Maintaining a healthy environment is a “key component” of Trump’s “America first” agenda, an EPA spokesperson countered in an email. “EPA will continue to move forward on this agenda, and we hope NRDC under Gina McCarthy’s leadership can support us in this important mission,” the spokesperson said.
A lifelong public servant with a thick Massachusetts accent and a blunt style, McCarthy is not a reflexive partisan. For much of her career, she held state environmental-agency positions in Massachusetts and Connecticut—roles in which she served under Democrats and Republicans, including then–Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. She came to Washington to work in the EPA’s air-and-radiation office in 2009, before Obama nominated her to lead the agency in 2013.
According to Jewell, who served in Obama’s Cabinet at the same time as McCarthy, officials’ shift to activism is about helping the broader progressive agenda while using the scientific and policy-building skills they developed as government officials. “Those of us who have been privileged to deeply understand what’s at stake and what can be done about it feel an obligation to be part of the solution,” Jewell told me.
To be sure, McCarthy and her fellow bureaucrats-turned-activists aren’t exactly living in poverty. And although compensation in the nonprofit sector (and professional politics) is much lower than in the private sector, tons of money is still sloshing through the system; large nonprofits such as NRDC often spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
“It’s typical for environmental lobbyists to put a white hat on themselves and act like they are doing something different. But they are a huge environmental moneymaking corporation,” said Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the Western Energy Alliance, a group that represents fossil-fuel companies. “I don’t know what Gina McCarthy is making, but I’m sure she is making lavish money. That’s not coming from environmental activists on the streets asking donors for five bucks … For her to suggest she is doing anything different than a corporate lobbyist is spin at best.”
NRDC certainly has the money to push its agenda. Through the group’s political arm, McCarthy will have millions to put toward endorsing and advertising for candidates in key 2020 races and promoting the ultimate goal: unseating Trump. The fund budgeted $6.2 million for election and lobbying efforts in fiscal 2018, ahead of the midterms. This money, which also supports voter-turnout efforts, can make a significant difference in close House and Senate races. In 2020, the NRDC Action Fund is planning to more than double its previous budget, and intends to raise and donate $200,000 to candidates through its PAC. McCarthy was originally planning to be a regular figure on the campaign trail in the lead-up to the election, but she had to suspend her spring tour of battleground states because of the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers say that they’ll consider a modified in-person tour if it’s safe to hold public events before November. McCarthy is also helping the Democratic National Committee draft its official climate platform ahead of the party’s convention, which has been rescheduled for August 17.