Remember the Lorax — the relentlessly reproachful Dr. Seuss character who spoke for the trees and stared down the truffula-trampling Once-ler? Danny Katz may not look or sound anything like him (Katz is quite pleasant, actually), but he walks much the same walk.
After a decade at the helm of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group -- and, for nearly a decade before that, working with CoPIRG's affiliates in other states -- the Boulder native is the archetype of the all-around public advocate for change and sentinel against what ails society.
From a left-of-center perspective, to be sure, but agree or disagree with CoPIRG's prescription, you can rest assured you'll get an informed, compelling policy pitch from Katz that resolutely challenges conventional wisdom on a host of issues.
Katz and CoPIRG take on consumer protection and climate change with equal zeal — and he covers those bases and more in today's Q&A.
Colorado Politics: Unlike many other advocacy groups across the political spectrum, CoPIRG and its affiliates in other states stake out turf all over the policy map. Net neutrality, antibiotics, electric cars, food safety, recycling, health care — the list goes on. It could be the platform of a political party, the common thread being your policy stances hail from the center-left. What are the parameters of your agenda? And tell us about the history and origins of the decades-old, national PIRG network.
Danny Katz: CoPIRG was started 45 years ago by college students at the University of Northern Colorado who believed that we had more problems than we should tolerate and more solutions than we were using. They wanted action for a change.
One common thread throughout our work is that we live in a historically abundant society, and as consumers within that society, we have the right to expect that we can safely use the goods that are marketed to us for everyday tasks without destroying the quality of life that makes Colorado our home.
We believe the food you eat shouldn't make you sick and the production of that food shouldn’t strip the world of life-saving antibiotics or introduce dangerous levels of chemicals into our environment. The health care we use shouldn't bankrupt us. The take-out food containers and grocery bags we use once shouldn’t take 500 or more years to break down, polluting communities and waterways for generations. The cars we drive shouldn't spew pollution that cuts lives short and increases the chances that my daughter will grow up in an unlivable climate.
Over the decades, our agenda has been labeled everything: center-left, radical, establishment, progressive, conservative, etc. I just think our positions are common sense. We have no permanent enemies. We’ll work with anyone whom we can find common ground with, even if it’s only on that one issue, and we’ll call out anyone who votes against these values, even if they have a good track record on everything else.
- State director of Colorado Public Interest Research Group for the past 10 years; worked a total of 19 years in the national Public Interest Research Group network.
- Serves on the Colorado Department of Transportation's Efficiency and Accountability Committee and Transit and Rail Advisory Committee.
- Founding member of the Financial Equity Coalition, a collection of public, private, and nonprofit organizations committed to bringing financial security to communities throughout Colorado.
- Earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia; grew up in Boulder.
CP: You are deeply involved in Colorado’s great transportation debate. You have been a voice for rethinking how we move about the Denver metro area and beyond and have been highly critical of an epic project to reconfigure Interstate 70 through Denver. What, fundamentally, are state and local transportation policy makers overlooking in planning for our future transportation needs? Is it time for policy planners metro-wide to put the squeeze on motor-vehicle traffic — as some say Denver already has — nudging commuters into other modes? If so, how?
Katz: It was never inevitable that we’d build the transportation system that we have today — one that is so dependent on owning and driving your own vehicle to get anything done. We made choices over the decades to focus almost all of our resources on building and designing a system that prioritized vehicles and vehicle speeds to move people through our neighborhoods, our cities, and our state.
Those choices have consequences. Our transportation system is unnecessarily dirty, fueling our brown cloud and climate change. It kills over 500 people a year. And we lack the freedom to get around safely and efficiently without driving our own car. Ultimately, we’re stuck in a cycle of wasting billions on massive road projects that fail to reduce congestion and that puts the squeeze on all of us.
We’ve already begun to make some different choices. We have the beginning of a Denver-metro rail system. We’re utilizing fast and frequent bus services along busy corridors in Boulder and up in the Roaring Fork Valley. We’re setting goals for reducing traffic fatalities. We’re remaking streets to make them people-friendly, with basic infrastructure like sidewalks and separated spaces for bike and scooter travel.
Over the next two decades, we need to go big on all of the above and more to ensure everyone has safe and efficient options to get around. We should no longer spend billions on adding highway capacity — it will just fill up and contribute even more congestion to our local roads. That money should be focused on moving people, not cars. That includes dedicated bus lanes and more frequent and reliable service, as well as completing our sidewalk and bicycle systems.
We also need to change our zoning so we build places the right way — where you can walk or roll easily and safely to parks, restaurants, schools and businesses. Devoting so much valuable space to massive parking structures will no longer be needed as people have real ways to move around without depending on their cars.
CP: What did last November’s blue-tide election bode for CoPIRG’s policy agenda? And do you believe Colorado is turning more liberal/progressive as it grows and its demographics shift, or will the pendulum inevitably swing back?
