Mary Bono Mack's Political Tightrope Act

Mary Bono Mack | Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore

It's not often you can use a lightbulb as a barometer, but this month the Republican Party has been doing just that, and few have been feeling the pressure like Mary Bono Mack.

Bono Mack, a Republican who represents California's mostly-desert and increasingly liberal 45th Congressional District, reversed course last week as GOP leaders in the House attempted to roll back what is essentially a ban on incandescent light bulbs. Bono Mack had originally voted in favor of the ban, which was enacted in 2007 during the Bush Administration.

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The law would require bulbs of brightness equivalent to a 100 watt traditional bulb to consume no more than 72 watts of power by this coming January -- technically not banning incandescent bulbs so much as setting the bar lower than they're likely to be able to meet.

Last week's GOP move, which took the form of a bill by Texas Representative Joe Barton to rescind the efficiency requirement, failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed to pass. The GOP went with Plan B, stripping funding for enforcement of the ban. GOP critics claim that the ban would impose extra costs on businesses and families by mandating the purchase of more expensive light bulbs. Democrats and environmental groups counter that the more efficient bulbs pay for themselves rather rapidly, and the numbers back up that rebuttal.

Bono Mack points to the cost of better bulbs in explaining her flip-flop on the law, according to her spokesman Ken Johnson, who told the Palm Springs Desert Sun:

"The congresswoman does not believe we should be imposing any new costs on consumers or businesses during these tough times."

In truth, Bono Mack's changing lightbulb stance likely has less to do with light than it does with heat; namely, the heat she's taken from GOP extremists for her perceived failure to toe their ideological line. Bono Mack represents one of the most liberal Republican Congressional districts in the state, with a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R+3 -- meaning that the district leans slightly in favor of the GOP. That narrow preference is getting narrower. In the 2002 and 2004 elections for the district's seat in the House, Bono Mack handily defeated her Democratic opponents by 2-1 margins. In 2010, though she still won by a comfortable margin, Bono Mack's lead had eroded: she pulled 51.5% of the vote. Her opponent Steve Pougnet, Palm Springs' mayor, a moderate openly gay Democrat raising two kids with his husband, was only nine percentage points behind -- a tectonic shift in the district to rival any on the nearby San Andreas Fault. The district went for Obama by 51.5% in 2008, and -- despite the stalwart Republican base in the Coachella Valley's ultra-affluent Palm Desert and Indian Wells -- promises only to get bluer as the largely Latino cities of Indio and Coachella grow.

The 45th has the highest LGBT population of any GOP-held district in the country, and Bono Mack's actions on the equal rights front are scrutinized closely, by her LGBT constituents and the opposition both. The ultra-right Christian Coalition, a longtime foe of equal rights for gays and lesbians, gave Bono Mack a 2008 rating of 33 out of 100 based in part on her support for ENDA and Federal hate crimes legislation. They'd rated her at 84 four years prior.

Triangulating between an increasingly moderate-to-liberal constituency and a GOP leadership that seems intent on marching to the extreme and beyond has to be difficult. Bono Mack came out in support of keeping Don't Ask Don't Tell in May 2010, then changed her mind and voted to end it in December -- one of 15 Republicans in the House to do so.

An avid hiker and alternative energy backer who wrote the bill establishing the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument, Bono Mack has taken heat both from the right for her support of Cap and Trade and from environmental justice activists for voting to cut EPA's enforcement budget. She calls herselfpro-choice and was one of a handful of GOP women to oppose Planned Parenthood cuts, and yet voted to allow hospitals to deny abortion care to women even if the woman's life is at risk.

In short, the last few years of Mary Bono Mack's career have essentially consisted of making both sides equally unhappy. It's worked so far, but with the California's 45th turning bluer it may not work for long. At some point her constituents may well decide they want someone who won't trade away their interests to curry favor with the powers behind the GOP. Unless Bono Mack switches parties that person will very likely be someone else.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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