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Newsweek Online

Under the hood of the green machine
By Brian Braiker
May 17, 2004

KEY EXCERPT: Both Nader and the Greens contend that the two-party system is unfair because the candidate with the most electoral votes wins, even if opposed by a majority of voters. Furthermore, third-party candidates are labeled "spoilers" if they split a major-party candidate's vote, as Nader did in 2000. Instead, third parties advocate instant runoff voting, where people vote for their favorite candidate, but also indicate subsequent choices by ranking their preferences. The candidate who receives a majority of first choices wins.

There is a divisive Green on the scene this election season. He’s getting a goodly amount of press for a controversial public decision he has recently made. And he’s not Ralph Nader. 

Jason West, the mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., was charged Tuesday with 19 criminal counts for performing 25 same-sex weddings. The 26-year-old West pleaded not guilty on Wednesday, claiming he was fighting for “civil rights.” That he is a Green Party politician provides insight into the issues the progressive party sees as important in this election season. That he is the mayor of a small college town of about 6,000 located 75 miles north of Manhattan is a clue as to where the Green Party has been (and continues) focusing much of its campaign efforts: locally.

“It’s not incidental at all” that West is a Green, says Ben Manski, one of the national party’s cochairs. “Greens have been at the cutting edge of the gay-rights movement both in the United States and internationally.” After all, Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's Democratic mayor whose city hall has served as the site for more than 3,400 same-sex weddings recently, only narrowly defeated Matt Gonzalez, the Green candidate, last year. But New Paltz and San Francisco are isolated battlefields in a broader culture war. The Greens are at the strange crossroads of an inchoate political party. Does the Green Party have any real future? Or is the system, as the Greens contend, unfairly constructed, blocking third parties from participating in the electoral process? The answers you get are likely to vary with the Green you ask.

After the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader, who ran as the Green Party’s nominee, was widely accused by liberals of denying Democrats the White House by drawing votes away from Al Gore. Plus he failed to receive the 5 percent of the national vote that would have qualified the Greens for federal funding. About two weeks ago, Nader announced his intention to run again—this time as an independent. But don’t expect that to mean the romance between Nader and the Greens has run its course. Quite the contrary. “The entrance of Mr. Nader to the general field only makes our prospects more interesting in 2004,” says Manski. Why? Because as the Greens spend the next three months choosing a presidential candidate (in a process that very roughly parallels the Democratic Party’s primary season with statewide votes and meetings, culminating in a convention this summer) more and more Greens are likely to throw their support behind Nader—including two of the three leading candidates for the party's nomination.

But Nader's not even running as the Green Party candidate, right? Sort of. Even though Nader has so far declined to seek the Green Party nomination, he could be drafted at the party's June convention in Milwaukee. (This is not unprecedented—in 1952 Adlai Stevenson became Democratic Party's nominee despite having resisted attempts to draft him.) “I think probably the best thing the Greens could do would be to endorse Ralph Nader,” says Peter Camejo, a candidate for the Green Party nomination who recently ran in California’s gubernatorial recall election. Camejo says he plans to free his delegates to vote for whomever they want at the party's convention.  “Nader’s campaign is going to be much more powerful than people realize,” he says.

But not all Greens agree (“you put four Greens together, you get five opinions,” jokes Camejo). David Cobb, the party’s general counsel and current front runner for the nomination, feels that if Nader were truly interested in expanding the party, he wouldn’t have chosen to run as an independent. “I totally respect there are Greens who want [Nader] and they have every right to participate in draft-Nader efforts,” he says. “I don’t think Ralph Nader would be the right candidate for the Green Party in 2004. I think that the Green Party really needs a candidate who’s committed to growing the Green Party.” To that end, Cobb aims to increase party membership, increase participation in states where Greens can’t formally register and help local candidates get elected. “My secondary goal is to run a campaign where we will culminate with George Bush out of the White House.” If that entails not campaigning in tight states like Florida, where the last election was decided, so be it. “I know that I am not going to get elected president in 2004,” he says.

