The Green Party gets serious
Intent on becoming a viable third party, the Greens are supplementing their
grassroots efforts with a dose of political savvy
by Seth Gitell
DENVER, COLORADO -- Anyone expecting a granola fest at this past weekend's
Green Party presidential nominating convention would have been disappointed.
Sure, there were plenty of Birkenstock-clad conventioneers, but they were
overshadowed by those shod in wingtips and loafers. If this convention was
about anything, it was about sartorial image. There were suits on the
presidential candidate. Suits on the candidate's aides. And suits on the
Advance people? Yep. This isn't your groovy mother's Green Party. This
political movement, which grew out of the grassroots anti-nuke environmental
activism of the 1980s, is maturing as it grapples with global trade policies
and political reform. The Green presence at last fall's Seattle protests
against the World Trade Organization boosted the party's public profile. And
when party leaders, including members of presidential candidate Ralph Nader's
campaign, know they need to dress in suits and employ advance people, that says
as much about where the Greens are going as the party's platform and policy
The organizers of the Association of US Green Parties (ASGP) convention clearly
set out to put a new face on their brand of progressive politics. The
controversial decision to hold the convention in the tony Renaissance Hotel --
with its Brasserie Restaurant, glass elevators, and space to host the national
press corps (which included CNN, NBC, the New York Times, the Los
Angeles Times, and the Washington Post) -- was a deliberate break
with Green tradition. And the convention, which drew 2000 delegates and
supporters, even featured a slick five-minute movie featuring catchy music and
photos of Nader in his early days.
That's not to say the Greens are all about style sans substance: the Green
Party is on the brink of a major growth spurt at the local and national levels,
and both mainstream political parties would be foolish to ignore it. Unlike
other US third parties -- and even, to an extent, the Republican Party in
Massachusetts -- the Greens are hustling to turn themselves into a credible
alternative by running candidates for elective office across the country. "Our
sustainability as a long-term party will depend on the municipal level,"
explains Ross Mirkarimi, the convention's smooth media coordinator.
At a pre-convention press conference designed to showcase some of these local
Green politicians, Mirkarimi introduced Michael Feinstein, a Santa Monica city
councilor. Both Mirkarimi and Feinstein were impeccably dressed -- Feinstein
sported a blue suit and yellow power tie, with his long hair pulled back into a
tight ponytail. "We're showing the credibility of people in office who show
they can govern," Feinstein said. The numbers tell the story: in 1996, the
Greens had 43 elected officeholders; today that number is near 80. The Reform
Party, by contrast, lists just eight officials nationwide, and their
highest-ranking one -- Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura -- abandoned the party.
The sparsely attended press conference -- the press cares about Nader only as a
November spoiler -- also featured Elizabeth Horton Sheff, an African-American
city councilor from Hartford, Connecticut; Art Goodtimes, a county commissioner
in Colorado; Julie Jacobson, a member of Hawaii's county council; and Gail
Dixon, a member of the Washington, DC, Board of Education.
An even bigger sign of credibility is that Nader's Green Party effort is fueled
with political veterans -- most of them refugees from the liberal wing of the
Democratic Party. Steve Cobble, the former delegate director of Jesse Jackson's
1988 presidential effort, serves as Nader's informal strategist. Steven
Schmidt, an aide to Michael Dukakis in 1988 and a former senior adviser to
Jerry Brown's 1992 presidential campaign, worked as the chairman of the
platform committee. Nader and the Greens aren't fooling around this year; they
hope to build on the unexpected success that both Jackson and Brown had when
they ran. Jackson won close to a third of the primary vote in Pennsylvania,
Oregon, and California, and won some Southern states outright; Brown won
Connecticut and shaped the public debate during the summer months of his
The Greens may never be as successful as they've been in Germany, where the
party was once synonymous with angry protests against the placement of American
missiles and where Joscha Fischer, a Green Party member, is now foreign
minister. To be sure, Germany's system of parliamentary politics makes it
easier for marginal parties to succeed than America's two-party system does.
Nevertheless, Ralph Nader figures he'll draw support from voters fed up with Al
Gore and George W. Bush -- and the parties they represent. He may also get a
boost next month, when activists sympathetic with Green Party principles try to
embarrass the two major parties at their conventions in Philadelphia and Los
Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of all this is that none of it -- from the
dress of the party aides to the venue of the convention to the party platform
-- happened by accident. While the Reform Party has devolved into chaotic
internal feuding, the Green Party has been quietly planning for its moment --
and this may be it.
