Tom Perez's worst nightmare
Climate activist R.L. Miller was just elected to the DNC. She's looking for a fight.
R.L. Miller is one of the newest members of the Democratic Party’s formal governing body, the Democratic National Committee.
Her first priority: To tell DNC Chairman Tom Perez to “fuck off.”
Miller, who founded the grassroots advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote, never got over Perez’s refusal to hold a climate-focused debate for the Democratic presidential candidates last year. So she used her anger to run for a state-elected seat on the DNC.
Last Friday, she won, according to a livestreamed vote count by the California Democratic Party.
Miller now hopes to use her position to push for strong climate language on the Democratic Party’s official policy platform; to get the DNC to stop taking fossil fuel money; and to hopefully achieve a climate debate in the next presidential election.
She has a tough road ahead. Miller is only one of 447 DNC members. But she believes there’s growing support within the Democratic Party for a stronger climate focus. Plus, she added, “I fight oil companies for my day job, so I'm used to taking on tough fights.”
HEATED spoke with Miller about her new position on Tuesday. Our conversation is below, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Emily Atkin: Since this is a Q&A, I was thinking maybe you could tell people who you are, and what your climate career trajectory has looked like.
R.L. Miller: I got galvanized on politics because of Sarah Palin. We were both community volunteer moms—specifically, hockey moms. She came along and said being a hockey mom makes her qualified to be Vice President of the United States. And I'm going, “I, too, am a hockey mom—and I, too, am absolutely not qualified to do be Vice President of the United States.”
At the same time, I discovered the liberal blogosphere and started reading up on climate change. The more I found, the more alarmed I got. In 2010, I did a project for DailyKos where I tracked all of the climate deniers running for Congress. Virtually everybody in the Republican Party was denying climate science to one extent or another.
I was alarmed—alarmed enough to not only continue to blog on DailyKos, but also to get involved in local politics. So I began speaking out locally and people liked what I said, and somebody said you should run for what's called an “ADEM” at the California state party level. I ran for that and I won.
I became the secretary of the Environmental Caucus of the State Party, and in 2013 I challenged the sitting chair, and I won. So I became the California Democratic Party's environmental chair.
Then, in 2013, I founded Climate Hawks Vote. At that point, it was the only organization devoted to building political power for the climate movement. We would endorse only candidates who would be really fierce on climate, and do what we can to try to get them elected.
Fast forwarding a bit, in 2019 we started advocating for a climate debate. I wanted to see the Democratic presidential candidates elevate climate—not just give it one to two minutes halfway through a two hour debate.
As you know, there was no climate debate. I was so angry at the way that Tom Perez handled that, that I decided to run for DNC myself.
EA: Something I’ve heard about you from other people is that you're kind of known as being a pain in the ass. I mean that in a good way. Former California Governor Jerry Brown once apparently called you a “political terrorist.” How would you describe your style of activism?
RLM: I’m loud. I’m loud online. I don't give up, and I don't back down.
I believe in the importance of coalitions. So when somebody else wants to talk about another issue, like gun violence, I will stand with them. My son happens to have been a near-miss at two of the high profile gun shootings in Southern California. So I know that part of being in a Democratic coalition is knowing when to make allies.
I’ll be a pain in the butt on my issue, but at the same time, I recognize that there is value in our lives outside of the climate movement.
EA: So I assume your goal at the DNC is to make a lot of noise about climate change in particular?
RLM: I really hope to be able to tell Tom Perez, to his face, to fuck off. I shouldn’t say that, should I? Oh, sure, I'll say that.
EA: Expand on that. Why are you so pissed off at Tom Perez?
RLM: There's so much to say about how badly he handled the climate debate. But there's one thing that infuriates me, that I was able to use to persuade people who didn't care about climate to vote for me.
Tom Perez is running the DNC from the top down. He doesn't have the DNC body vote on major things. All of those debate rules—not just the climate debate rules, but also all of the debate rules that ultimately forced out people like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and Kristin Gillibrand—those were all made up in his head. They were never voted on by the DNC body as a whole.
DNC members were furious about it. Not all of them; plenty of them trusted him and trusted his discretion. But a lot of DNC people were angry at the way he seemed to be forcing people off the debate stage—mostly people of color, while letting in a bunch of white male billionaires. And that is one of the things I hope to change at the DNC.
EA: I remember speaking to you in late 2017 about the wildfires that were raging across California. How did living in a state so prone to climate change factor into your decision to run for the DNC?
RLM: Two days after the big blue wave election in 2018, this thing called the Woolsey Fire flared up. I live in Southern California, and I was lucky in that I lived on Twitter and heard about it early. And so I told my mother, who is 94 years old and needs a walker to get around, to evacuate. And we fled from a wildfire that ultimately came within 500 feet of my home.
That fire made it really personal for me. It left me in shell shock. I'm sorry for getting choked up here, but I had PTSD during most of the month of November, while everybody else was bathing in champagne from the big blue wave. I was just numb, trying to be happy on the outside, and it wasn’t working on the inside.
EA: I’m so sorry. But it's an important perspective, I think, to bring to the DNC. Not everybody has that kind of deep personal experience with climate change, especially people working in politics.
RLM: I want to tell you about an exercise I started doing at the California Democratic Party, when we have large gatherings of people from all throughout the state.
