From left, board members for The First American Project: Estela Ortega, Ramona Bennett, Frances Charles, Theresa Sheldon and Fawn Sharp. Photo: The First American Project
Tribal leaders step up to hold corporations accountable for climate change

'Our state's first real climate change policy'

First American Project supports ballot measure in Washington
By Kevin Abourezk

Tribal leaders in Washington state are stepping up to fill a political void they say has been left by complacent politicians who have failed to hold corporations accountable for climate change.

Joining forces with other leaders of color, the tribes have formed a political action committee called the First American Project. Their goal is to pass I-1631, a ballot initiative that would force corporations to pay fees for the pollution they produce.

“If you can only get involved in one campaign this year, or maybe this lifetime, I-1631 is the one, and that’s why Washington’s tribal nations are investing unprecedented resources in passing our state’s first real climate change policy,” President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Nation said on Monday.

The First American Project already has helped collect nearly 20,000 more signatures than the 260,000 needed to put I-1631 on the ballot in November. However, the group still hopes to get at least another 70,000 signatures by the end of this week to ensure their petition survives the scrutiny of the Washington Secretary of State’s office, which must certify the initiative.

“It’s an opportunity to make the large-scale carbon polluters who are damaging our state and damaging our communities and our children pay the cost for the wrong-doings they have committed and use that money to restore natural ecosystems, to drive down greenhouse gas emissions and make investments that protect communities that are at-risk,” said Matthew Randazzo, the executive director for the First American Project, during a press briefing.

In addition to President Sharp, leaders from several tribes are part of the effort, including: Ramona Bennett, former chairwoman of the Puyallup Tribe; Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe; Thomas Wooten, chairman of the Samish Nation; Willie Frank III, councilman for the Nisqually Tribe; John Daniels Jr., councilman for the Muckleshoot Tribe; and Theresa Sheldon, former councilwoman for the Tulalip Tribes.

The First American Project also includes Estela Ortega, the executive director of El Centro de la Raza. Tribal leaders say the group is built on the legacy and values of the Pacific Northwest civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which brought communities of color together to advocate collectively for political equality and progressive policies.

“It has to be done as a collective,” said Sheldon of the Tulalip Tribes. “Collectively, an entire state can show the country how we can be better and how we can make that difference for Mother Earth and all our children yet to come.”

If it passes, I-1631 would levy a $15 per ton fee for carbon emissions created by large carbon emitters such as fossil fuels and power providers beginning in 2020. That amount would rise by $2 per ton each year and would reach roughly $55 per ton by 2035, adjusting for inflation. The initiative seeks to reduce emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels.

In 2016, Washington voters rejected a similar proposal, I-732, that would have implemented a $62 per ton fee by 2035.

Like I-732, I-1631 likely would lead to higher prices at the gas pump, as high as 15 cents per gallon. However, supporters say corporate polluters could pay the costs of the initiative purely from their profits if they wanted to do so.

“It is assessing a fee on the polluters themselves, and they can eat that within their profits without impact Washington citizens,” Randazzo said. “I don’t believe that’s what they’ll try to do.”

Once the initiative’s supporters succeed in getting it on the ballot, the First America Project will begin hosting a series of public outreach events and activities, including a climate change event for communities of color, advertisements, phone calls, social media campaigns and a tour by Native leaders to schools and universities.

“We’re expecting to mobilize a grassroots army both in Indian Country and communities of color and progressive youth communities,” Randazzo said.

He said he considers himself a climate refugee after he left Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina in August 2015. His family lost their home and possessions in the extremely destructive storm.

Randazzo blames much of the failure of the levees and floodwalls in New Orleans on politicians who failed to ensure proper construction practices were implemented.

“I do not want to see what happened to my community happen to communities in this state because of political considerations or influence about corporate politics in Olympia,” he said, referring to the Washington state capital.

Note: A prior version of this story incorrectly said Matthew Randazzo moved his family out of Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. While Randazzo indeed left New Orleans, his blood family remains there.