Get the good guys together

We are lost, all of us, who long for universal health care, a living wage and dignified employment, alternatives to a prison and war state, basic environmental standards ... no one has a clue anymore how any of it might be achieved. —Tom Ness

Tom Ness is one of the metro area’s authentic treasures, a gentle soul who has devoted the last two years to keeping something called the Green House running.

There, in a few tiny rooms above a guitar studio at Nine Mile and Woodward, Ness presides over a sort of progressive political and cultural salon, pausing only to publish Jam Rag, his longtime music magazine, from an office next door.

Several nights a week, the Green House bustles with activity. Artists perform. Professors, activists, and those promoting causes lecture to interested audiences; groups of citizens endlessly discuss issues from veganism to animal rights. But most often, these days, they discuss ways to stop what seems our inevitable rush to war.

The place is a treasure, if a somewhat scruffy one. Officially, the whole purpose of it is to grow the Green Party. But though Ness and Co. might disagree with me, the political mission hasn’t been happening in any meaningful way.

For if this month’s election was disastrous for the Democrats, it was a near-death experience for the Greens. Statewide, their candidates did worse than two years ago. Doug Campbell, the Green running for governor, got a mere 25,236 votes out of 3.2 million, way less than 1 percent, despite campaigning hard.

Bafflingly, the one Green who did make a difference was the eccentric Jerry Kaufman, a perpetual Libertarian candidate who, for mysterious reasons, got the Green Party nomination this year. He netted 47,894 votes … 10 times the size of Republican Mike Cox’s cliffhanger victory for attorney general. Afterward, an angry Democrat told me Green was an acronym for “Getting Republicans Elected Every November.”

That’s some of what led Tom Ness to, first, the dismal conclusion at the head of this column … and then, to start thinking. He realized that as long as progressives continue to beat each other’s heads in, no-goodniks will keep getting elected.

Which means it’s time for cooperation. “Democrats have to face that the Green Party is here to stay. But Greens have to face that Washington and Lansing will not be ours to run for a long time, if ever, and we must abandon these dangerous fantasies,” said Ness. He learned the lesson the hard way. Two years ago, in his political childhood, he had the stuffing beaten out of him by U.S. Rep. Sander Levin.

Interestingly, one of the pillars of the old left, a man who was fighting for worker rights before Tom Ness was born, agrees. Al Fishman, a honcho with Peace Action of Michigan, has long believed that voting reform is the key to change. Thanks to Florida and 2000, the corruption and inaccuracy of our current system are now clear to all.

Both Ness and Fishman like an idea called IRV — Instant Runoff Voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. If nobody gets 50 percent, then the second choices are counted. Germany and several other European countries have some form of this. That way, voters could feel free to vote for third parties without having to worry that they were helping elect what Geoffrey Fieger likes to call the “evil of two lessers.”

Had IRV been in force in Florida in 2000, nobody could have blamed Ralph Nader for the result, and the shrub would be back in Texas, fighting tumbleweeds.

Not surprisingly, the political establishment doesn’t want any part of IRV. But the medical establishment fought rules forcing doctors to wash their hands when germ theory was first discovered, and reason won out in the end.

Accordingly, the Green House and allies are planning a meeting, tentatively Jan. 11, to start to put together as wide a coalition as they can to call for what both Al and Tom see as a broad statewide coalition for voter reform, and perhaps other issues.

None of this is going to be easy. The powerful interest groups which control the Democratic Party want no part of it. And the Greens have a lot of structural weaknesses. They have next to no African-American members, and are regarded with suspicion and contempt by essentially the entire labor movement.

Nor do they have many bargaining chips … except that their handful of votes is why Lansing has a right-wing congressman named Mike Rogers, and why the pseudo-fascist John Ashcroft is disgracing the office of attorney general of the United States.

What is clear is that in the present climate, those who hate the way things are going can’t afford to be divided. Thanks in part to the peace movement, Bush has been forced to at least delay the war he wants, as Fishman rightly observed, “so bad he can taste it.”

But you can’t count on peace holding. Sooner or later, our cowboy is likely to find a way to start gunslinging. By the time the little band of progressives holds its convention, things may look a whole lot worse than they are now. And common sense may have a better chance in a world where peace clearly doesn’t have one.


Kick out the jams: Speaking of which … University of Detroit Mercy business professor Mike “Dr. Detroit” Whitty says there hasn’t been an anti-war concert here in decades. So he’s putting together a “Give Peace a Dance” concert at the Magic Stick on Dec. 8, the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Muruga Booker and his Global Village Ceremonial Band will be the draw. The $10 cover will help sponsor a big peace conference the good doctor is sponsoring at the university Sept. 12-14, 2003.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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