As two surfing Congressmen gut Federal environmental laws, they have inspired a new grassroots/wetsuits political movement--their young surfing constituents. But can angry surfers really play politics?
By Cory Johnson
From Swing magazine, June 1996
ON A BRISK MAY MORNING, freshman Representative Brian Bilbray, 44, zips up his wetsuit, takes one last slug of coffee from a Styrofoam cup before chucking it into a garbage can, and trots down the beach with a 6 foot double-finned surfboard under his arm. At his side is bearded Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, 48, who plops into the chilly water on his 9 foot single-finned longboard, a fiberglass replica of a 1960's classic. They paddle out into the Pacific without exchanging a word as they eye the break off Newport Beach, near the southernmost edge of Rohrabacher's Orange County, California district. To the north, one can just make out the offshore oil rigs off Huntington Beach as the congressmen reach a pool of frothy white foam just in front of the first big wave-- not uncommon for surfers, but creepy just the same. They can't know what the foam is, and with the wave fast approaching there's no time to think about it. So both Congressmen dive into the foam, shoving down the noses of their boards, dipping below the wave's lip and emerging on the other side to await their ride back to shore.
Back when Bilbray and Rohrabacher were first elected, many of their constituents expected the nation's only surfing congressmen to be guardians of the environment. After all, surfers are canaries in the coal mine when it comes to water pollution. But once they got to Washington, these two conservative Republicans, with surfboards in their offices and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on their flank, have turned out to be two of the most vigorous foes of federal environmental regulations. Their surfing bretheren back home are pissed--and now they're doing something about it. Young surfers, Republican and Democrat alike, are mobilizing a new, energetic polictical movement in an attempt to remove Bilbray and Rohrabacher from office. But the Congressmen are sticking to their guns.
Bilbray and Rohrabacher insist that they're not anti-environment, and cite their surfing as evidence. What they're really opposed to are federal regulations that they claim are draconian and harmful to business. "As a surfer, I can't come back from Washington without cleaning up the water," says Bilbray. "This is something that's really personal for me."
But Bilbray and Rohrabacher's surfing buds back in California aren't buying it. They argue that you don't have to be a Democrat to be a surfer, but you do have to support the environment--and these federal regulations are a critical part of that effort. "Surfers represent a cross section of the population; lawyers, students, stockbrokers, construction workers," says Steve Hawk, 40, the editor of Surfer magazine, "and in Orange County, especially, you'll find them conservative. But the one place where you'll find conservative surfers liberal is environmental bills."
Now, the surfing congressmen have pushed their betrayed bretheren into uncharted territory. And the question they're asking themseves is, Can a culture reknown for being apolitical and free-spirited, get organized enough to fight back?
RYAN LEVINSON IS A STRAPPING 24 YEAR-OLD, with a dark tan and thick hair bleached blond by the sun and surf. In a meeting room above a Laguna Beach shopping mall, he sits in a circle with about eighty other surfers, discussing plans an upcoming environmental protest. "I talked to a group of surfers with disabilities--you know, dudes in wheelchairs?--and they could man the information booth while we're in the water," says Levinson. "Hey that's great," says Cyndi Headley, the cute and perhaps-overly-enthusidastic blond who is running this San Diego Chapter meeting of the Surfrider Foundation, an 11-year-old group of surfers concerned about the environment. "Okay, so Ryan will talk to the former surfers..."
"No," Levinson inturupts. "They're still surfers, they just can't go in the water anymore." There is a moment of quiet confusion, then the group starts to smile and nod with understanding. To Levinson, surfing is more than a sport, more than a pasttime. It's a mindset, and to him, it goes way beyond standing up on a surfboard and cutting into a wave. Levinson has been surfing since he was nine years old, but just last year, he was diagnosed with early signs of muscular distrophy. "Ten years from now, I won't be able to surf," he says. "Fifteen years from now I probably won't even be able to paddle out in the water. But I'll never stop being a surfer."
Every day of good surf is precious to Levinson, reason enough to get up at 5 am and beg his friends near the beach to look out the windows and size up the waves. It's reason enough to blow off another day of classes at San Diego State for a quick trip to the big waves of Mexico. He'll risk surfing near a dirty rivermouth after a rain storm, when the waves are raging but the sewage is running off from the densly populated hills near the ocean. Afterwards he goes through a ritual of rinsing off with scalding hot water, flushing his ears with perroxide and crossing his fingers with hopes that the pollution won't give him ear infections, hepititas or worse. Every day that the beaches are closed due to polution and he can't surf (there were more than three hundred sudch cays in San Diego County last year) Levinson's anger at Rohrabacher and Bilbray burns even hotter.
