Did Sean Casten run as an environmentalist? Yes. Is that why he won? Maybe.

Casten stands with his family on election night to delivery a victory speech at an event in Warrenville, Illinois. Aaron Dorman/MEDILL.

By Aaron Dorman
Medill Reports

Sean Casten was driven to run, and eventually win, the election in Illinois’ sixth congressional district, for one simple reason: Peter Roskam wasn’t listening to his constituents about the environment.

Potentially carcinogenic air pollutants from a commercial sterilization plant in Willowbrook, declining water supplies and weather extremes causing floods due to climate change are growing concerns in the 6th district of Illinois. The district represents a diverse cross-section of affluent and struggling families across a swath of the western and northwestern suburbs between Downers Grove and Lake Zurich.

Casten said the gap between his passion for the environment, and Roskam’s obstinacy  became clear during a past business meeting about the renewal of solar tax credits.

“[Roskam] led off the meeting by telling us he was not open to new information or facts” about the economic opportunities for renewable, says Casten, who owns a renewable energy company in Westmont that helps businesses recover waste energy and turn it into electricity.  “I asked what he liked about the current status quo – and specifically what outcome he thought we would achieve if we did not ‘pick winners.’  His only response was to say that the meeting was over.”

Casten, a scientist, looks to the new session of Congress with a Democratic majority in the House as an opportunity to address climate change and other environmental risks.  Climate activist and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben tweeted that “Casten is going to be one of the most climate-savvy folks in Congress from the get-go,” a tweet posted by Think Progress.

“Climate change is the existential threat of our time,” Casten told the Chicago Sun-Times during the campaign. “And we need more representatives who are willing to make it a top priority.”

However, since the election, Casten has had a more nuanced view of the so-called “Green New Deal”, telling ThinkProgress that he would prefer to take a more pragmatic approach of “actually getting shit done.” Casten said he does not think it was realistic to move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Casten has degrees in biology, biochemistry and engineeringIn addition to calling out the need to protect our environment and address climate change, Casten called for a broader process adjustment in Congress, based on facts and data driven.

“Knowing things is fun,” Casten posted on the website, Medium. “Digging into a problem, peeling the onion, and identifying the root cause is the only way that we’ve ever solved problems of any complexity. Far too many businesspeople, politicians, and failed scientists get caught up in soundbites and unquestioned paradigms.”

Sean Casten (R) smiles with a supporter after declaring victory at an election night event in Warrenville. (Aaron Dorman/MEDILL)

Casten did not hesitate to accuse his opponent as buying into the unshakeable “fake news” mentality of the Trump era. “Peter Roskam is a rubber stamp for Trump’s face-free, science-denying Administration,” Casten says.

Many found it a compelling argument. Roskam tried to defend his record during a debate with Casten on September 18, arguing he had been “at odds” with Trump on a number of issues, including Great Lakes funding. But on November 6, the district flipped Democratic for the first time in decades. So to what extent was Casten’s brand of environmentalism the cause of this shift?

“The fact that he’s a job creator within the environmental community is an important thing, but that’s something that they [voters] learn about Sean after they have been disillusioned by general national politics,” says Colby Mecher, a Chicago-based youth pastor who helped canvass for Casten. “I think it definitely keeps votes in his camp, but I didn’t have a ton of conversations around that. I’m passionate about that issue, but immigration and criminal justice reform were some more conversations I had with folks.”

Reid McCollum, another Casten supporter from Hinsdale, agreed that other issues, such as potentially losing health care insurance underTrump, were more important to undecided voters. “I think his background as a businessmen plays a huge role,” McCollum says. “I don’t think the fact that it was in clean energy makes a huge difference to average voters, but it’s really important to me.”

Casten has tried to frame his environmental career as part of a successful business strategy that proves climate change solutions are economically viable. According to Casten, the power plants his company helped build are more efficient than the average plant on the U.S. power grid, slashing carbon dioxide emissions, and also saving their customers money.

