Tim Ryan's shameless use of climate for clout

The congressman was kicked off the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge this week, in an act of climate hypocrisy more blatant than the DNC's subsidy reversal.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) announces the Ohio delegates during the virtual Democratic National Convention on August 18, 2020. Photo by DNCC via Getty Images.

Democrats, for the most part, are pretty good at talking about climate change. They are often less good at walking the talk.

Some Democrats, for example, loudly claim to be climate champions while consistently choosing to further the fossil fuel industry’s crushing grip on the American political system. When called out over this contradiction, the Democrats who do this often refuge to acknowledge it, much less explain or apologize.

The Democratic National Committee’s decision on fossil fuel subsidies is a good example of this. As HuffPost’s Alex Kaufman first reported, the DNC recently erased previously-approved language from its party platform calling for an end to fossil fuel tax breaks. The DNC did this without telling anyone, and have so far refused to explain its decision. Why should taxpayers continue to artificially prop up the industry that causes climate change to the tune of at least $20 billion a year? I don’t know, but the DNC prioritizes climate change, OK?

The DNC incident has sparked widespread outrage. But it isn’t the only recent example of this type of hypocrisy, nor is it the most offensive.

The most offensive example of a Democrat quietly choosing polluters over people comes from Congressman Tim Ryan, who this week was forcibly removed from an important climate pledge he signed because of his refusal to give back $10,000 in campaign contributions from a fossil fuel company at the center of likely the largest corruption and bribery scandal ever committed against the people of his state.

Tim Ryan signs the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge

When Tim Ryan was running for president last year, the Ohio Democrat did what every other major Democratic candidate did: he signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

The document—now signed by more than 2,000 candidates nationwide, including Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden—prohibits signatories from knowingly accepting more than $200 from “PACs, lobbyists, or SEC-named executives of fossil fuel companies” to support their political campaigns.

Ryan made sure everyone knew about his signature. On Twitter, he said he was “proud” to join a pledge that prioritizes “the health of our families, climate, and democracy over fossil fuel industry profits.”

When Ryan dropped out of the presidential race four months later, however, he apparently forgot about the pledge he signed.

While fundraising for his re-election campaign to Congress, Ryan raked in tens of thousands of dollars from FirstEnergy, an explicitly prohibited fossil fuel company which is now at the center of an FBI-alleged criminal corruption and racketeering scandal in Ohio.

When confronted with those donations, Ryan remained silent for days, before eventually issuing a response defending the donations and denying he broke the pledge.

“I did not break that pledge, plain and simple.”

HEATED broke the story of FirstEnergy’s donations to Ryan earlier this month. Before the story was published, I reached out to Ryan’s office for comment, and expected to receive a response explaining the situation.

I was wrong. Two days later, HEATED published another story about Ryan’s FirstEnergy campaign contributions—this one containing quotes from pledge organizers who confirmed that Ryan was in violation of the pledge he had signed and publicly touted. I reached out to Ryan’s office again for comment. Silence again.

It wasn’t until a reporter from local Ohio publication Mahoning Matters picked up the story that Ryan gave a response—not to apologize or return the donations, but to deny that he had signed the pledge he had signed.

Ryan said that he only signed the pledge for his presidential campaign, and not his re-election campaign to the House. He said he only did it to “live by the same rules” as the other presidential candidates. He defended his contributions from FirstEnergy, saying he was putting “workers and working families first.” He said he “did not break that pledge, plain and simple.”

Here’s Ryan’s full statement to Mahoning Matters:

I was asked to sign a pledge along with all the other Democratic presidential candidates to live by the same rules and not take money from the fossil fuel industry for my presidential campaign. I did not break that pledge, plain and simple.

My lifetime score from the nationally recognized League of Conservation Voters is 90 percent approval for my voting record in Congress. I have been and will be a vigorous champion for alternative energy sources from wind and solar and nuclear power, but I am also going to stand up for the jobs that exist right now for the hard working people in my district that are putting food on their tables and roofs over their heads. I have always put workers and working families first.

(Yes, actually, he did break the pledge)

Despite his denial, Ryan did indeed break the Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. The FAQ for the pledge states it clearly: If you sign, you sign for every election you’re running for, unless you explicitly say otherwise.

Here’s the relevant text:

A No Fossil Fuel Money pledge signer is considered to remain a pledge signer in any run for an office different than the one they currently hold, unless they notify the No Fossil Fuel Money coalition otherwise. Politicians are welcome and encouraged to reaffirm their signing of the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge when entering a new race for a different office than the one they currently hold. However, the coalition will assume they remain committed to the pledge unless updated by a signer, or given reason to believe otherwise. 

Ryan did not explicitly say his signature was only for the presidential election when he signed, said Colin Rees, a senior campaigner with Oil Change U.S. who runs the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. So, whether Ryan intended to or not, he did break the pledge.

Ryan is also likely the only pledge signer to ever take this position.

“I don't believe any other signer has ever chosen to limit their pledge signing to a specific election and choose to resume taking fossil fuel money for future campaigns,” Rees said. (Reminder: there are more than 2,000 signers.)

Ryan retreats back into silence

Rees said pledge organizers reached out to Ryan’s office to have a dialogue, and give him the opportunity to remain a signatory to the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

In order to do that, however, Ryan would have to return two FirstEnergy donations that were in explicit violation of the pledge: two $5,000 contributions from the company’s PAC in September 2019 and December 2019.

But Ryan never responded to pledge organizers, Rees said. So on Tuesday, he was officially removed from the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. He has not said anything publicly about it since.

Ryan will probably never say anything again about the promise he made to reject fossil fuel donations. He’ll probably never explain why he would only sign it for one campaign, but not the other. And he’ll almost certainly never explain why it was more important for him to keep $10,000 from a fossil fuel company accused of corruption than to remain a signatory to a pledge against fossil fuel corruption.

Ryan will, however, probably speak about climate change again. He’ll probably say, again, that he’s committed to solving the crisis. He’ll probably use that claim to try to win more elections, credibility, and power. Perhaps one day, he’ll again run for president.

Can’t wait.

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