07/31/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thank You Mark Kirk For a Gutsy Vote

Buried deep below the headlines about the passing of The Gloved One was news of the passage Friday by the House of Representatives of what many are calling "The Most Important Environmental Bill in History."

Back in April I suggested on these pages that the most important, and in fact only, truly important Earth Day tip for saving the planet was to request a yes vote from your congressman on the forthcoming climate bill.

My article was persuasive enough (to me at least) that for once I took my own advice. I e-mailed my rep, Mark Kirk. Then I e-mailed him again. Then I called his office. Then I asked my Facebook friends to do so. Then I sent a postcard. And last Tuesday I went to a public meeting at the local reform temple in Deerfield, hosted by Repower America, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center. It was a fun and interesting meeting, although Kirk passed up the opportunity to attend or send a staffer.

In the days leading up to the vote, Mark Kirk was one of the most closely watched and heavily lobbied representatives. As nearly every House Republican was lining up against the bill, Kirk was non-committal. Mark Kirk has built a reputation as an articulate, if not always effective, advocate for environmental causes. He's made protection and cleanup of the Great Lakes a top priority, and bucked party leadership by voting against oil drilling in the Arctic. But while environmentalists are pleased to have a sympathetic voice within the Republican caucus in Congress, they are also disappointed that Kirk's firm grasp of the issues and good intentions have rarely been persuasive to his Republican colleagues. His environmental interests, sincere as they may be, too often took a backseat to his desire to be a loyal soldier in the party during the George W. Bush years.

Kirk's blend of environmentalism and fiscal conservatism plays well in Illinois' 10th congressional district, which covers much of the northern suburbs in Cook and Lake Counties. Kirk has been elected and re-elected to five terms, and won in 2008 with 53% of the vote, in a district where just 38% of the voters that day backed the Republican candidate for President.

But while voters in his district are solidly in support of green jobs and action on climate change, Kirk's gaze is now expanding to the rest of Illinois. Kirk is expected to seek a statewide office in 2010, although he has yet to reveal if he will be running for Governor or for the U.S. Senate. As he studied the political map of Illinois, it surely must have been tempting for Kirk to try to pick up some votes in coal country downstate by grandstanding against the climate bill. On the other hand, a vote for the bill would mean a lot of explaining to do, not just to coal country voters, but to campaign donors, party leaders, and party activists, many of whom were calling the bill economically catastrophic, if not treasonous.

The organizers of the Deerfield meeting reported that Kirk had been firmly non-committal just days before the vote. On Friday morning, all predictions were for a razor close vote, but still no word on which way Kirk was leaning. A brief clip that Kirk posted on YouTube was not encouraging, as it seemed to be inoculating him against criticism for a no vote, by emphasizing that the bill was long and complicated.

I'm pleased to report that the bill passed, by a vote of 219 to 212, with Mark Kirk one of just eight House Republicans to vote in support. (Bill Foster, representing parts of DeKalb, Kane and other counties west of Chicago, was the only Democrat in the Illinois delegation to vote against.) Kirk was the only Republican from the Midwest to vote for the bill, and in fact, the only Republican from a state not on the east or west coast.

After the vote, Kirk posted his reasoning on his blog, and e-mailed the message to those who had contacted him. As usual, Kirk's explanation is thoughtful and detailed. He emphasizes his support for energy independence, and downplays the climate change aspects of the bill.

Pleased and a little surprised by his vote, I joined Kirk"s Facebook fan page to leave a thank you message, and got an eyeful of the crapstorm [click the "Just Fans" tab] that has been unleashed upon him.

Page after page of furious right wing rants and threats. The most polite messages merely inform him that his political career is now over, and that the person will be contributing to and canvassing for Kirk's primary opponent. The others call him a traitor, an idiot, and the scum of the earth. These people really don't like this bill.

Browsing these comments is scary but also instructive. You see what the kind of abuse Kirk brought upon himself with his vote, and you also get a glimpse of some of the arguments that we are certain to be hearing again as the bill works its way through the Senate. (NEWSFLASH: the actual bill language of legislation is often long and boring and hard to understand.) Be forewarned if you try to read these comments: the Lincoln-Douglas debates they ain't.

If the unhinged comments on Kirk's page are not outrageous enough for your taste, take a look at another Facebook page, called RECYCLE the RINO's--- **Republicans In Name Only**

Putting Kirk and the seven other yes-voting Republicans on a Wanted poster, the group pledges to ""** LET THEM FEEL & KNOW OUR WRATH **"" [emphasis in original]. These people are merciless. They won't even cut Mary Bono Mack any slack, even though she was once married to Sonny Bono.

While browsing that freakshow, be sure to check out the profile photo of one fan who goes by the name Ryte Wynger, a sad and crazy looking girl, shown posing with a favorite handgun, looking troubled by her country's recent lurches toward energy independence and sustainability.

Nutty Facebook backlash aside, allow me take this rare opportunity to toss some kudos across the aisle and salute a genuine show of political courage and standing up for "country first." We don't know yet what office Mark Kirk will be running for in 2010, or who he will be running against. But when you see his ads next year touting him as an independent-minded moderate capable of working across party lines, you'll know that he isn't just blowing smoke. Thank you Congressman Kirk for casting an important and gutsy vote.

Now let's get busy e-mailing those Senators.