11/03/2010 02:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tree Hugging Ain't the (Only) Reason Californians Endorsed Climate and Clean Energy (Prop. 23)

On Election Day 2010, Californians overwhelmingly endorsed a clean-energy future and its growing clean-tech economy by rejecting Proposition 23. But this was not a foregone conclusion. Just after Labor Day, the race was tied, and with only ten days to go, the lead was barely in double digits. The ultimate 22-point defeat arose because of a grand coalition that transcended partisanship and never forgot that individual special interests had to take a second seat to preserving public health and defending a powerful economic and jobs engine. There are lessons for moving forward, not just in the Golden State, but nationally.

Prop. 23 was a direct attack by several Tea Party funders and out-of-state oil companies on California's vanguard climate and clean energy policy. It sought to overturn a 2006 cap on carbon pollution, money-saving energy efficiency standards for buildings, a requirement that one-third of the state's electricity come from renewable sources like wind and solar, and cleaner burning fuel standards. Those who wanted to pass Prop. 23 had two cynical goals -- protecting their own economic interests while killing free-market competition.

The "No on 23" campaign shattered the traditional notions about the climate and energy debate. In the midst of a struggling state economy, Californians clearly understand that clean-energy jobs already exist and that the policies underlying the clean-tech economy offer a path to sustained economic growth.

The campaign never saw the usual business vs. environment, Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative tone of recent climate and energy debates in other parts of the country and in Washington, D.C. Partisanship and the usual "jobs versus the planet" wasn't a part of the debate. Both candidates for governor opposed Prop. 23, for example, while the campaign co-chairs included Democratic investor Tom Steyer and Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz.

In a state whose voters said no to legalizing gay marriage in 2008 and who rejected fully legalizing marijuana this year, no one can say that a "liberal" California was naturally going to back climate and energy progress. Yet they did, and in a decisive way.

Prop. 23's defeat came because of tremendous work by a broad coalition. Voters heard from voices they trust, including traditional environmental groups and the clean-tech investors and entrepreneurs building this new industry, but also small businesses, local community leaders, fellow students, and public health advocates like the American Lung Association.

The "No on 23" campaign also smartly adapted to the new media and organizing environment by broadly communicating to voters online, on the ground, and on TV. The campaign's own polling back in the Spring showed that only 48 percent of likely voters frequently go to TV for political information while 35 percent look to friends and family or use the internet. This meant that TV is still the most important tool, but it can no longer be the only tool.

On fundraising, Prop. 23's opponents surprisingly outraised the oil companies $25 million to $10 million. This was after the oil companies and their political friends promised to spend as much as $50 million when they launched their attack early this year. On the ground and online, the "No on 23" campaign had the vision to do something very few ballot propositions ever do. Pooling an additional $2+ million, an aggressive grassroots coalition had 3.2 million personal conversations with undecided and infrequent voters -- environmentalists, voters of color, lower income Californians, and students. And in the media, the "No on 23" press team won the battle from the first day by defining Prop. 23 as a narrow, out-of-state attack on California's popular climate laws and its growing clean-tech economy.

To no one's surprise, the environmental community provided their usual committed and tremendous leadership. What's especially significant is that clean-tech entrepreneurs and investors stood tall in this joint effort, too, coming together as an industry across technology silos to stop a policy that would not just damage the work they are doing, but that threatened real jobs and real economic success. From a financing standpoint, clean tech produced many times more money for a policy fight than it ever has, contributing about $10 million of the $25 million raised.

There is a saying the victory has many fathers and defeat is an orphan. Well, there are many people, including the voters, who built a bulwark against old energy thinking while demonstrating that there is a real and credible way to win more victories in the future.

Let's keep going.

Donnie Fowler
San Francisco
"No on 23" Steering Committee
California Field Table Co-Manager
Clean Economy Network Sr. Advisor