WE HAVE a complex strategy," explains John Rensenbrink, a professor of
political science and ecology at Bowdoin College, in Maine. Rensenbrink, who
founded the Maine Green Party, is considered one godfather of the movement in
America. Rensenbrink relates, in abbreviated form, the chronicle that makes up
the bulk of his 1999 book Against the Odds: The Green Transformation of
American Politics (Leopold Press). During the first part of their history
-- from 1984 to 1990 -- the Greens concentrated on building local groups that
would focus on energy waste sites, nuclear development, and tenants' rights.
Beginning in the 1990s, the Greens entered the electoral realm, running for
municipal offices in California and New Mexico. Then, in 1996, the Green Party
put forward Nader for the first time. "This year Nader is a better candidate.
He's connecting with our basic themes," says Rensenbrink. "If he gets us five
percent of the vote, which is not unlikely, we will be in a new situation."
Indeed. If Nader pulls five percent of the vote in November, the Green Party
will be eligible for about $13 million in federal matching campaign
Nader just might pull it off. And if he does, he can thank Bill Clinton. The
Green Party would not be where it is today without the rightward shift taken by
the Democratic Party in 1992. Clinton's election as a "New Democrat" -- a
pro-business centrist -- provided an opening further to the left, in much the
same way that the GOP's seeming moderation has advanced the Christian Coalition
and groups further to the right. The Clinton administration is a steadfast
supporter of free trade, anathema to labor and other progressives. Clinton
lobbied hard to get the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement passed, and, more
recently, pushed through permanent normal trade relations with China.
Clinton has also placed fundraising at the center of the Democratic agenda. The
excesses of this system -- as has been exhaustively reported -- have alienated
many voters, whom Green Party strategists hope to lure to their party. To do
this requires emphasizing Green Party principles that speak to American voters
while downplaying those that would make the Greens seem like a nutty movement
ready to declare it "Year One" as soon as they got into power. Hence the suits,
the Renaissance Hotel, and the presence of Steve Schmidt.
Schmidt's official job was to act as chair of the platform committee of the
ASGP convention. Unofficially, his job involved forging a platform that Nader
could run on. He took 18 months to craft just such a platform -- one that
emphasizes labor rights, health care, and campaign-finance reform. Perhaps his
most significant success, however, was organizing things in such a way that
when delegates came to Denver to debate the platform, there was little they
could do to change what was presented to them.
Schmidt, a youthful 51, worked on Jerry Brown's 1976 presidential campaign. In
1988, he joined Dennis Thomson -- then Dukakis's deputy chief of staff -- on
the Dukakis presidential effort. In 1992 he became a senior adviser to Jerry
Brown's campaign. It's all but forgotten now, but in 1992, Clinton's most
energetic challenge late in the campaign came from Brown, not Paul Tsongas, who
quickly faded after Florida. Brown developed a populist appeal with the "Take
Back America" platform crafted by Schmidt, who says he wanted to focus on
running a campaign based on "comprehensive political reform." And he learned a
lesson even more important than the need to build a broadly appealing platform.
Near the height of Brown's popularity in the campaign, New York Times
columnist A.M. Rosenthal asked the candidate how he thought he could govern
given the amount of criticism he had leveled at Congress. Brown answered that
Congress was ungovernable. Political pundits and the media immediately took the
answer as a sign that Brown was not a serious candidate. "The mistake in that
campaign was, when we were the frontrunner, not stepping up to the level of
credibility we needed," Schmidt recalls. It's a mistake he vows he won't make
again. "Getting leverage and not being marginalized are part of our strategy,"
Soon after Clinton secured the nomination in 1992, Schmidt approached Ron
Brown, then the head of the Democratic National Committee, to discuss policy.
Schmidt urged him to embrace campaign-finance reform. The Democrats could never
get nationwide health-insurance reform or achieve anything else of substance
without taking money out of the political system, Schmidt said. Not
surprisingly, Ron Brown, a fundraiser par excellence, rebuffed Schmidt. The
rest, as they say, is history. The Democratic Party moved right, and Schmidt
joined the Greens.
In 1994, Schmidt ran for lieutenant governor in New Mexico as a Green Party
member. He lost. Undaunted, he took the ideas that had been at the center of
Jackson's presidential effort in 1988 and Jerry Brown's in 1992 and made that
the basis for the New Mexico Green Party platform. By December 1994, Schmidt
was working with Green Party members in California to launch a major
presidential effort based on a serious platform. In 1996, the Greens met at the
University of New Mexico to strategize for the presidential effort. The group
came up with a shortlist of candidates for president that included Jim
Hightower and Ralph Nader. Hightower remained a Democrat; Nader agreed to let
the Greens put his name on the ballot.
