Bill Davis was named executive director of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter in August. He has a tough job ahead. Republicans who have controlled state government since 2011 continue to enact laws rolling back environmental regulations that business lobbyists say go too far.
Davis, 56, brings to the position an easy laugh, a detailed grasp of state pollution policy and experience working with the Legislature that stretches back to the 1980s.
A Maryland native who grew up in Pittsburgh, he is one of five children. His mother was a school teacher and Head Start volunteer coordinator. His father was a World War II veteran who trained as a forester, worked as a parks and land use planner, taught at Pennsylvania State University and ended his career as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
Dinner table conversations in the Davis household sometimes alarmed visitors not used to his father’s practice of challenging the children with vigorous lines of questioning on many topics. He recalled a family Christmas when he and his father had a heated debate about a proposal for a hazardous waste landfill.
“The people around us thought we were going to kill each other, and they wondered ‘What was that?’ Well, that was an exchange of information was what that was,” Davis said.
Davis earned wildlife ecology and law degrees from UW-Madison and went on to work as a state legislative aide, and in a variety of capacities including executive director posts and positions that involved lobbying in the Capitol. Davis worked for Wisconsin’s Environmental Decade, Citizens for a Better Environment, the State Environmental Leadership Program, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
His hobby is baking, especially pies, something his mother taught him when he was 7.
His wife, Jane Elder, is executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. Their son, Collin Davis, is a physics student at Beloit College.
I keep hearing that things were quite different at the Capitol when you were there before.
Looking at the guys who are up there now, it’s kind of staggering because, you know, (former Republican Sen.) Mike Ellis was in when I was lobbying, and other Republicans like (Sen.) Walter John Chilson and (Sen.) Dale Schultz. We rarely agreed, but I could at least talk to them. You could have a rational conversation with them but they were also fairly consistent. Where they were coming from was at the core they were trying to represent their districts.
What do you see happening today?
(Clarifying eminent domain powers for the Canadian oil pipeline company) Enbridge in the last budget, or wiping out Dane County’s ability to protect themselves (through spill insurance). That pipeline is going to go through their district, and the chances that something bad happens is significant. And they just don’t seem to care. lt’s very odd compared to what it was like 30 years ago.
Do you have any plans for changing what Sierra Club does?
We’re trying to get people active, quite frankly, who aren’t in Madison or Milwaukee.
Why is that important?
Otherwise solutions are going to be viewed as coming from pointy-headed Ph.Ds in Madison or something and that is not where a lot of the solutions are being demanded. You look at where people fighting the (concentrated animal feeding operations) ... they want local control back so they can do more rational land use planning and things like that.
— Interview by Steven Verburg