“If we had politicians who understood this, we would be treating global warming as an opportunity for economic growth AND the environmental challenge of our generation,” Casten says. “Instead, we have too many politicians who either don’t understand this (or worse) find it more politically useful to engage in zero-sum political fights than to embrace the win/win.”

Casten’s campaign chair, Ann Wick, credits millennial voters, for whom climate change is a major concern, helping to take Casten to Congress.

“Some [politicians] will only go with what the polling data tells them,” says Wick. “So if you have somebody like that, you want to vote, because when you vote, you get polled and asked questions. If you don’t vote, you really don’t get called or asked, which is an unfortunate thing but it’s the reality.”

Wick also credits Casten with “leading from the front” and “driving the narrative” that climate change represented an economic opportunity.

“I think we need more scientists in Congress,” Wick says. “I grew up during the space age where science was valued and important, and people respected experts. I think you need science and data to inform policy decisions to know if you are really benefiting the electorate or if you are going to hurt them.”

Within the sixth district, the most important environment issue may be the emissions from  Sterigenics, a plant in Willowbrook, which has been releasing ethelyne oxide, a strong carcinogen, for 30 years, as part of the process to sterilize products. Roskam was endorsed by the American Chemistry Council, who also ran ads lobbying the U.S. EPA to reduce the threat level of ethlyne oxide while research on pollutant levels and potential cancer risks in Willowbrook is being conducted.

The Illinois and federal EPA were working with the company on requirements for stricter air pollution controls, but a new report released by the national agency in December suggests the ethelyne oxide levels remain dangerously high. Sterigenics disputed this claim, and there is also concern that Trump’s EPA is planning a rules overhaul regulations for sterilization facilities that would be much more favorable to the industry.

During a press conference with AFGE and the League of Conservation Voters in mid-October, Casten slammed Roskam for voting to cut the EPA’s Science Advisory Board and fill roles with industry lobbyists. “There is no clearer proof that Peter Roskam puts corporate interests above those of his constituents. The American Chemistry Council has been lining his pockets and Roskam has been advocating on their behalf and directly harming his constituents in the sixth district,” said Sean Casten.

Supporters of Sean Casten cheer his victory speech at an election night event in Warrenville, IL. Aaron Dorman/MEDILL

Although Roskam has not directly addressed the concerns about ties to the ACC, he did support monitoring of the Sterigenics plant in a press release in September. “The situation in Willowbrook involving the Sterigenics plant is very concerning,” Roskam said at the time. “We have a responsibility to ensure the public is protected from potential environmental hazards such as this, but also to address the situation calmly and quickly without inciting unnecessary panic.”

In an October interview with the Chicago Tribune, his campaign spokeswoman Veronica Vera called Roskam a “friend to the environment,” citing his opposition to withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and international accord to limits climate change to 1.5 degrees Centigrade.

The 6th district was one of two suburban Chicago congressional seats that flipped to Democrats on Nov. 6.  The other, Illinois’ 14th District, went to Laura Underwood, 32, the youngest African American woman ever elected to Congress. She is a former Obama administration appointee who, like Casten, holds a science degree and had not previously run for office.

Roskam has represented the district since 2007, while Casten is the first Democrat to win here since George Collins took office in 1972. Collins died during a plane crash while still in office. Casten won with 52.8 percent of the vote to Roskam’s 47.2 percent, a margin of roughly 16,000 votes, with 99 percent of precincts reporting.

“This is an election where values won. Not Democrats per se, but values. That’s pretty inspiring,” Casten said at his victory rally. “That arc of history really does bend towards justice, even in our current political climate … it bends because millions of Americans across the country jumped up to run for office, to canvass, to march, to phone bank and tug that arc with all their might back in the right direction. And it is an awesome thing to behold.”

Casten stands with his family on election night to delivery a victory speech at an event in Warrenville. (Aaron Dorman/MEDILL)