The ensuing campaign was a disaster. Although Nader was on the ballot in 21
states, he didn't campaign for office and garnered only one percent of the
vote. Green Party insiders attribute this to lack of time and resources and
insist this year will be different. And so far, it has been. One reason is
that Schmidt has been joined by Steve Cobble, who is volunteering his
services as a political strategist for Nader.
Cobble got his start with the 1972 McGovern campaign -- the same one that
Clinton worked on. Now a political consultant in Arlington, Virginia, Cobble
made his political reputation as a top aide to Jesse Jackson in 1988. As
Jackson's delegate coordinator, Cobble figured out how to get the candidate the
most delegates -- and clout -- at the '88 Democratic convention. One
particularly well-known victory for Cobble came with the Texas delegates.
Although Dukakis won the Texas primary, Jackson won its caucuses, giving the
two candidates virtual parity in delegates. Cobble was impressed with the way
Jackson reached beyond blacks to progressive whites, union members, and
working-class people to form his coalition. "It was a much broader quilt than
anyone would have thought," he says.
It's such a coalition that Cobble and Schmidt now hope to put together for
Nader. The Greens want to build on some of the successes of Jackson, Brown, and
even Ross Perot and Senator John McCain. The Nader campaign plans to target
young people, the independents who came out in such large numbers for McCain,
and the eight million people who voted for Perot in 1996. With Buchanan now the
presumptive Reform Party head, the Nader people see that party as having moved
too far to the right to appeal as a credible third-party alternative.
The goal now is to get Nader into the political debates, which currently
restrict participants to those polling at least 15 percent of the vote.
The Boston law firm Palmer & Dodge is representing Nader in a lawsuit
against the Federal Election Commission challenging the corporate sponsorship
of presidential debates. If Nader succeeds, he could become a vehicle for
American disgust with the two-party system, à la Jesse Ventura.
"The more the two parties are driven by money, the more mainstream turf that's
ready to be occupied by a new leader or new party," Cobble says. "With
globalization and campaign finance, it's easier now to be a new voice and be
mainstream at the same time. A vast number of Americans are not being
represented on these issues. You can write a Green Party platform that is
mainstream in America."
The Green Party platform that passed in Denver reflects this. The first section
calls for a "real reform, accountability, and responsiveness in government."
The platform lays out key areas of focus -- democracy, economic justice and
labor rights, human rights, health care, and the environment. Though all these
sections are far more left-leaning then anything to be found in the Democratic
or Republican platforms, there is language aimed at the solidly middle class.
For example: "we acknowledge the many challenges responsible SMALL BUSINESS
must overcome to remain competitive with big business."
By Monday, June 26, it became clear that the Green Party and Nader had
accomplished many of the convention's goals. CNN had broadcast a report on
Nader's nomination, focusing on the challenge it posed to the two major parties
and Nader's push to participate in debates. Writing in the New York
Times, Michael Janofsky led with Nader's "blistering attack against
Republicans, Democrats, Congress, corporate America and the commission that
sets the rules of presidential debates." In the Boston Globe, Yvonne
Abraham quoted Nader attacking "the Bush and Gore duopoly." Most press reports
focused on the supposed corruption of the two-party system -- the exact message
that the convention's media planners hoped would get out to the mass public.
NOT ALL the delegates, however, were pleased. Members of the Massachusetts
delegation were particularly irate with the way the convention was organized;
by coincidence, they're also the delegates most opposed to the direction in
which the ASGP has taken the Green movement. Massachusetts is the home of the
Greens/Green Party USA, a national group based in Lawrence that was founded in
1991 and eschews the more traditional approach being taken by the ASGP.
Jonathan Leavitt, 33, is the co-chair of the Massachusetts Green Party -- a
group affiliated with both national Green organizations -- and an official in
the Greens/Green Party USA. Leavitt, shaved head and all, dressed down for the
convention and objected to its being set at a major hotel.
"This is a lot different than what Greens usually do at these kinds of events,"
said Leavitt. "When we have gatherings we have them at organic fields, at
farms, local halls." He also objected to the appearance of people who looked
just like classic political operatives within the ranks of the Green Party.
"There's a certain ethic that goes with the uniform. I've never trusted people
in suits and ties, and I don't think I'm going to now," said Leavitt, who
successfully sponsored a resolution calling on both wings of the Green Party to
begin negotiations aimed at ironing out differences. "I think a lot of those
people think of themselves as movers and shakers." Leavitt criticized the lack
of real platform discussion during the convention, and complained that it was
planned by a small group of people who are "conservative within the Green
Party." "They're going to hear about it. It's never going to happen again," he
Finally, Leavitt took issue with the most successful Green Party in the world
-- the Germans -- for selling out. And he warned that the same thing is
"I think Joscha Fischer is an insult to Green values. He exemplifies what
compromises people make to remain in power," he said, a circle of Green Party
USA members beating on various kinds of drums around him. "You've got people
who see an opportunity and take it."
