John Tuma is a Republican environmentalist. He's also a dyslexic lawyer.
If both of those statements seem paradoxical, well, that's really the point.
Tuma, who was the keynote speaker at this year's "Greening the Statehouse" event presented by the Hoosier Environmental Council, understands that there's a perception linking the GOP to an attitude that all government regulation of business — environmental or otherwise — is inherently wrong; but he insists that a true conservative has an interest in the root of the term: conserve.
Tuma is a former Minnesota state legislator who's now lobbying for a group called "Conservation Minnesota." He's not a fan of big government — as you'd expect — but he's equally suspect of big business. When the farm crisis of the 1980s began threatening family operations that had been in business for generations, Tuma — then an attorney who reviewed contracts — saw large ag corporations offer to save family farms with mortgage buyouts for as little as five cents on the dollar. While folks were able to save face and keep their land, the economics of their businesses were forever changed. In general, the companies would sell back the farm to the original owner if the owner would agree to buy inputs, such as seed and feed, from their companies and sell the end products back to the companies — all at prices set by the companies.
The agreements were awful, and Tuma knew it. "One of my first jobs was reading these contracts ... and they offered lifelines that were laced with concrete," says Tuma. "It was (the corporations') way to try to avoid our corporate farm laws." In Minnesota, corporations aren't allowed to own farms unless 50 percent of the ownership is actually working the farm and 80 percent of the owners are Minnesotans. Tuma, a self-described "prairie populist," saw this abuse of existing legislation as an attack on a way of life enjoyed by people he knew — and people he was related to.
Beyond the contracts, Tuma saw his neighbors growing wary of the big firms' business practices: They didn't buy from the local suppliers. Everything was imported — and small local economies became even more distressed.
Whether it was the family farm or any one of Minnesota's famous 10,000 lakes, Tuma made it his mission to help preserve local resources.
SJR-7: The "Right to Harm"
It was Tuma's experience as someone who held beliefs as an environmental progressive and a social conservative that made him the perfect speaker for "Greening the Statehouse." The HEC has set its 2014 sights on alerting Hoosiers to the potential problems that could come from a proposed amendment to Article 1 of the Indiana State Constitution, which is akin to the state's Bill of Rights. Senate Joint Resolution 7, passed in the 2011 session, begins:
"The people have a right to hunt, fish, harvest game, or engage in the agricultural or commercial production of meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products ..."
Another session of the General Assembly must pass the measure before it can progress to the ballot for voter consideration.
HEC staff attorney Kim Ferraro on Saturday called the measure "one of the most troubling pieces of public policy I've seen in my career."
The amendment has been referred to as "The Right to Hunt, Fish and Farm," but, in the estimation of Tuma and the HEC, it has language that allows big agricultural firms an unfair leg up when it comes to adjudicating property rights or environmental safeguards. Simply put, if you want to put an industrial hog farm next to a kindergarten, you'll probably be allowed to proceed if commercial production of ham is constitutionally protected.
"We don't want a situation where you as my neighbor have any more elevated rights than I do," says Tuma. "We want a forum where we can solve disputes fairly."
A constitutional amendment elevates the rights of the farmers over their neighbors, according to Tuma.
"What you do when you put that in the constitution is un-level the playing field," he says.
Tuma has Hoosier allies who also call themselves conservative: Representative Jud McMillin, R-Brookville, spoke at a panel on the dangers of SJR-7 during the daylong conference.
Tuma and those at the HEC also point out that the name of the amendment seems disingenuous; it's often referred to by the shorthand "Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment." Couching the legislation as primarily protecting the rights of recreational outdoor sports enthusiasts appeals to voters in a red state — and deflects attention from the potential of having a constitutionally protected open manure pit installed next to your dream home in the country.
The ruler and the scowl
So why bring an environmental lobbyist from Minnesota — a decidedly blue state that sometimes waxes purple — to help form strategies to speak to an Indiana legislature with a GOP super-majority?
Because Tuma knows how to talk to progressives and conservatives.
Tuma's presentation included three graphics. One was a picture of a heroic knight in shining armor, the environmentalist's vision of him or herself. The second, an image representing how eco-friendly types look to those merely sympathetic to the cause: Robin Hood. The visage imparted a "love-what-you're-doing-but-don't-involve-me" vibe.
The third image?
A judgmental, scowling teacher waving a ruler.
If you're being advised by a John Tuma, this is what you've got to fix: The perception of the environmentalist as the scolding naysayer, the know-it-all who's about to lecture you on the irresponsibility of paper AND plastic.
When Tuma was working on a clean water initiative in his home state, he realized he had to ask questions — listen, not talk. Through research in small communities, he discovered that by framing the position in a certain way, he could appeal to what he calls "non-traditional allies." During his remarks at the conference, he pointed out that protecting waterways in a state that calls itself the "Land of 10,000 Lakes" became less daunting if one understood a Minnesotan's creed: Fishing and boating are my birthrights, and I need to preserve those birthrights for my kids.
Tuma offered another visual aid to help strategize: salsa. The lobbyist shared a tale of visiting a Mexican restaurant in Colorado and cautioning his server about his fear of hot pepper overload — he wanted the salsa choices on the side.
"Oh — you want it Christmas style!" exclaimed the waitress.
In Tuma's mind, the red (Republican) and the green (eco-progressives), to really bastardize his metaphor, taste lousy in the same burrito. But served up Christmas style, these two can complement one another as long as environmentalists can show there's value in sustainable practices. Finding the trigger is the key — for Minnesotans, an appeal to suspicion of big ag or a plea to keep the lake trout free from tumors was the ticket.
So what's the trigger for Hoosiers?
When Tuma is pressed for a marketing strategy for Indiana — create a mission statement that would help spur a second look at "The Right to Hunt, Fish and Farm" amendment — he responds:
"It's an economic issue. We want to create jobs here in Indiana. We're proud. We work hard here in Indiana.
"To work hard is to work smart.
"You can still have your big ag — as long as it doesn't hurt your neighbors."