Nader, for his part, expresses vague solidarity with the Greens while assuming, for now, the mantle of independent. The current goal of his campaign, he says, is to get on the ballot in every state as a third-party candidate, a process that varies from state to state. “Independent candidates and third parties are in the same boat: They’re excluded and harassed and obstructed,” he tells NEWSWEEK.  “We were just going through yesterday the 50 state laws against third parties and independents. If you saw that, you would just throw your hands up in total despair and say, ‘I can’t believe this is America!’” Both Nader and the Greens contend that the two-party system is unfair because the candidate with the most electoral votes wins, even if opposed by a majority of voters. That's how third-party candidates get slapped with the label "spoiler" if they split a major-party candidate's vote, as Nader did in 2000. Instead, third parties advocate instant runoff voting, where people vote for their favorite candidate, but also indicate subsequent choices by ranking their preferences. The candidate who receives a majority of first choices wins.

Still, by focusing his campaign on states like Florida, Nader may lose whatever good will he has left: in the first Associated Press poll since Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry secured the Democratic nomination, Kerry and Bush were neck and neck while Nader seemed to have garnered enough support to affect the outcome. Bush had 46 percent of the vote, Kerry 45 percent. Nader was at 6 percent, winning votes from mostly young educated liberals. 

More than running for president, what it really boils down to for pro- and anti-Nader Greens alike is expanding the party base and pushing for instant-runoff voting. And the best way to do that, argues Mike Feinstein, is not necessarily by aiming for the White House—a one-person office—but for city and state posts nationwide. Feinstein, an affable Santa Monica, Calif., city council member and former mayor, says a Nader candidacy for any party helps advance the debate. “When we are asking for electoral reform to get proportional representation, we can say, ‘Look, there are Greens who are in municipal government who are functioning, capable and effective',” he says. “Clearly this is an ideology that has its place at the table in American politics. Why then isn’t it in place at the state and federal level? Because of the voting system.” He comes armed with statistics: in 1985, two states ran three Green candidates who won zero elections. In 2002, 40 states ran 559 candidates who won 79 elections. Baby steps have gone some distance at the local level; the next goal is to transform those wins into momentum on the national stage.

But short of a truly galvanizing message, how far can the Greens—or any third party—go in this election? Not very, says Al From. History, says the centrist founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, is not on the party’s side. “Our American political system is designed in a sense to be a two-party system,” he says. “The history of third-party movements is: sometimes you get a strong third-party candidate, but if they’re going to go anywhere they either replace, or get brought into, one of the major parties.” As an example, he cites George Wallace and the segregationist American Independent party of 1968. The fringe right-wing group was eventually absorbed by the Southern GOP, he says, changing “the whole nature of American politics because the Solid South [had been] a Democratic Solid South.”

And he does not buy the Greens' argument that the two-party system is inherently unfair and limits debate. "I don’t see any driving force right now [with people saying], 'OK, both parties are awful; there’s not a dime's worth of difference and we need a third party'," says From. "I think that argument is wrong, and I don’t think people believe it and I don’t have any sense that argument will take hold at all." Ralph Nader doesn’t worry him in this election because he believes Democrats and other liberals who voted for him in 2000 learned their lesson. And aside from Nader, who is currently running as an independent anyway, the Greens simply don’t have a symbol or a person around whom they can rally. “It’s a long haul” to legitimacy, he says.

Don’t tell that to Mike Feinstein. Gay marriage, he says, is certainly “a galvanizing issue for the Greens. The right for gays and lesbians to marry is part of our national platform,” he says. “This is another example of clear distinctions between Greens and Democrats, which should help people understand that we are not an appendage of the Democrats—or Republicans—but our own distinct party, with our own distinct platform.” Perhaps. But will gay marriage be a big enough issue for the Greens? Here they may actually have one thing in common with the mainstream parties: it seems to depend on which candidates end up in bed with them.


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