Democratic lawmakers from Illinois, Michigan push rivals for top EPA job in Chicago

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Two candidates for the top EPA job in Chicago say they’ll need to restore morale after four years of Donald Trump’s rollbacks of environmental protection. | AP Photos

Debra Shore and Michigan’s Micah Ragland, who touts his Flint environmental justice record, compete to be the Midwest’s Environmental Protection Agency chief. 

Contenders from suburban Chicago and Flint, Michigan — Debra Shore and Micah Ragland — are competing to lead the Environmental Protection Agency in the Midwest, an office with low morale after President Donald Trump pulled back on pollution oversight.

Both Shore, 68, a commissioner with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District from Evanston, and Ragland, 43, a Flint native now an electric and gas utility executive in Detroit, tout their experience as they mount campaigns for the EPA job based in Chicago.

Ragland is a former EPA official who was part of a team responding to the Flint water crisis under former President Barack Obama.

Shore’s campaign is bolstered by almost all the Illinois Democratic lawmakers in Congress, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill, said.

Ragland has the backing of almost every Democrat in the Michigan delegation, Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said.

The competition between two environmentalists with strong records also has a diversity element. Ragland would be the first appointed Black EPA regional chief in Chicago, and Shore is openly gay.

Shore has advocated for clean water and stormwater management at the MWRD. She’s also promising to focus on issues important to the Great Lakes.

While Trump called climate change a hoax, rolled back environmental protections and broadly gave polluters a break, President-elect Joe Biden is assembling a national team of advisers who are expected to focus on environmental justice, clean energy and climate and stronger pollution control.

At the regional level, the Region 5 EPA chief based in Chicago oversees environmental protection in six Midwest states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Under Trump, agency scientists were overruled on several fronts, including clean air rules and climate change warnings.


Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Provided
Debra Shore and Micah Ragland both want to be the top EPA official for the Midwest based in Chicago.

The priorities for Shore and Ragland are similar. In interviews, Shore and Ragland promised to focus on environmental justice — helping low-income communities of color exposed to a disproportionate amount of pollution.

Shore called environmental justice “the bedrock” of the EPA, and said it was one of several major focuses, along with restoring the important role of science at the agency.

“Whoever serves will have the task of restoration, restoring morale, restoring the commitment to science and expertise,” Shore said.

Ragland, who is endorsed for the Chicago job by the EPA employees’ union in the Midwest — the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704 — also promised to support the agency’s scientists, engineers and other experts.

“They dealt with a number of hardships under the Trump Administration,” Ragland said. “I understand the bureaucracy of the agency. I have a good working relationship with career staff.”

Ragland also vowed to focus on abandoned toxic waste sites, a promise also made under Trump that fell short.

In Flint, Ragland served as a liaison between the environmental agency and community organizations, said Brian Kelly, a spokesman for the union and the EPA specialist who led the Flint water crisis response under Obama.

“He was EPA’s lead person rebuilding bridges with the community, which was critical to getting EPA into homes to collect drinking water samples,” Kelly said.

“His record in Flint is something we all recognize,” said Dingell, referring to the Michigan Democratic congressional delegation.

Ragland said he’s had conversations with seven members of Biden’s transition team, discussing his priorities, experience and the need for diversity in the position. Many of the regional appointments at EPA have gone to white men or women, he said.

Reps. Schakowsky and Mike Quigley, who are leading the support for Shore, say almost all of Illinois Democratic representatives are behind her, as well as Sen. Dick Durbin.

“She really gets the policy and the politics,” Quigley said of Shore. “She’s a huge environmentalist who also understands the balance . . . You can be pro-business and pro-environment. The two are not incompatible.”

Shore said Quigley and Schakowsky recruited her to apply. According to the two representatives, only Reps. Danny Davis and Bobby Rush and Sen. Tammy Duckworth so far have not agreed to sign a letter of support for Shore.

A draft of the letter says Shore is “the right choice to restore morale” at the Midwest regional office. In their own statement, union members said this month Ragland is the “leader we need.”

Davis said he’s supporting another candidate, Eileen Furey, deputy director of the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division in Chicago. While her interest in the job was not publicly known, Furey said she has the most inside knowledge of the Chicago regional office as a lawyer and as a program manager. Furey, 65, is the sister-in-law of former Gov. Pat Quinn.

In addition to the backing from Illinois politicians, Shore said she has talked to some members of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus who also support her potential ascension to the job.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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December 30, 2020 at 06:39PM

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