Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
It was hot at Ground Zero. A rally was scheduled to begin at noon, the exact moment that the sun would finish climbing over the skyscrapers and flush out the shade. Inside the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan, officials with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Inititative (RGGI, or "Reggie") were auctioning off carbon permits—the price for businesses to release CO2 into the atmosphere
Most protesters came from New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie has promised that the state will withdraw from RGGI by year's end. New Jersey would be the first state to do so since RGGI was formed in 1993, bringing the total number of participants down to nine. Currently, New Hampshire, Maine and New York are also thinking about jumping ship.
Protesters hoped to draw attention to Christie's move and the adverse effects of RGGI so that other states might follow suit. They hope New Jersey will be the first domino to fall.
"We've been battling RGGI, the cap-and-trade scheme, for over a year," said Mike Proto, Communications Director for the New Jersey Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization that helped to bus people across the Hudson for the event.
"Our goal right now is to dismantle RGGI in all 10 states," Proto continued, "It's a tax on electricity, and it costs our state jobs." Proto pointed to the juice company Ocean Spray, which announced last month that it would relocate a plant from South Jersey to Pennsylvania. Ocean Spray cites the high taxes in New Jersey, while outlets like the Wall Street Journal and politicians like State Senator Diane Allen specifically blame energy costs imposed by RGGI. Pennsylvania doesn't participate in the program.
Popular perception at the rally was this: RGGI is nothing but a stealth tax. It doesn't reduce carbon emissions, it just puts a price on them. That price is then handed down to the consumer in the form of higher electricity bills. Then politicians turn around and use the money made from selling carbon permits for whatever purpose they want. Last year, Gov. Christie used $65 million in RGGI dollars to help close the state's budget gap.
Ed Mazlish, a lawyer from Florham Park and co-founder of the Conservative New Jersey blog, said that made Gov. Christie a hypocrite. "If Christie wants to raise taxes, he should raise taxes. And say he's raising taxes," Mazlish said. "He shouldn't smuggle money out of RGGI funds to close a gap he didn't want to close by cutting spending."
Others at the rally called it a wealth redistribution scheme. Some took issue with calling climate change "man-made," and doubted the government's efficacy with respect to environment. Dinosaurs became extinct without any help from humans, one woman argued.
Leading the event was Steve Lonegan, a former gubernatorial candidate and previously the mayor of Bogota, NJ. He's also the Director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity. Objecting to taxes and government efforts toward climate correction, Lonegan also faulted RGGI for a lack of transparency. None of the protesters were allowed inside the Federal Building to see those carbon permits sold.
"We cannot participate in that auction," Lonegan shouted. "We can't see who's buying. We don't know who's holding these carbon permits that are going to drive up electricity costs. It's all a secret. They want it to be a secret because it's nothing more than a moneymaking scheme designed to take advantage of people's concerns about global warming."
Lonegan had to shout because organizers were barred from using a speaker system. Mass was going on at St. Peter's across the street.
Herman Cain had to shout, too. Pulling up in a black SUV right next to the crowd, the Republican presidential hopeful from Atlanta approached the podium to chants of "Run, Herman, Run!"
When Cain realized his microphone wasn't on, he resorted to his natural pipes.
"They call it the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative," Cain began. "I renamed it: R-G-G-R, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Ripoff!" The crowd roared. "Call it what it is," Cain continued, "We're getting more taxes, more regulations when people are looking for jobs? It makes no sense."
Today was about "Reggie," but it was about Herman, too. Cain faces an uphill battle in his quest for nomination, and every stop on the trail counts as an opportunity to win hearts and minds that still aren't made up.
"You've got those that say the restaurant talk show guy out of Atlanta doesn't have a chance," Cain said. "He doesn't have high name I.D., he doesn't have a kajillion dollars, he's never held public office. Well, I think there are a lot of people who don't care that I've never held public office. If you look at what's happening in Washington and the mess we have, most of those people have held public office." Speaking to a crowd of mostly Tea Party people, Cain could expect an emphatic response when he asked, "How's that working out for you?"
It's the same trope that earned many political neophytes a seat in Congress last year, riding the anti-incumbent, Republican wave. Cain's banking on it, and there are at least some people who have his back.
That includes Chris Battaglia from Union, New Jersey. She said that while she still hasn't made up her mind for a Republican favorite in 2012, she likes what she heard from Cain today at the rally. "Also, the fact that he's not a politician makes me even want him more," Battaglia said, "It sounds like he's got a good message."
Bob Cini, also from New Jersey, didn't think much of Cain's appearance. "He didn't say much, just the same rhetoric," Cini said. "I haven't seen anybody who's really impressed me, not yet."
When asked who their top choice was for the Republican primary, most at the rally couldn't say. Rick Santorum's name came up as a candidate many were interested in, but definite choices were in short supply. One thing most people were certain about—they'd never vote for Mitt Romney. Saying that you "like" President Obama is immediate disqualification for many.
Cain certainly doesn't like Obama, or RGGI, or cap-and-trade, or any of the president's favored policies. Quoting the Declaration of Independence, the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," Cain called on the protesters not to give up in their fight to dismantle the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. "When any form of government, state or local or federal, becomes destructive of those ideals, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it," Cain said. "That's what this is about. That's why you're here. That's why I'm running for President of the United States."