Green Party candidate Camejo counts on voter disdain for Gray Walnut Creek businessman won't be governor but moves his party forward, broadening its appeal

By Josh Richman
Published October 5th 2002 in Oakland Tribune
Peter Camejo believes in alternatives -- solar energy instead of fossil fuels, drug treatment instead of prison, workers' rights instead of corporate welfare.

And, of course, Green instead of Gray.

The Green gubernatorial candidate hopes voters' distaste for incumbent Democrat Gray Davis will buoy his shoestring campaign above the single-digit fate awaiting most third-party candidates.

That's not to say this '60s-activist turned socially responsible investment broker believes he will be California's next governor. Camejo, 62, of Walnut Creek, mostly wants to aid Greens' incremental push toward electoral viability.

"This is getting really exciting," he said. "The Greens are obviously making enormous headway in this campaign."

He and the rest of the Green slate have tried to broaden the party's appeal beyond its traditional, stereotypical base of white, middle-class, environmentally concerned voters. Camejo is the only Latino topping a ticket, and Green lieutenant governor candidate Donna Warren is the only African American on any party's statewide slate.

In contrast, Democrats and Republicans both offer slates of six white men and one Latino man.

Camejo says Greens also are attracting Muslim voters disillusioned by major parties' acquiescence to post-9/11 erosion of civil rights.

But perhaps nothing has resonated as vibrantly with a minority bloc this year as Davis' Sept. 30 veto of a bill to let undocumented immigrants seek driver's licenses, a bill Camejo and key Latino lawmakers backed wholeheartedly.

"There's this firestorm going on under the radar," Antonio Gonzales, president of the Los Angeles-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said a week after the veto.

Gonzales, head of the nation's largest and oldest nonpartisan Latino voter participation group, said this groundswell bubbled to the surface when a national Spanish radio talk show received 12,000 calls from voters pledging not to support Davis.

"I don't think Camejo was looking in that direction before -- he was doing his Northern California, Bay Area, enviro, progressive thing," Gonzales said -- now he's looking to Southern California, the hotbed of this Latino anger. "But people have to know who the Greens are to vote for them. What the average voter knows is Davis or (Bill) Simon, Democrat or Republican. Voters don't even know there's a Peter Camejo and a Green Party because they haven't gotten their message out."

Camejo "is doing about as good as you can do, he's a very good candidate. He's the most interesting of the three because he's a better speaker," Gonzales said. "But you can only go so far with free media as long as we have this money-driven campaign system." Just consider Dan Hamburg. Don't know who he is? Exactly.

Hamburg was the Green gubernatorial candidate in 1998. As Democrat Gray Davis beat Republican Dan Lungren 58 percent to 38 percent, Hamburg took 1.2 percent -- the best of five third-party candidates, yet nothing to write home about.

Hamburg was a Democratic congressman from 1992 to 1994 and well known in Mendocino County as an elected official and activist. Yet he got fewer than half as many votes as 1998's Green candidate for lieutenant governor.

Since then, consumer advocate Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential bid brought the Green Party roaring into the national spotlight. Greens were 0.64 percent of California's registered voters in 1998 and now they are 0.98 percent -- still small, but 53 percent growth would make any party crow.

And Hamburg lacked Camejo's ace in the hole -- voters' enormous antipathy for both major party candidates.

"In terms of actually trying to get elected and facing that whole spoiler issue, Peter's in the same boat I was in, where a vote for Peter is a vote for Bill Simon," Hamburg said. "But the electorate is even less enamored of the two-party system than it was four years ago, and that'll help the Greens get higher totals."

Camejo said California must adopt instant runoff voting, in which voters rank candidates in order of choice. If nobody wins with a majority of first-choice votes, the last-place candidate is dropped and ballots are recounted with the dropped candidate's votes counted for their second choices.

This avoids "taking a vote away" from a major party candidate but lets voters choose freely, Camejo said. He plans to press lawmakers to adopt this system before 2006.

For now, Camejo has spent a lot of his own time and money for the greater Green cause, Hamburg said. "It's about building coalitions and building credibility, and Peter has definitely moved that forward."

Some say he has had help from strange quarters.

Davis steadfastly refused to meet Camejo in debate, presumably because most of Camejo's votes will come directly out of Davis' left pocket. And the Los Angeles Times -- host of the only gubernatorial debate -- refused a berth to anyone polling below 15 percent; Camejo's best poll put him at about 9 percent.

Simon's campaign put Camejo on its debate guest list, but the Times barred his entry after Davis threatened to walk out, Camejo charges. Outside, a gaggle of Davis supporters shouted Camejo down as he talked to reporters.

Refusal to debate, a threatened walkout, a sidewalk shout-down: that's a lot of effort to expend on a third-party competitor, Camejo chuckled.

Naturally, by trying to get the media to ignore Camejo, Davis ensured Camejo's biggest news splash of the year -- a flurry of interviews from outlets all over the state, particularly Latino media already covering the driver's license bill backlash.

Camejo co-founded and chairs Progressive Asset Management Inc., a Concord-based national network of socially responsible investment brokers.

A son of Venezulean immigrants and a New York City native, Camejo was raised in a socially conscious family and blossomed into activism at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1960s. In 1967 alone, he backed a city ballot referendum on whether America should withdraw from Vietnam; was arrested for protesting Cal students' politically motivated suspensions; won election to the student Senate; and ran on the Socialist ticket for Berkeley mayor, losing 25-1 to a Democratic incumbent.

His activism got him expelled from Cal two quarters shy of graduation, so instead of a gilt-edged diploma on his office wall, there's an Award of Honor certificate from the Kensington School in Great Neck, N.Y. -- second grade. He has worked for Latino workers' rights and to free Latin American political prisoners, and was on 30 states' ballots as a Socialist candidate for president in 1976.

He talks about raising the state minimum wage from $6.75 to $10 per hour, phased in over three years. He believes the state's energy woes can be reduced by forming more municipal utility districts and pursuing wind, solar and other renewable energy sources. He opposes school privatization and vouchers, touting better teacher pay and support.

He wants to abolish the "three-strikes" sentencing law and crack down on corporate crime. He proposes legalizing marijuana, decriminalizing other drugs so they're available through doctors, and increasing education and treatment to combat drugs' demand, not supply. He's anti-death penalty and pro-choice.

Camejo admits his platform has contradictions. Greens advocate zero population growth, yet Camejo speaks of legalizing undocumented workers.

"Four blocks from here, you can hire undocumented workers any day of the week for any job you want," he said, gesturing toward his modest Walnut Creek office's window. They're critical to California's economy and culture, yet they're on the losing end of a "caste system" denying them rights and comforts many people take for granted, and that's un-American, he said.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, calls Camejo "a very bright, capable guy. ... He's clearly a very serious candidate.

"The question is whether people will want to waste their vote or not, and by that I mean Camejo can't win," Stern said. "He clearly will do better than Hamburg did. I just don't know how much better."