It’s an election year: DFL campaigns visit Macalester

By Jonathan McJunkin

More than 170 community members and students packed the Smail Gallery in Olin Rice this Monday to discuss environmental issues and sip coffee with Democratic Representative Betty McCollum, who represents Macalester and much of Saint Paul in Congress. Part of Environment Minnesota’s “Coffee with Congress” series, the event was co-hosted by MPIRG. According to Nick Matzke ‘13, one of MPIRG’s Environmental Justice task force leaders, Rep. McCollum and Environment Minnesota approached them about using Macalester as a space about two weeks before the event. MPIRG was excited to host, but it was a scramble to get a space booked. “Yes that sounds awesome,” Matzke said of their response, “but oh God that’s so soon!” Rep. McCollum, a former schoolteacher, began the event by affirming her commitment to conservation and alternative energy. She decried efforts by Republican leaders in the House of Representatives to roll back environmental regulations. “It’s a very special gift that we have, living on this big blue planet here,” McCollum said. “We have every tool in the toolbox [to pursue alternative energy sources], but we’re not using them. Governments have a role to do that.” McCollum also emphasized her view that alternative energy “makes good business sense.” She cited XCEL energy in Minnesota’s interest in pursuing alternative power sources as an example. Most of the forum was a question and answer session. Both members of the community and students asked questions on subjects ranging from the Department of Defense to a bridge in Stillwater. Andrew Ojeda ’13 asked about rising gas prices, referencing Iran’s current actions toward possibly closing the strait of Hormuz and cutting off a large portion of the world’s oil supply. Ojeda asked if McCollum would be open to allowing more offshore drilling as a possible means of stemming the rise in gas prices. On the situation in Iran, Rep. McCollum expressed confidence in the international community’s current sanctions. She also said that high gas prices would not be affected by offshore drilling. “Even if we were to open up everything to drilling right now, it wouldn’t affect the price at the pump right now,” Rep. McCollum said. “They’re looking for a quick and easy solution [with offshore drilling], and there really is no quick and easy solution.” In an email, Ojeda said he was disappointed by Rep. McCollum’s response. “She didn’t address why people were paying so much money,” he said, “and didn’t address the fact that speculation on future oil reserves would lower prices on gas.” Other Macalester students also participated in the discussion. “I’m an optimist when it comes to public policy changes that come from the will of the people,” Bess Boever ’13 said. “What can you do locally to provoke change in Minnesota even if you aren’t from there?” Rep. McCollum encouraged Boever’s optimism, and said that constituent voices can be powerful. “Don’t underestimate the power of your voice,” she said. “Even if something doesn’t happen immediately, they have heard you. Don’t give up” Boever said in an email that she had hoped for a more specific response, such as a suggestion of a local initiative she could take action on. “What I was looking for was something more action-based for people to focus on,” she said, “because waiting for a congressional response can be slow and frustrating.” Boever added that is was still a good experience to speak with “an awesome Congresswoman.” Community members asked many of the questions at the event. One notable attendee was Richard Lee Dechert of St. Paul. Dechert, 79, volunteered for Rep. McCollum’s first campaign for the Minnesota State House of Representatives 20 years ago. He asked about plans for adapting to the effects of climate change. “This is a challenge that is multifaceted, interdisciplinary and affects all of us in so many ways that we don’t even think about,” Rep. McCollum said. She talked primarily of technology solutions, such as those being developed by the defense department. Dechert said the issue is close to his heart. He wrote a paper titled “Global Warming, Climate Chaos and Human Conflict” over the course of a year and gave it to McCollum last summer. He dedicated the report to his granddaughter and considers it one of his biggest achievements. “Of course we couldn’t cover all the bases but I think the event was excellent,” Dechert said. “Good discussion, really well informed people and certainly a well-informed congressperson.” Matzke said Coffee with Congress was “really incredible,” citing both the prominence of Rep. McCollum and the impressive turnout. “When you’re working on environmental issues, it’s not hard to feel like short-term issues sometimes take precedent,” he said. “This event disproved that.” Additional Reporting by Danny Surman Editor’s Note: The writer of this story is a member of MPIRG, but was not involved with the planning or organization of this event.