"Guys like Rohrabacker and Bilbray, they're not surfers," says Levinson. "I don't care how well they surf. True surfers love and respect the ocean, these guys pollute and then lie. They've betrayed us and who we are, and we can't stand for that."
Levinson is helping to organize the group's third paddle protest, where hundreds of surfers paddle their boards through polluted waterways in Southern California to draw attention to their cause. This protest is particularly important to them, because it will take place on August 10, just a few days before San Diego hosts the Republican National Convention. "We're trying to bring attention to the ocean environment," says Levinson. "We think that's something everyone, Democrats and Republicans can respect."
The anger at Bilbray and Rohrabacher runs deep in the surfing community. "Here's some politicians trying to pass themselves off as surfers, and they gut every environmental laws that's come along," says Donna Fryre, co-owner of Harrys' Surf Shop and organizer of the surfers against Bilbray movement. "A lot of people in the surfing community bought their act and voted for them. I think surfers are going to make the difference the next time."
ON THE FLOOR OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES in late July--while wearing gold lapel pins of stickmen catching a wave--Bilbay and Rohrabacher teamed up to support an amendment to a bill that would virtually eliminate enforcement of federal anti-pollution standards. With Rohrabacher's support, Bilbray introduced another bill in July to permanently exempt the San Diego County's sewage treatment plants from Environmental Protection Agency checkups. Gingrich enthusiastically hailed Bilbray's bill as "the beginning of the end of the Clean Water Act," the landmark piece of legislation passed in 1973.
A one-time lifeguard, Brian Bilbray was elected mayor in 1980 of California's Imperial Beach, a famed surfing community, at age 27. Back then, he wasn't always hostile to government aid. In 1980, when the Tiajuanna River was dumping Mexican sewage into his community, Bilbray sought state and Federal aid, but didn't get it. So after alerting the media, he jumped into a bulldozer and personally plugged up the estuary. That soloist approach to problem solving was exhibited again in 1982, when the Imperial Beach pier caught fire. The dashing young Mayor Bilbray--more parts David Haselhoff than John Kennedy--paddled out on his surfboard with a bucket, climbed to the top of the flaming pier and put out the fire, as television cameras caught all the action.
Last November, Bilbray defeated incumbent Democrat Lynn Schenk, and he wasn't shy about courting the surfer vote, printing campaign t-shirts emblazoned with a surfboard and the phrase "Schenk Don't Surf." Bilbray was swept into office on the strength of his opposition to illegal immigration, and the environment was rarely talked out during the campaign. After his election, he was promptly called on to give the seconding speech nominating Gingrich as Speaker, and littered it with sometimes-tortured surf metaphors. "Like a tsunami we swept into office," Bilbray announced to the assembled House of Representatives, "and Newt Gingrich is making so many waves in Washington these days, you could shoot the curl on the Potomac."
But despite his nods to the surf, Bilbray's votes against environmental laws have earned him the League of Conservation Voter's lowest possible rating--a zero out of one hundred. Bilbray complains that the label is a raw deal, especially regarding his opposition to the EPA's regulation of San Diego's sewage treatment. The problem, he says, is that EPA rules require treatment of sewage before it's dumped into the ocean, rather than looking at the water quality after the sewage has been dumped, as state environmental laws would. "The Scripps Institute [a Southern California-based scientific organization] says they cannot find any biological degradation of the environment from the existing sewage operation," says Bilbray, "but the EPA insisted that we improve it anyway. So for a decade the agenda has not been what is the best thing for the water, but what is the best way to comply with Federal regulations."
Rohrabacher's stand against environmental laws is even more strident. A one time Libertarian, he made his way to Congress after seven years as a senior speech writer for Ronald Reagan. Initially dismissed as a right-wing extremist--and still considered that by many Democrats--after seven years in office he's become a leader and moral compass for Republican freshmen. Rohrabacher is a strong supporter of offshore oil drilling and led GOP efforts to cut spending on corporate grants to develop energy conservation products.
But his lifestyle does not fit the stereotype of the conservative Republican. The affable bachelor brags of drinking tequila with John Wayne and wild and crazy friends ranging from Ollie North to Sammy Hagar. "He's not just the 'Surfing Congressmen,'" explains Dale Neugebauer, his press secretary, "he's also the Rock n' Roll Congressman." Indeed, his guitar sits in Gingrich's office--not far from the full-sized surfboard, decorated with a congressional seal and two overlapping American flags, that Rohrabacher gave Gingrich.