First, I ask people to stand up if they are from Paradise, California. And nobody, or maybe one person stands up. Then I asked people to stand up if they've been directly affected by any of these recent wildfires. And a good chunk of the room stands up.
Then I ask people to stand up if they know somebody who has been affected by the wildfires. I've done this several times, in rooms of hundreds of people. Everybody, everybody, knows somebody.
This is not something happening in the future. This is already happening.
EA: Practically speaking, how do you plan to use your new position on the DNC to advocate for things to be different? Will your focus be on having a climate debate in the next election?
RLM: There is a lot of stuff I want to get done on the DNC, and it's going to be really slow-going because it's an institution that doesn’t like change. But I fight oil companies for my day job, so I'm used to taking on tough fights.
I have tried to pass a resolution to get the DNC to stop taking fossil fuel money. I was working on the outside with [DNC member] Christine Pelosi working on the inside. We got it done. Then Tom Perez reversed us two months later. If I bring it up again, I would be on the inside. Perhaps I would be more able to make a difference.
I want to work on basic transparency. California elects 20 DNC members, and we know who our DNC members are. If people don't like what I do, they're going to vote me out of office. But there are many states where people don't know who their DNC members even are.
EA: So the fact that I'm talking to you about your election to the DNC is not something I could do for every member of the DNC.
RLM: Right. I mean, to emphasize how secretive this place is, we have to do a tremendous research just to find our who is actually on the DNC. The DNC does not give out email addresses of DNC members to other DNC members. It’s hard to communicate within the organization.
EA: Clearly, you’re joining an organization that you already have an adversarial relationship with. I mean, your first priority is to tell the head of the organization you’re joining to fuck off. So how is that going to work?
RLM: I forget the exact vote on the climate debate, but roughly 38 percent of DNC members voted for the climate debate. So I'm walking into this assuming that 38 percent of people are on my side, and all I need to do is persuade the other 62 percent—or at least get about 12 percent more.
EA: Why is it important for the DNC to stop taking fossil fuel money?
RLM: Fossil fuel money is toxic. It is drowning our democracy in a dark, oily wave.
The No Fossil Fuel Money pledge was signed by every single presidential candidate. Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren—they all signed it. For the DNC to go along with the show would send a strong signal to rank-and-file Democrats that fossil fuel money is toxic in Democratic politics.
On the other hand, for the DNC to continue to taking fossil fuel money while it supports a pro-climate platform makes them vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. They're trying to ban fossil fuels while they're still continuing to take fossil fuel money. What's up with that? That's wrong. So I want to fix it.
EA: There are a lot of people who share your values, and your criticisms of the DNC, who have decided the Democratic Party is hopeless. So why have you gone this route? Why have you decided to become an elected apparatus of the Democratic Party, instead of abandoning it altogether?
RLM: The climate movement is a big place. To quote the movement from a few years back, “To change everything, it takes everyone.”
One thing I have learned over the years is a respect for all of the different voices in the climate moment. When you have pro-science people marching next to anti-vax people, you realize that the climate movement is in fact very broad.
We have people who like to stand outside with a bullhorn and yell at the people on the inside. And then you have people who actually want to be on the inside. And I realized early on that I was not the stand outside with a bullhorn person. I have a better tolerance for Democratic Party politics than some people do. And so I was able to exploit that.
One thing I really want your readers to take away is that I have not done anything extraordinary. I started off as a mom. I am still a mom. In local politics, you can get away with all sorts of amazing stuff if you just smile at people, and you show up with a homemade pie, and you treat people like decent human beings.
And yes, you do need to compromise from time to time. And I think that the climate movement makes it hard to compromise, because the stakes are so overwhelming. But we are fighting for the survival of all of humanity. And that includes everyone.
EA: Speaking of compromise and broadening coalitions, three words to describe your opinion of Joe Biden?
RLM: Not my first choice.
EA: That’s four words, but I’ll take it.
What I’m reading about
—BRIAN KAHN’S TRIP TO THE MAUNA LOA OBSERVATORY. Please do yourself a favor and read Brian’s wonderfully-written essay in Earther about how it felt to hold actual records of humanity’s self-destruction in his hands. I promise it’s not as dark or depressing as it sounds. Quite the opposite.
—DEMOCRATS NEGLECTING COVID-STRICKEN CLEAN ENERGY INDUSTRY. The suffering oil industry is already benefiting from coronavirus relief funds, but the equally-suffering clean energy industry is getting jack shit, according to this Politico Pro article. It’s subscribers only, so I’ll excerpt it a bit here:
Clean energy companies and advocates are blasting Democrats in the House for neglecting to give the industry any help in its pandemic relief bills, even as the sector reports hundreds of thousands of job losses and the chamber offers aid to sectors like cannabis and biofuels. …
“It’s frustrating,” said Dylan Reed, legislative director at the trade group Advanced Energy Economy. “Governing is about priorities, and we’ve had really really productive conversations with Congress about the opportunity for clean energy in the last year and a half … and yet we lose nearly 1 in 5 clean energy jobs in six weeks and the response is, 'Let’s wait until the end of summer.'”
OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!
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Another stunning example of good redhead energy
Thank you RL Miller for giving us a ray of hope. I gave up on the DNC about mid-year last year. Sent ranting e-mails as I got off lists that I'm sure Tom Perez never saw. I could never work the inside. THANK YOU for making this super important effort!