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The Single-issue Voter: A birder’s look at Richard Burr (R)

October 22, 2010
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It’s that time again.  Time for all civic-minded citizens to put on their voting hats and determine what issues are important to them and which smooth-talking grifters are going to be the ones to pretend to care about them (too cynical?).  In North Carolina, the race for Senate is hot hot hot, and while issues like jobs, spending, the wars and any number of other “important” issues are taking precedent, I’m oft interested in how the platforms of those running for president affect my life, that’s as a birder naturally.  So here’s a special North Carolina Senate edition of the Single Issue Voter.  First up, incumbent Richard Burr (R).

Richard Burr‘s Senate career feels a bit like a remake of The Man Who Wasn’t There.  He has been, in nearly every sense, the invisible Senator, a back-bencher content to vote with his party and make as few waves as possible.   As such, he’s never been especially popular among voters in the Tar Heel State, with most Carolinians not really sure exactly what he’s done in his 16 years in Washington, 10 of which as a Representative from the Winston-Salem area and only the last 6 in the upper house.   His biggest claim to fame seems to be limited to the fact that his Senate seat is notorious for switching parties every cycle for the last three decades, and while that seems to be a promising tidbit of information for any presumptive challenger, North Carolina’s senior Senator polls well enough in this cycle, generally staying ahead of his challenger, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, by 10 points more or less, despite holding approval ratings below 50% for his entire tenure.  With so many Senate candidates this year seemingly competing to see who can say the most outlandish things, Burr is the exception, and if he wins re-election it will be in spite of the maxim “all press is good press”, but rather because North Carolina voters don’t care enough to kick him out.  A vote for Richard Burr is, above all, a vote for apathy.

Burr’s body of work on the bird related issues is mixed.  He currently sits on the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources  and is the ranking member of the Subcommittee on National Parks, a useful assignment for a North Carolina representative as the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, and half of Great Smoky Mountains National Park lie without our borders.  In fact, tourism to those sites is a major driver of North Carolina’s economy and their well-being effects thousands of jobs and millions of dollars, not to mention the well-being of the species within the boundaries of those parks.  It’s frustrating then, that the entire scope of his work on that committee was to introduce a bill, co-sponsored by our other Senator Kay Hagan (D) it must be said, to overturn the consent decree decision regarding Off-Road Vehicle access on Cape Hatteras, the very decree that has led to a banner year for nesting shorebirds and turtles in the park while having minimal effects on tourism.  Enough said, as far as I’m concerned, and not a feather in Hagan’s cap either incidentally.  Other than that, his place on this crucial environment and land management committee could be serviceably filled by a jelly donut (from Krispy Kreme of course, this is North Carolina after all).

In 2004, when he first ran for Senate, Burr claimed to oppose offshore drilling, particularly off the coast of North Carolina. That position has weakened somewhat as Burr now supports “safe” drilling off of our shore, whatever that might look like.   He has also advocated throughout his career for opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, a crucial nesting ground for many of our shorebirds, among others migratory species, to oil exploration.   These positions were held to throughout the BP disaster so Burr is nothing if not consistent, though the fact that he is number 4 in the Senate when ranked by amount of campaign donations from the oil industry may have something to do with that.

Burr has also consistently avoided taking stands on many other issues of interest to conservationists and birders, but there are little bits here and there that allow us to get an idea where he stands.  He voted yes on a bill in 2003 to expedite forest thinning projects, no on a bill in 2005 to allow the EPA to regulate oil and coal smokestacks for mercury regulations, and has been rated a paltry 9% by the League of Conservation Voters on environmental issues (though that does include energy and emission votes that are only tangentially related to land use and management issues that I believe most impact bird populations).

He deserves credit for voting to make permanent a tax deduction on conservation easements, a program that has been successful in convincing private landowners to protect portions of their property, but generally Burr has quietly been a consistent vote, if not a voice, for policies that harm birds. And there’s no reason to think that a second term would change that.

Next week, challenger Elaine Marshall.

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