Optimistically Green

May 30, 2001 at 12:00 am

When Ralph Nader announced he would run for president in 2000, few people thought he would register very high on the political Richter scale. Now, in the wake of an election so close that some Gore supporters blame the presidency of George W. Bush on Nader’s siphoning of would-be votes for Al Gore, the Green Party has become a household name.

Democrats and Republicans across the country are trying to come to terms with this unwanted stepchild of modern American politics. But will Nader’s 2000 campaign mark a watershed event for the Green Party, or the beginning of its demise?

Nader, on the ballot in 44 states, attracted only 2.7 percent of the national vote — about 2 percent less than needed to qualify the Green Party for matching federal campaign funds in future elections. But the consumer advocate did draw more than 5 percent in 10 states, including 6 percent in Massachusetts, Montana and Hawaii, 7 percent in Vermont and a whopping 10 percent in Alaska.

And 240 Green Party candidates running for almost every kind of political office made it onto 43 state ballots — almost double the number in 1996. Although only 20 of them won, the gain in recognition was a victory in itself, party leaders say.

“A new day is dawning in America politically,” Nader told supporters in Rhode Island a few weeks after the election.

“It’s a long trip ... but not an impossible one.”

The media lambasted Nader for playing a spoiler. “One of the saddest sights in politics is a fading public figure who refuses to concede that his or her time has passed,” wrote columnist Marianne Means. David Bennett, a history professor at Syracuse University, wrote in Montana’s Billings Gazette that Nader not only stymied Gore’s campaign, but he also disgraced himself and the party he represented. Because of Nader, he wrote, “the Green Party has no future as a serious political organization in America.”

Even prominent environmentalists such as the Earth Day Network’s Denis Hayes, fearful that Bush could do extensive damage to environmental protections, called Nader’s campaign “a horrible mistake.”

Anti-Naderisms such as these are enough to make a Green turn red. True democracy is about voting for the candidates one believes in, they say, not settling for a lesser evil. And when almost 3 million people cast their ballots for Nader, they weren’t only voting for the man, they were sending a message: We’re disillusioned with corporatized American politics and we deserve something better.

Veteran Greens say theirs is not the Nader Party. Green Mike Feinstein, elected mayor of Santa Monica in November, says any anti-Nader backlash is “just a historical blip on the screen.”

Annie Goeke, co-chair of the Association of State Green Parties and a 2000 candidate for auditor general of Pennsylvania, agrees. She expects the party to attract broader support, especially from minorities, labor, students and other demographic groups that have expressed high dissatisfaction with the political status quo. “The people who are involved with the Green Party feel as though they are participants in it,” she says.

On Nov. 7, the Greens got the third-highest number of votes in the United States, usurping the fractious and long-faltering Reform Party.

But party leaders cite victories at the local level. Despite their underdog status as both third-party candidates and as fundraisers, Greens managed a respectable showing in several races and won a few high-profile ones. In all, 79 Greens now hold elected office in 21 states, making the Green presence in American politics the strongest it has ever been.

That presence is especially strong in California. Larry Robinson was re-elected mayor of Sebastopol, 50 miles north of San Francisco, and two new Greens on its City Council have produced the only Green Party majority in the country. Matt Gonzalez was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Feinstein was elected mayor of Santa Monica. Medea Benjamin’s campaign for U.S. Senate — although unsuccessful — generated considerable interest among progressives throughout the state.

Feinstein says the party made great strides in 2000, and the Greening of America may not be far behind. “We’ve developed a substantially larger activist and fundraising base,” Feinstein says. “The Green Party is stronger than ever.”

Goeke says the party’s biggest challenge right now is to keep the momentum going. She points to the quick rise and fall of the Reform Party as a lesson in how to squander postelection third-party potential. “It proves that you have to have strong grass roots across the country,” she says.

“It’s very important that we build correctly and strongly, that we’re a true grassroots party.”

Feinstein agrees: “What we need to do is continue to work on sensible, unglamorous day-to-day strategies that are winning us local races and gaining members.”

In five years, Feinstein hopes to see at least 200 Greens holding elected office throughout the country, public financing of elections and proportional representation on the local level.

Nader, who says that “party building” was one of his objectives in the campaign, also predicts a groundswell of two-party-busting support for local, state and federal Green Party candidates in 2002.

But will the man Life magazine named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century run again in 2004, at age 70? It’s too soon to tell, say the Greens. “He hasn’t told us directly if he wants to run,” says Goeke.

This article originally appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine, where it was accompanied by an interview with Ralph Nader. Read it at www.emagazine.com.

April Reese is a writer and editor at Greenwire, an environmental news agency in Washington, D.C. Send comments to [email protected]