Rohrabacher took up surfing shortly after his election in 1988. Now, whenever he gets back to California, he paddles out with his 25-year-old campaign manager, Rhonda Carmony, and Congressman Bilbray. "Bilbray, he can really surf," says Rohrabacher. "He's very aggressive. I'm always watching out for the other guys--the last thing I want to do is run over one of my constituents. But Bilbray, he just goes."
Rohrabacher is sitting in his campaign office, which is tucked in a back room of the slightly rundown Wind and Sea surf shop in Hunnigton Beach, just a block from the ocean and the famous surfing break at the pier. Girls in bikinis and young skateboarders with baggy shorts hanging below their knees kids drift in and out as he defends his attacks on environmental law. "The question isn't whether or not the water should be clean," he says. "The question is how pure and at what cost. Clean water is good enough. We don't have to have pristine water."
Many argue that the water is far from clean now: 1995 was one of the worst summers yet for California surfers, with hundreds of beach closings up and down the coast. For fellow surfers like Hawk, seeing a Rohrabacher bumper sticker was the last straw.
"It had a drawing of a longboard and said 'Rohrabacher: Fighting for Freedom and Having Fun," says Hawk. "How can this guy advertise to the world that he's a cool surf dude? It's great that these congressmen surf. I wish they all surfed, it would put them all in touch with the ocean. But don't use it, don't appropriate it--especially if you're going to vote against bills that would help the ocean."
In the July 1995 issue of Surfer, Hawk initiated a letter writing campaign, with a scathing editorial on the voting records of the two congressmen, urging them to "break away from the Republican ranks, paddle past the pack and into the pit, prove to us that you really are surfers."
Bilbray's response in the pages of the magazine wasn't exactly restrained. "[Hawk] will not tolerate anyone who does not march--or surf--in lockstep with his liberal orthodoxy," said the congressman. "He's upset about the wipeout of the liberal ideology in the last election."
But that just further irked area surfers. Surfing clubs and surf shops around the region organized demonstrations against the congressmen--uniquely wacky demonstrations, of course. The influential Surfrider Foundation has held it's paddle protests, and has initiated it's own letter writing campaign. San Diego surfing legend Skip Frye and his wife Donna have turned over much of their surf shop to campaign against Bilbray. They're publishing newsletters and printing bumper stickers, and have rigged up a "talking toilet" that imitates Bilbray's voice, then flushes on command. "We're going to flush him out of Congress," says Donna.
Organizing surfers has been likened to herding cats, but the movement is beginning to show signs of catching on. "If you drive down to the beach and look at all the [anti-Bilbray] bumper stickers on people's cars, you can see we're starting to turn the tide," says Donna Frye.
ON A BRIGHT APRIL MORNING, Shelly Warner, 27, is surfing the break next to the pier at Pacific Beach. The waves are slightly over her head, but she's holding her own on an eight foot long board, affixed with an anti-Bilbray sticker. As the she walks out of the water, stripping off her wet suit and shaking out her long blond hair, the men on the beach stop and stare, mouths open in a true Baywatch moment.
Warner is typical of those young people campaigning against the surfing congressmen. Her father was in the military, and she holds on to the conservative values that she was raised with. In March she exchanged wedding vows with a fellow surfer while standing on a rocky point that only exposes itself at the lowest tide. She's anti-welfare spending, pro-capital punishment, and she thinks that military cutbacks have gone too far. Warner is a registered Republican and has never voted against her party. "I voted for Brian Bilbray because he was a surfer from Imperial Beach," she says. "I thought he was just like me, a surfer with conservative values. But when I started to hear about his votes in Congress, I felt betrayed. For a surfer, the environment gets closest to home. When my brother and my husband come back from surfing and have to get hepitias shots, well, I don't know how Bilbray and Rohrabach can say the water is clean enough."
So for the past few months, Warner has been distributing flyers about the congressmen's voting records on the environment. She's covered her truck with anti-Bilbray bumper stickers. She's even thinking about volunteering for the campaign of Peter Novaro, a San Diego surfer who is running as a Democrat against Bilbray. "If Bilbray hadn't claimed to be a surfer I probably wouldn't have a problem with him," she says, flashing a detirmined look from her bright blue eyes. "But now I have a problem with him."
In responce to this grassroots movement againsts them, Rohrabacher and Bilbray, once known to march in parades wearing wetsuits, are denying the political power of surfers. "Surfers are not outside of society," says Rohrabacher. "They are a part of the electorate, and the electorate supports me."
Bilbray seems slightly more more pained by the rejection of his compatriots. "To have surfers against me feels like knife in the back," he says. "I feel like I'm talking to that critical guy sitting on the beach: 'Look, dude until you're in the water, until you've shot a section, you're really not in the position to judge me.' You've got people who've never made the commitment or the sacrifice."
The surfers would say the same.