Katz: I don’t believe there was a blue tide. I think it was anti-red whiplash. Whiplash is our current curse, because neither party has succeeded at articulating a vision of the future that resonates with common sense. Job and economic growth are not a panacea for all of our problems. In many ways unchecked growth is creating many of the problems that CoPIRG and society are trying to solve. Our nation needs to identify and embrace a future in which automation will take over many, many jobs, at the same time that people will live motivated, productive, joyful lives. Both are possible.
Until leaders begin expressing an agenda that embraces these realities, there will be no end to the whiplash because the current mantras are creating huge disconnects with what is promised and what is delivered. CoPIRG’s main programmatic focus is pointing out the problems that the whiplash creates.
CP: You champion the rights of consumers as their advocate, watchdog and perhaps last line of defense. But is that role sometimes a double-edged sword for your image? A couple of years ago amid the fidget-spinner craze, CoPIRG issued a report warning of high lead levels in the playthings. Another report found toxic chemicals in popular school supplies. The merits of such findings aside, are you worried at times you’ll come across as a buzzkill — waved off as a naysayer? Is there still an appetite for a latter-day Lorax in a society seemingly defined, for better or worse, by its relationship to retail?
Katz: The real buzzkill is your kid ingesting lead because nobody told you the fidget spinner is contaminated with it. We need a marketplace that puts safety and sanity first, that doesn't treat the creation of toxic or dangerous or unneeded merchandise as a social good. We need an environment that can support human and animal populations over the long term.
I think people agree with us but we never take that support for granted. So we are always working to win hearts and minds and deepen support. The incremental policy changes we advance also build confidence among Coloradans that we can change the world, building momentum for more citizen engagement, which is an important aspect of our work.
I know the appetite exists among Coloradans for our Lorax-like role because every summer, we take our message directly to people, knocking on tens of thousands of doors. We canvass in Denver, up and down the Front Range, and into smaller towns throughout rural parts of Colorado. People respond by taking action from signing petitions to contributing money and becoming a member. I think people recognize that ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. But you also need to present solutions and a vision for what the world can and should be. Ultimately, I think that is motivating.
CP: What is the biggest policy challenge facing Colorado?
Katz: The biggest policy challenge is how we design, build, implement, and pay for a transportation system that can move people from point A to point B safely, efficiently and without undermining our quality of life. Our current transportation system is dirty, dangerous and doesn’t deliver an efficient and affordable way for everyone to move around their community and the state. For example, relying on traditional transportation along I-70 and I-25 undermines our ability to get to so many of the places we love. Prioritizing parking fuels local congestion and hurts our ability to provide the spaces that truly improve our quality of life from parks to space for outdoor dining and nightlife.
CP: What has been the state’s greatest policy stride in the past decade?
Katz: The single biggest policy stride in Colorado began in 2004 when voters approved Amendment 37, a renewable energy standard that put Colorado on a path to get 10% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015. This first incremental action led to a steady stream of follow-up actions over the last decade. In that time, the state standard has been raised a number of times; utilities like Xcel have raised the bar even more; cities across the state have committed to 100% renewable energy, and the legislature has committed us to significant climate-change pollution reduction goals.
Moving toward renewable energy is critical to solving climate change, a truly existential crisis. By being the first state to have a voter-approved renewable energy requirement, especially from an interior red state that voted the same year to re-elect President George W. Bush, Amendment 37 truly launched us on a path to 100% renewable energy not just in Colorado but also building political momentum across the country. It took a lot of additional effort to get us to where we are and we have more to do. But the first step is the hardest and the 2004 voter-approved renewable energy requirement was the critical first step.
CP: How did you get your start in advocacy, and what are the origins of your world view that keeps you engaged in your work?
Katz: As a kid from Boulder, I didn’t have to do anything to be an “environmentalist” except to walk out my front door. But when I went to the University of Virginia for undergrad, I saw that I had really grown up in a bubble.
So when I graduated, I decided to make a difference for a year before following my peers to law school. I got a job working for our sister group, WISPIRG, on a campaign to reduce run-off pollution that was contaminating Wisconsin’s lakes. Pretty soon into the job I put on my hand-me-down suit and walked into some legislator’s offices to lobby them on our proposed solution. After I’d leave their offices, I’d pass by some folks with much nicer suits than mine waiting to lobby against our policy.
Hearing later that some of the legislators we met with were undecided and not ready to support us was deflating. But my colleague at the time said that this was just the beginning — now we’re going to go out and organize farmers, small-business owners, and families from across the state to join us; we’re going to earn media attention around our solution; we’re going to release new research and turn out experts who can highlight the urgency for action. So we did that for two years, and we ultimately won our campaign.
That opened my eyes to how someone can make change. One year became 19 years working with the PIRG network with the last 10 as the CoPIRG Director.
Every year I’m shocked at some of the new problems we need to address and can get frustrated that change doesn’t happen as fast as I want. But change does happen, and the small victories I’ve been a part of have added up to larger, profound impacts. That’s inspiring. Nineteen years ago, I wanted to use my career to make a difference of some kind. I don’t see law school in my immediate future.