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Photo of Alys Campaigne

Queen of the Hill
In the city of lawmakers, saving the planet takes patience, persistence, and a passion for politics.

Last December, a special section on interest groups in the National Journal singled out NRDC for high praise. The Washington, D.C.-based political weekly reported that "[Capitol] Hill staffers say that NRDC has several of the best-informed lobbyists in the environmental community." One of the people who earned NRDC this accolade is its thirty-three-year-old legislative director, Alyssondra Campaigne.

"Alys is politically savvy," says Kevin Curtis, the government affairs director at the National Environmental Trust, who has lobbied shoulder-to-shoulder with Campaigne on Department of Defense rollbacks, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and other issues. He says Campaigne's ability to translate the environmental community's positions into "Hillspeak" is invaluable. "She empathizes with Hill staff and understands their constraints," Curtis says. "She's the perfect bridge between the environmental community and the Hill because she's comfortable in both worlds."

Campaigne has been reconciling worlds that collide -- environmental and political, Republican and Democratic, rural and urban -- since she was a girl. She grew up on a Maryland hog farm, in a Republican enclave far from the Democratic strongholds of Baltimore and Montgomery County, and learned about environmental problems at an early age. She remembers times when pesticides made her friends and neighbors sick. A nearby polluted landfill later became a Superfund site. But it was the Three Mile Island accident that really got her thinking about the seriousness of environmental responsibility. "I remember drawing evacuation circles on a map at home after the accident," she says. "It was a very scary, backyard example of potentially life-threatening damage that could be inflicted on unsuspecting communities."

Campaigne went on to study environmental policy at Wesleyan University, graduating in 1991. Later, while working for the Audubon Society on forest issues, she attended night school at New York University, eventually earning a master's degree in urban planning and environmental policy.

In 1996 she moved to Washington and landed a job on a House committee with Representative Henry Waxman, a longtime environmental crusader. Under the California Democrat's tutelage, she tackled a range of issues from energy policy to childhood lead exposure. Later she moved to the Senate, where she worked for Connecticut Democrat Joseph Lieberman -- and often with John Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican with strong conservation credentials.

Campaigne landed the top spot in NRDC's legislative program in summer 2000, and now has the unenviable job of guarding our natural resources from a hostile administration. After President Bush unveiled his energy plan, for example, Campaigne spent long weeks poring over its details with dozens of senators and industry leaders, getting them to understand just how damaging it would be for America. Along the way, she talked up NRDC's responsible-energy plan -- based on renewables, cleaner-burning fuels, and energy conservation. Enough lawmakers eventually said no to Bush's drive for a fossil-fuel future: His plan failed to make it through Congress.

"The administration is overreaching by weakening cornerstone environmental laws at the behest of corporate polluters," she says, noting that she's still fighting off attempts to chain the country to dirty fuels. "We're building a bipartisan core in Congress that will draw the line on the Bush administration's extremist agenda."
-- Elliott Negin

You don't need a job with NRDC to track environmental laws through Congress. To read the latest news from Washington, visit our Legislative Watch page.

While you're there, sign up to receive a biweekly update on who's writing the best and the worst bills on the Hill.

Photo: Drake Sorey

OnEarth. Spring 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council