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Baker to skip groups’ forum on environment

Schedule cited but absence called risky

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / June 21, 2010

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Republican gubernatorial hopeful Charles D. Baker, who opposes Cape Wind and has sidestepped concerns about global warming, is skipping a candidate forum on environmental issues, according to leaders of a Massachusetts coalition of conservation and environmental groups.

Baker aides say the June 29 forum conflicts with two campaign fund-raising events, and that Baker has met leaders of the groups privately to discuss the issues.

Leaders of the informal coalition — which includes the state’s largest and most prestigious conservation groups — said they offered the campaign the chance to set another date, but it re fused. A campaign spokesman, asked about the offer of alternative dates, said Baker cannot take part in all the events he is invited to attend.

Jack Clarke, director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon, said the nonpartisan coalition was told by the Baker campaign that the candidate was focusing on jobs and the economy and would not make the time to appear at an environmental forum.

“We would have done it around Baker’s schedule,’’ said Clarke. He said the issues of climate change and the environment are particularly important topics for the gubernatorial campaign in light of the Gulf oil spill. “It is not something that a candidate should avoid.’’

Baker has taken issue with some of the environmental movement’s pet issues. He opposes the Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound, saying it will drive up the cost of electricity and hurt the economy. When asked at a Suffolk University forum earlier this year whether global warming was in part man-made, Baker responded by saying he was not “smart enough to believe I know the answer.’’

The Baker campaign defended his absence from the forum, saying he had met privately with several of the coalition’s leaders in February where they discussed their “shared concerns about the environment.’’

“The campaign receives a number of requests to participate in a wide variety of events and unfortunately we cannot attend them all,’’ said Rick Gorka, Baker’s spokesman.

Baker is not the only candidate who won’t be at the forum.

Independent Timothy P. Cahill is committed to traveling to California for several fund-raisers at the time of the event, according to his spokeswoman, Amy Birmingham. She said Cahill is still working out his positions on global warming, and that he opposes Cape Wind because its costs are too high and therefore “may not be sustainable over the long term.’’

Attending the forum will be Governor Deval Patrick and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, both of whom embrace most of the environmental lobby’s agenda, including support for Cape Wind and proposals to deal with global warming. The event will be held at Boston’s Old South Meeting House on Washington Street.

Baker’s decision to avoid the forum could create friction with a constituency that includes moderate and conservative Republicans and independents, who have made up a critical voting bloc in the coalitions that successful GOP gubernatorial candidates in Massachusetts have used to win elections.

While William F. Weld, former governor, took hard-line conservative positions on taxes, government spending, and crime, he played heavily on his proenvironmental stands. He always reminded voters that he was “green as a grape’’ and famously dove into the Charles River at a press conference celebrating the river’s cleanup.

Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political science professor, said Baker is making a strategic error in not taking the environmental coalition seriously. He said Baker needs to have the sort of “ideological breadth’’ that Weld and other GOP candidates have used so well in the past to appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

“It seems to be a strategic error on his part to define his image as a rock-ribbed conservative,’’ Berry said. “I don’t think this is the kind of state where you run a ‘drill, baby, drill’ campaign. It is especially odd given the Gulf oil spill that has heightened environmental sensitivities.’’

“It is a gratuitous snub and the message will not be hard to understand,’’ Berry said.

George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, had led the effort to recruit the candidates to the forum. He said the coalition of conservation groups, which represents environmental activists and corporate supporters across the state, had wanted to use the forum to explore the environmental views and policies of Baker and Patrick.

“This is an area where there are serious differences,’’ Bachrach said. “We hoped that this would give Charlie Baker a chance to comment and better explain his concerns.’’

“We would very much like to work with Charlie and our community would like to hear from him,’’ said Bachrach, a former Democratic state senator and a candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1994. “We gave him an option for setting the date and they said it was not possible.’’

The event sponsors are the state’s most prominent environmental groups: the Conservation Law Foundation, the Trustees of Reservations, the Charles River Watershed Association, Appalachian Mountain Club, Clean Water Action, Mass League of Environmental Voters, and Environmental Business Council.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the original version of this story misstated the name of the place where the forum is scheduled to take place. It is the Old South Meeting House.

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