeFazio before he made his “surprise” announcement.  Within 24 hours, it was apparent that Oregon’s Labor Commissioner and former State Assembly Speaker, Val Hoyle, was the anointed one.  

The problem for Hoyle is that she has a long public record. She can call herself a progressive on the campaign trail, but she’s been a moderate, pro-business-leaning, neoliberal Democrat throughout her career.  And lest anyone thinks she’s had an honest change of heart, she has received and accepted an endorsement from the New Democrat PAC, the anchor-organization for the conservative wing of the Democratic Party.

One person who was never going to get on the Val Hoyle bandwagon is Doyle Canning.  Val and Doyle were on opposite sides of the highest profile environmental struggle in the region in recent years, the Jordan Cove Fossil Fuel pipeline. Val, a recipient of generous contributions from fossil fuel affiliated donors and organizations throughout her career, supported the pipeline.  Doyle opposed it. Fortunately, Doyle and her allies have prevailed in preventing the construction of the pipeline.  Val claims to have had a change of heart, and now opposes the project. This smacks of self-serving expediency. In-district Democratic voters overwhelmingly opposed Jordan Cove. 

Doyle Canning certainly wasn’t going to sit idly by and let a dissembling, fossil fuel industry friendly, New Democrat glide into congress in one of the most environmentally conscious, progressive bastions in the country.  Shortly after Val announced her candidacy, Doyle formed an exploratory committee and then entered the race officially a few weeks later. While there is very little polling data available, judging from press coverage, endorsements, and financial reports, Doyle has established herself as Val’s main competition in a crowded field.

Overall though, this race reflects the sad state of affairs in American politics, as once again an establishment politician is parlaying structural advantages (more money, endorsements by prominent politicians, coordination with the Party machine, etc) to present herself as the inevitable choice even as her policy positions are out of sync with, and to the right of, Democratic voters in the district.  What’s especially tragic in this case is that an establishment victory would deprive the people of the 4th District, the rest of Oregon, the country, and the world of something we all desperately need in 2022, an unwavering climate and environmental champion in the US Congress.

As a society, as a country, as a civilization, we need to ask ourselves serious questions about our capacity, and our will, to respond to the climate emergency.  In America, we especially need to ask this of Democratic Party moderates and their liberal intellectual supporters, who claim for themselves the mantle of environmentalists – but don’t offer much beyond being less crass than Republicans in their continued support for fossil fuel production.

Over the past few decades, climate scientists have made it increasingly clear what must be done to avoid the wholesale destruction of our habitat.  We must dramatically lower carbon emissions into the atmosphere, the primary cause of anthropogenic climate change, most of which are produced by the burning of fossil fuels.  

This reduction in carbon emissions could be achieved by downscaling our industrialized high-tech society, since its continued operation requires tremendous energy – but this is not politically viable since people want to continue living 21st century lives. 

The other option, the one we are supposedly pursuing, is to develop, and then mass produce, environmentally safe renewable energy systems and transportation vehicles so that we can dramatically reduce, and then fully eliminate, the use of fossil fuels. Yet, to date, we have utterly failed to achieve this at anything close to scale. Globally, and nationally, fossil fuel production continues to increase; temperatures continue to rise, weather-related catastrophes proliferate, and the prognosis grows ever-more dire. 

Clearly, we need a different approach.  The market is not going to save us; and whatever government incentives and interventions have been tried so far have proven inadequate. Yet nothing new seems to be on offer, other than from progressives – and Democratic moderates seem hell-bent on doing whatever necessary to marginalize progressives.

So, when I learned about Doyle’s candidacy, I was fascinated. So much so that I took my first road trip since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic to Oregon. I had heard that Oregon’s 4th was the only district in the country where Democratic voters said the climate emergency was their top concern. While I haven’t located any polling to confirm that claim, my previous visits to Eugene, Corvallis, and the Oregon Country Fair, all suggested it was plausible. 

Of course, there’s a big difference between local environmental stewardship, and what’s required to address a global climate emergency. 

The US Government remains the most powerful and influential institution in the world, and the easiest shortcut to making significant progress against the climate emergency would be a dramatic shift in US policy along the lines of what Doyle Canning advocates.  So, the race to fill the open seat in Oregon 4 struck me as a once in a generation opportunity.

