And Here’s to You, Mrs. Mary Bono Mack

by Bill Chameides | May 26th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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This is Rep. Mary Bono Mack asking questions at a recent hearing on climate change legislation. Just a few years ago I had the opportunity to answer some of her questions on the issue, too.

Our nation turns its grateful eyes to you.

Last Thursday was an historic day in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Committee on Energy and Commerce passed the Waxman-Markey climate bill by a vote of 33-25. All but one Republican voted no, along with four Democrats. That lone Republican? None other than Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA).

Bono Mack’s political rise was anything but orthodox. She’d been married to Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher fame. (Sonny Bono’s own political career was unorthodox too — the former musician and TV star made his first political run in 1988 and became the mayor of Palm Springs at the age of 53 before moving on to the U.S. House in 1994.) When Sonny Bono died tragically in a skiing accident in early 1998, his wife Mary won hands down the special election to replace her husband. She’s been a Congresswoman ever since.

What led Rep. Bono Mack to desert her party and vote for the climate bill? Maybe her voting record provides some answers.

A Moderate Republican Compared to Her Golden State Peers

A member of the Republican Main Street Partnership, Bono Mack is considered a moderate compared to her Congressional Republican peers in California. She tends to shun social conservatism but is a fiscal conservative who favors small government and low taxes. According to Congressional Quarterly (sub. req’d), she has tended to toe the party line but less so than other Californians on her side of the aisle: during George W. Bush’s two terms in office, Bono Mack sided with fellow Republicans in “88 percent of the votes in which Democrats diverged from Republicans.” (More on Bono Mack’s voting record.)

In the specific case of climate and energy, the Congresswoman’s record is pretty consistent with measures called for in the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Most notable is her support of advancing the use of alternative energy (including nuclear) and efficiency. (For example, she voted in 2007 for Renewable Energy Standards and the Energy Act of 2007. See her profile at for a comprehensive look at her voting record on energy issues.)

But Bono Mack’s fiscal voting record, with its staunch stand against federal government programs and taxes, might have suggested a vote against the bill. For example, she has received high marks from the very conservative Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that, among other things, is urging voters to “Tell Congress to Vote No” on the Waxman-Markey bill. And in a letter [pdf] she sent with five other moderate Republicans to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Republican leader John Boehner (R-OH) prior to the May 21 committee vote, Bono Mack acknowledged the country’s need to address climate change while also outlining economic concerns.

These two contradictory pulls on the Congresswoman are probably best summed up by her stated position on the Waxman-Markey bill as quoted in the New York Times: “I’m a potential ‘yes’ and a potential ‘no.'”

Let’s see if her district provides any clues to her vote.

A District of Agriculture and Tourism

Rep. Bono Mack represents California’s 45th Congressional District, located southeast of Los Angeles and largely comprised of agricultural communities, with citrus, dates, alfalfa, and grapes as the main crops. (See a slide show of the district.) It also includes Palm Springs, a desert community famous for its golf courses and high-end resorts. Not surprisingly, tourism is also a significant part of the area’s economy.

Agriculture and tourism have the potential to be especially hard hit by a warming and more erratic climate and this may explain Congresswoman Mack’s vote. But she’s not the only Republican with an agricultural and tourism-dependent district.

So why her vote for the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act? I suspect it was based on a deeper appreciation for the dangers of global warming. You see, while she probably does not remember, I had a chance to speak with the Congresswoman about climate change a few years back.

Meeting Congresswoman Bono Mack

In the spring of 2006, in a previous professional incarnation, I was asked to visit with then Congresswoman Bono — she had not yet married her present husband Connie Mack (R-FL). I was rather excited and a little nervous about the prospect.

I grew up in the ‘60s when Sonny and Cher often topped the pop charts, and I spent many an hour in those days singing “I’ve Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On.” In the ‘90s Sonny’s politics went a bit to the right of mine, but I still liked the guy and always felt he got a bum rap from the media when he and Cher split. Now I was to meet his widow. What, I wondered, would she be like.

At the appointed time, my colleagues and I were ushered into Ms. Bono’s office where she stood to greet us, and then we all sat around a coffee table for about a 30-minute discussion. The Congresswoman was very professional, very polite, very poised, and very intelligent.

I went through my main talking points in about 10 minutes. Then she had questions. A lot of them. And they indicated she already knew a great deal about the subject. Clearly climate change was something she had thought about. For a good while she asked about what evidence supports the fact that human activities are responsible for the warming trend. (Good thing, too. Many of the phone calls into her office in the run-up to the climate vote last week were queries on this very subject.)

But then came the question that almost spelled disaster.

Did I Stick My Foot in It?

What were the impacts of global warming, the Congresswoman wanted to know? And when would they occur? These are important questions and ones I was prepared to answer. Over the preceding few years, not only were we beginning to see the effects of global warming; but they were occurring faster and more intensely than we had predicted. I started ticking off the list of impacts — wildfires and water shortages in the West (two issues close to home for her), pine bark beetle infestations in the North, melting glaciers in Glacier National Park and the Rockies, the loss of Arctic sea ice, and …

I could have said “Europe’s heat wave” or
“bleached coral reefs” or so many things other than what I did say, which was … “and the beat goes on.”

It just came out before I could hit the mute button and then it was out there. What followed was a seemingly endless period of silence — probably just a second or two — as we waited for the Congresswoman’s reaction. Finally the eternity ended. She looked me squarely in the eye, smiled and laughed. Then she stood — she had a vote to cast on the floor. She thanked us for our time and we thanked her for hers. Handshakes all around, and then we were out the door.

Fast-forward to May 21, 2009. In a press release issued shortly after her vote in favor of Waxman-Markey, Bono Mack said:

“This climate change legislation is one of the most sweeping, complex bills that Congress has considered in recent years, and while far from perfect, it sets us on an important path toward building a greener, more sustainable economy. …

“We cannot afford to wait to make needed changes to our energy policy that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and expand our nation’s clean energy portfolio.”

Certainly her statements reveal an understanding of the science of climate change. And for that, I hope you understand, I will take some of the credit.

filed under: climate change, faculty, global warming, policy, politics
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1 Comment

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  1. Chris Hagin
    May 28, 2009

    I’m curious how much this act is going to cost to implement in states such as West Virginia and Wyoming that have 80%+ reliance on coal energy production. I’m fairly skeptical a senate version of this bill will survive given the greater pull of the ‘coal-belt’ in that chamber. Lowering GHG emissions by 17% by 2020 will be a far greater challenege for the coal-rich states than for all the northeastern states that barely use any coal.

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