Unity frays between activists and Biden over Cabinet picks

Source: By Adam Aton, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 14, 2020

Tensions are flaring between President-elect Joe Biden and the young climate activists who hounded him on the campaign trail before helping to elect him.

The Sunrise Movement has grown increasingly critical of the appointees Biden has selected for his Cabinet and policy positions, including officials that Biden had hoped would appease climate activists.

It’s a deterioration of a monthslong truce that enabled Sunrise to influence Biden’s climate plan — which it had previously branded a failure — in return for lending the Democratic nominee grassroots support leading up to the election. The group estimated it contacted 2.5 million swing-state voters.

Now, as Biden’s Cabinet takes shape, progressives are expressing concern they’ve been forgotten.

Some of his choices, like Tom Vilsack for Agriculture secretary, have corporate-friendly records that activists have long signaled were unacceptable. Others, like international climate envoy John Kerry, have strained their goodwill on the left by making overtures to polluting industries.

In an NPR interview last week, Kerry said he was contacting oil companies, airlines and others to hear “their needs.”

“I talked a few days ago to the head of a big oil company. And they understand big changes are coming, and things need to be done to move to American leadership in these new technologies,” Kerry said.

“I’m reaching out to them because I want to hear from them right now. … I’m listening to what their needs are and how they view the world, so I can begin to understand better what the possibilities may be once the president is sworn in on Jan. 20,” he said.

Sunrise had initially welcomed Kerry’s appointment as “an encouraging sign” due to his work with Varshini Prakash, the group’s co-founder, on Biden’s climate unity task force.

The group reacted more harshly after Kerry’s comments last week.

To be sure, activists had always expected to play a confrontational role in pushing the Biden administration to address climate change. They hope their criticism will influence his decisions about the remaining climate posts, including EPA administrator and Interior secretary.

Progressives have watched with alarm as their preferred pick to lead the Interior Department, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland (D), encounters resistance among transition officials who’ve questioned her experience.

Those “sexist arguments,” the group said, were an uncomfortable echo of how Biden treated Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge (D), who had been progressives’ favorite choice to lead the Department of Agriculture.

Biden instead named Fudge as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a post that Fudge had described recently as a place where Black officials had been pigeonholed.

“While we believe Rep. Fudge can excel at any leadership position, we share the confusion of many about this move and are left to believe this choice stems from shallow racial stereotypes about the office,” Sunrise said last week in a statement.

The group has also unloaded on officials who had up to now avoided their criticism.

Brian Deese, Biden’s pick to lead the National Economic Council, had garnered opposition among some local Sunrise hubs for his work at the giant Wall Street firm BlackRock Inc.

But Sunrise’s national leadership had remained neutral on Deese.

That tone changed last week after E&E News published previously unreported comments Deese made over the summer, in which he argued that sustainable investing could include buying fossil fuel stocks (Climatewire, Dec. 10).

“This is a supremely bad take,” Evan Weber, the group’s political director, tweeted about Deese’s comments.

“An entire divestment movement was created around [fossil fuels], led by young activists, and backed up by top economists saying that not only is this sound moral practice but advisable financial practice, given the risks in the carbon economy,” Weber said. “It’s very concerning that Deese ignored that.”