First-term Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond was in a pickle.
At a recent hearing on how the National Toxicology Program's "Report on Carcinogens" affects small businesses, the Democrat found himself both extolling the virtues of the document -- which lists substances that either cause or are likely to cause cancer -- while at the same time calling for greater oversight because an inaccurate listing can cause problems for industry.
"For consumers, this gives them information they can use to make informed decisions. For employers, it can help them to protect workers," Richmond said. "For all of us, this report can lead to cleaner air and water."
But seconds later, he went on to call for more scrutiny of the report, which the chemical industry has roundly, and forcefully, criticized.
"No business wants to put its employees or its customers in danger," Richmond said. "For some firms, listing a chemical that they use -- even in minimal amounts -- has the potential to stigmatize their products and their business." He added that the "concerns go both ways."
The remarks underscored Richmond's difficult balancing act between public health concerns surrounding the safety of chemicals and a new district that includes 10,000 chemical-sector jobs. In fact, Richmond's new 2nd District contains the largest petrochemical footprint of any in the House of Representatives.
And that hasn't gone unnoticed by the chemical industry. The American Chemistry Council (ACC), the sector's largest trade group, has funneled campaign contributions to Richmond's coffers and has aired television ads on his behalf. Richmond is one of just two Democrats for whom the group has gone on the air so far this cycle.
On the other hand, public health groups have been quick to question Richmond's willingness to go to bat for industry. They argue his New Orleans-based district is still recovering from the 2005 hurricanes and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that exposed the population to countless chemicals.
John Maginnis, a syndicated Louisiana political columnist and publisher of the nonpartisan LaPolitics newsletter, however, said Richmond is likely positioning himself wisely.
"The people in the base of his district and in the poor neighborhoods of Baton Rouge have been living with chemical plants all of their lives," Maginnis said. "They don't view them as public health risks. They view it as the air. It's just what goes on."
Maginnis added that Richmond's new district -- a narrow strip that runs from New Orleans west to Baton Rouge -- is the safest seat for a Democrat in the state. Richmond, consequently, has hardly any competition this year for retaining the seat once held by corruption-plagued former Rep. William Jefferson (D).
Further, the areas where petrochemical plants are located -- along the Mississippi River -- are scarcely populated but generate significant campaign contributions.
In an email to E&E Daily, Richmond said that he is doing his best to represent his constituents, emphasizing the thousands of chemical-sector jobs in his new district.
"When you consider that the average chemical worker in Louisiana makes more than $84,000 per year," he said, "these are jobs that offer people an opportunity to provide a better life for themselves and their families." Role models
Moderate Democrats who are largely supportive of the chemical industry are a rare commodity in this Congress, but Richmond may take some cues from Texas Rep. Gene Green (D).
Green has the country's largest petrochemical facility in his suburban Houston district and, in an interview, said he has come to know Richmond well through playing basketball together and attending chemical industry events.
"Often, we're the only Democrats there," Green said.
Green emphasized the he, like Richmond, is focused on serving his constituents and their interests.
"Every member, no matter your party affiliation, needs to represent your district -- you can't be faulted for that," Green said. "If your district is chemical industry and refining based, that's your job and what you're required to do."
Green is the other Democrat for which ACC has advertised this cycle, with both spots emphasizing the lawmakers' dedication to economic and job development.
Anne Kolton, a spokeswoman for the group, said the ads are designed to thank Richmond and Green for their efforts.
"With Washington being as polarized as it is, moderate Democrats who appreciate the business perspective are in short supply," Kolton said. "Therefore, we feel it's important to point out the leadership that Congressman Green and Congressman Richmond have shown on issues that are critical to manufacturers, like the business of chemistry."
Richmond may also look to the Senate for guidance. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) has been very successful carving out a middle ground when it comes to environmental issues and backing the chemical sector.
Maginnis noted that Landrieu also has a strong base of support in Richmond's district. Plus, Landrieu and Richmond get a lot of leeway from state Democrats because they are the only two Democrats left in Louisiana's congressional delegation. Richmond is 38 years old and is one of the few rising stars in Louisiana Democratic politics these days.
"They can afford to be supporters of the chemical industry," Maginnis said. "They get a pretty good free pass when it comes to environmental issues." Outside-the-Beltway reality
Richmond's ability to carefully navigate the issue has earned the attention of public health advocates.
Daniel Rosenberg of the Natural Resources Defense Council said that at the April hearing, Richmond "seemed to be a member who was wrestling with the chasm between the claim of industry -- that chemicals are safe -- and the observable reality from his own life outside the Beltway -- that family and friends have been exposed to formaldehyde and other chemicals and died from cancer."
Others noted that Richmond must tread lightly when boosting industry issues because programs such as Tulane University's School of Public Health -- which receives federal funding -- is located in his district. The center is also a job creator back home.
The Democrat alluded to that balance in his email.
"There should always be a balance between economic growth and effective regulation," Richmond said. "Public health must always be a top priority."
Copyright 2012 Environment and Energy Publishing, LLC
(Originally published May 21, 2012, in Environment & Energy Daily.)