Perhaps trying to deflect some of this tension, Green Party officials paired
Nader, himself not an official member of the party, with a person much beloved
by the Green rank and file: Winona "No Nukes" LaDuke. The vice-presidential
nominee roused the delegates at the Friday-night opening reception, which was
held before most national press had arrived. A native Ojibwe activist who lives
on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, LaDuke began her speech in her
native tongue: "I greet you in my language," she said. "That's my response to
English-only." LaDuke then addressed the crowd on her themes of "diversity" and
First, she blasted the devastation of the Great Plains -- a subject that
resonates in Denver, which is surrounded by the parched desert-like country --
and the buffalo that used to live there. "It's time for America to stop killing
buffalo," LaDuke said. "We need the courage to talk about the buffalo commons."
LaDuke also criticized the Vatican for backing an American move to use a Native
American sacred site for an astronomical observatory. "The Vatican maintains
that if there are actually aliens out there, they want to be the first to know.
It is incredibly difficult to have a sacred site desecrated by the Vatican,"
Turning her sights on American law-enforcement policy, LaDuke exclaimed, "We
need to end the COINTEL period. We need to let Mumia out of jail." (COINTELPRO
was the CIA's illegal program of domestic spying on radicals during the 1960s.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is a death-row prisoner in Pennsylvania.) She likened the
plight of Native Americans to that of the Jews, who received reparations for
slave labor, and argued that the American government should back similar
funding for Native Americans. "I know these are difficult issues to talk about.
I know they make some of you uncomfortable," LaDuke concluded, to chants of
"Go, Green, Go."
Interestingly, when LaDuke spoke on Saturday at a press conference with Nader,
she gave a watered-down version of her Friday-night talk. Gone were the shots
at the Vatican and the call for reparations. Instead, in much more subdued
tones, she talked about the need to "raise the minimum wage in this country to
a living wage" and to bring an end to "an energy policy based on corporate
By Sunday -- the day the Nader-LaDuke team was officially nominated -- Nader's
running mate had disappeared. Hightower gave a rousing speech calling for
Nader's nomination. The Green Party showed a five-minute movie featuring clips
of Nader's crusade against General Motors and appearances on The Phil
Donahue Show and The Mike Douglas Show during the 1970s. The
movie had all the pizzazz of the DNC's famous "Man from Hope" biography of Bill
Clinton. When Nader finished his dense two-hour speech -- "Castro without the
charisma," quipped one wag -- he was led off the stage by a sharply dressed
entourage. There was even a handler wearing a dark official-looking windbreaker
with SECURITY OFFICER marked on the back.
WITH ITS polished political operatives, snappy movies, and impeccably timed
release of blue, white, and green balloons upon the conclusion of Nader's
speech, the Green Party convention was a hit. And the party took a significant
step toward becoming a viable threat to the two major parties. But to be
successful this year, it will need great discipline to keep both of its
candidates on track with messages that will speak to the left as well as to
America's growing mass of disenchanted voters from the middle.
Although getting into the national debates will be difficult, it may be even
harder for Green Party leaders to keep their candidates on message given
LaDuke's instincts and the dissent within the Green Party. The wild card is the
Green-allied protesters who plan to target both major parties' national
conventions next month, as well as the national debates. The Massachusetts
Green Party's Leavitt has vowed that national debate organizers will need
helicopters to get Bush and Gore into the October 3 debate at the John F.
Kennedy Library. How televised footage of these mêlées plays in
Peoria could either help or hurt the Green Party come November.
For all the polish on display in Denver, one thing is unsettling about the
nomination of Nader -- the party's reticence about his background beyond the
boilerplate details about his education and consumer activism. Like Michael
Dukakis, Ralph Nader is the son of immigrants.
He grew up outside Hartford
with Lebanese-born parents, and is the first Arab-American presidential
candidate in American history. To most Americans, these details resonate; isn't
this the quintessential American story? That there was no mention of these
facts -- and no family photos from Nader's youth -- seems to reflect the
European-left origins of the American Greens.
Riding in the elevator after Nader's valedictory were his mother, Rose,
carrying a large sunflower, and his sisters. Any other political party would
have made much of Nader's personal story and trumpeted his family support. That
the Green Party didn't suggests both the promise and peril of this important
new political movement.
Seth Gitell can be reached at email@example.com.