Sherwood Boehlert, a G.O.P Moderate in the House, Dies at 84

A champion of environmentalism who chided climate change, he was among the last of the relatively progressive Rockefeller Republicans.,


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Sherwood L. Boehlert, a 12-term moderate Republican congressman from upstate New York who bucked his party’s right-wing shift by standing firm as an ardent environmentalist, died on Tuesday in a hospice care center in New Hartford, N.Y. He was 84.

The cause was complications of dementia, his wife, Marianne Boehlert, said.

As a member of the House from 1983 to 2007 and chairman of the Science Committee from 2001 to 2006, Mr. Boehlert (pronounced BOE-lert) successfully championed legislation that imposed higher fuel economy standards for vehicles and legislation that, following the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001, empowered the federal government to investigate structural failures the way it examines aircraft accidents.

In 1990, he galvanized moderate Republicans in a bipartisan coalition that amended the Clean Air Act to reduce the pollution produced by coal-fueled power plants in the Midwest, which contributed to acid rain that was fatal to fish in Adirondack lakes.

He later chided global warming skeptics, inviting his fellow Republicans to “open their minds.”

“Why do so many Republican senators and representatives think they are right and the world’s top scientific academies and scientists are wrong?” he wrote in an opinion essay for The Washington Post in 2010. “I would like to be able to chalk it up to lack of information or misinformation.”

For someone whose closest exposure to formal training in science was a high school physics course (he received a C), Mr. Boehlert built a solid reputation in that discipline among congressional colleagues of both parties, as well as scientists and environmentalists.

National Journal called him the “Green Hornet” for his willingness to challenge fellow Republicans on the environment. Congressional Quarterly listed him among the 50 most effective members of Congress.

After Republicans seized control of the House in 1994, he helped resist efforts to weaken the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act; supported science education and a greater investment in research, including through the Department of Homeland Security; pushed to impose standards for voting machines in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election; and favored additional resources for volunteer firefighters.


Representative Boehlert, center, with the North Carolina Democrat Tim Valentine, left, and the Pennsylvania Republican Curt Weldon, demonstrating their fire extinguisher skills to promote Fire Prevention Week in 1993.Credit…Chris Martin/CQ Roll Call via Associated Press

Sherwood Louis Boehlert, who was known as Sherry, was born on Sept. 28, 1936, in Utica, N.Y. His father was also named Sherwood. His mother was Elizabeth (Champoux) Boehlert.

After serving in the Army, he graduated from Utica College in 1961 and managed public relations for the Wyandotte Chemical Company.

Lured into politics as a supporter of relatively progressive New York Republicans like Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and Senator Jacob K. Javits, he went to work for Representative Alexander Pirnie, an upstate Republican, becoming his chief of staff. He later held the same job for Mr. Pirnie’s successor, Donald J. Mitchell, also a Republican.

He ran successfully for Oneida County executive and, after serving a four-year term, was elected to Congress in 1982. His district, in Central New York, included the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, which helped account for the Yankee regalia in his office, as well as Cornell University. Unlike many of his colleagues, he would return home to his district every weekend.

When he announced in 2006 that he would not seek re-election, he told The Syracuse Post-Standard that he regretted the increasing division in Washington.

“I came to Capitol Hill 42 years ago, and I have never seen a higher level of partisanship and a lower level of tolerance for the other guy’s point of view,” he said.

After Mr. Boehlert’s death, Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who is the Senate majority leader, praised him for his “rich legacy, his support of science, his commitment to combating climate change, and his deep love” for his district.

Mr. Boehlert married Marianne Willey in 1976. Along with her, he is survived by two children, Tracy VanHook and Leslie Wetteland, and a stepson, Mark Brooks, from his marriage to Jean Bone, which ended in divorce; a stepdaughter, Brooke Phillips, from his wife’s first marriage; and six grandchildren.

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