Ken Maddox stood before a crowd of environmentalists at the Huntington Beach Pier, easily moving the group to chants and cheers with his rants against the Orange County Sanitation District, which is polluting the local ocean with massive amounts of undertreated sewage. Still, you didn't need to know the voting record of the conservative Republican assemblyman from Garden Grove to realize he was in unfamiliar territory. Maddox's shirt said it all. Both of them, actually—the wild, Woody-print Hawaiian shirt he apparently wore to look the part of beachfront Kahuna, and the crisp, white cotton undershirt that confirmed him as a total gremmy.
"I've voted for a lot of environmentally friendly bills," Maddox insisted later. "At least, when the people who author them are knowledgeable."
It's Maddox who has authored Assembly Bill 1969, the state bill that would finally force the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) to comply with the 1972 Clean Water Act. His legislation would prohibit the OCSD from applying for another 301 (h) waiver, which permits the discharge of nearly a quarter-billion gallons per day of substandard sewage that may be responsible for the bacterial infestation of local beaches. The OCSD is currently debating another application, but Maddox's bill—which was considered by the Assembly on May 28 (the decision was unknown at press time)—would make that argument moot.
"Orange County got that waiver when half the county was suburban and the other half was virtually unpopulated. Back then, it probably made sense," Maddox argues. "Now we are an incredibly urban county with a waiver we have outgrown. The county has changed, but the policies haven't. We've been getting special treatment for a couple of decades, and it's time for Orange County to do its part to keep our ocean clean."
Maddox's words are surprising from a politician whose voting record on environmental legislation in 1999 earned him a measly eight points out of a possible 100 from the California League of Conservation Voters (CLCV). Maddox's rating rose, but not much, to 23 points in 2000 and fell to 20 last year.
But he still shys away from describing himself with the E word—as in environmentalist. "You don't have to be an environmentalist," Maddox insists, "to want to keep your kid from swimming in poopy water."
David Allgood, a director of the CLCV, hears that and doubts there has been any substantial shift in Maddox's politics. "His authorship of AB 1969 is just an indication that the situation is so bad that even a guy like Maddox understands," Allgood said.
A visit to the beach with his young son, Kenny Jr., is what prompted Maddox to submit AB 1969, which has since added Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) as a co-author.
"Actually, it was a Weeklystory about the sewage that got me started," Maddox says. "After that, when my little son and I were getting our toes wet at the beach, I couldn't help thinking about all the sewage out there, wondering whether I'd ever feel safe allowing my kid to play in the water."
Maddox has been as fascinated as anybody by the bill's journey through the legislative process.
"The first reaction of the [Republican] party analyst was to kill it," Maddox says. "But then it got new life when minority leader Dave Cox [R-Sacramento] started to champion it. He said, 'Republicans should be for cleaning up the oceans.' I haven't received any criticism from the Orange County Republican delegation, although I think some of them are wary of it. It will be interesting to see how things go when it is time for them to vote."
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Maddox contends that the cleanup of OC's sewage is a question of when, not if, and that dealing with the issue now will be cheaper in the long run. He likes talking in those kinds of terms. "The money is available now—the OCSD has reserves of a half-billion dollars—and I think the project could be accomplished within the existing rate structure," he says. "If we go on and reclaim that water and sell it, we can further help with the funding."
But Maddox gets hinky again when the conversation is steered back to the question of environmentalism: whether, in one way or another, every environmentalist wants "to keep your kid from swimming in poopy water." Is he afraid to be labeled an environmentalist?
"Politically, I think there are certain areas where the label, 'environmentalist,' would create problems," he acknowledges after a long pause. "Certain industries would be wary. But I think the average constituent wants sound environmental policy—clean air, good water, open space, parkland. These are things favored by people who never give a thought about it being 'environmental policy.'"
Standing there with the conservative crew neck of his undershirt poking through his colorful Hawaiian shirt, Maddox says AB 1969 enables him to encompass both positions. "It's good policy and good politics," he says. "It's nice when the two meet."