You might think I’m naïve in placing such importance on Doyle’s candidacy. How could one person in the 435 person US House of Representatives make much of a difference?  Easily, because Doyle and the handful of allies she would have in Congress have the science on their side. 

No one currently in Congress – not AOC, not Ed Markey, not Bernie – would have the mandate Doyle would have, as a lifelong climate activist from a district that wants to be represented by an unwavering climate champion, to point out the hard scientific truth that the United States is failing to address the climate emergency – and then lay out a compelling vision for what needs to be done. 

Doyle studied political communication as a graduate student (before pursuing a law degree) and consults activist organizations and frontline communities on messaging. Not surprisingly, she is excellent at communicating on TV and radio, able to present challenging ideas in a favorable and promising light. It’s easy to imagine Rep. Canning as a regular on NPR, CNN, or even MSNBC without compromising any of her beliefs.

With all this in mind I traveled to Oregon in mid-April to find out what I could about Doyle’s prospect for victory. 

A deep appreciation for, and near-constant engagement with, the surrounding natural beauty is a defining feature of the culture of Oregon. A parallel sentiment, however, is almost equally prevalent, a resigned sense of disgust and dread that it’s all being destroyed and the powers that be won’t lift a finger. But the mood is not one of complete fatalism. Just as Bernie was embraced here as an agent of real change, you can sense a widespread latent desire to take action, to turn the tables on our corrupt elite, and do whatever’s necessary to save the planet.  This sentiment is especially true in Eugene and Corvallis, home to Oregon’s two massive State Universities, both in District 4.  

Clearly, a significant portion of the population would love to be represented by a no-holds-barred climate advocate like Doyle. Indeed, I’m convinced that if Doyle can breakthrough and win the seat this year, she will instantly be seen as untouchable in upcoming elections. The majority of the district will be proud to be represented by Doyle Canning. She is that much of a match for the politics and culture of the region.

In this regard, Doyle reminds me of Carolyn Lucas, the sole Green Party Member in the UK Parliament, who is consistently re-elected in a landslide from Brighton on the Southcoast of England.  Lucas is now recognized as one of England’s and the world’s leading climate advocates.  And it’s important to note that Lucas’ election has never had a negative impact on Brighton’s economy. 

This, of course, is an argument leveled against environmental advocates – that their support for regulation will drive away businesses. In fact, the opposite is more likely the case.  Research into, and the production of, green energy products is clearly one of the most significant growth markets in the world.  For a district with not one, but two major research universities, one predictable outcome of electing Doyle Canning to Congress would be the establishment of Oregon’s 4th – as an even-greater magnet for high-tech investment – there’s no such upside to electing Val Hoyle.

The key to unlocking all this promise is electing Doyle Canning, and the primary is happening right now.  Oregon elections are done entirely through mail-in ballots (the final day to get your ballot in is May 17). This congressional seat has not been open since 1986, and whoever the incumbent is will be difficult to dislodge in future elections.  There’s a lot at stake in Oregon’s 4th this week.

Ever since I learned about Doyle’s candidacy, I keep thinking about how recent global conferences on the climate emergency have degenerated into tragicomic pantomime rituals: the earth’s heat and fury addressed by hollow compromises signifying nothing (apologies to Shakespeare). 

In particular, I’ve been wondering if Greta Thunberg’s generational scold of world leaders, while still powerful and accurate, has been absorbed, if not yet fully co-opted, by the spectacle – operating as Act Three Scene One of a morality tale.  Does Greta do enough to call out the people and forces behind the politicians, government officials and NGO representatives that she is directly addressing? These should include the corporations and oligarchs who are the patrons of elite politicians, but also must extend to average people who continue to vote them into power. After all, most influential countries still have elections, and the results of these are consequential.  

Of course, across the entire world, opportunities to elect true climate champions are few and far between – such is the power of the wealthy and of vested interests in our increasingly fragile representative democracies.  But the people of Oregon’s fourth have an opportunity to overcome a stagnant political establishment and do just that, by electing Doyle Canning to Congress – and, in doing so, inspire the entire world to elect climate champions in your next, and every, election.