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Roll Call

A Green House? Party Will Back, But Not Recruit, Candidates in Congressional Races

August 16, 2001

Ralph Nader may have given Al Gore plenty to worry about in the 2000 presidential election, but the party under whose banner he ran may be preparing to make even more trouble for Congressional Democrats in the 2002 contests.

The Association of State Green Parties voted last month to officially create The Green Party of the United States and has applied to the Federal Election Commission for national committee status. Greens have been rejected for such status once before in 1996, but organizers are confident they will succeed this time around. The FEC must make a decision within 60 days of such a request.

While national recognition would allow the party, which claims to have gained increased momentum since Nader's presidential bid, to collect up to $20,000 from individual donors, it will also require Greens to field more candidates for federal office and to participate in voter-registration drives, as well as to hold a national convention.

Dean Myerson, a Nader staffer during the presidential campaign and the newly configured Green Party's political coordinator, said the various state parties decided to join together under one banner for both technical and symbolic reasons.

"It's a bureaucratic step in the legal sense, but underlying that is the conviction of Greens that we're ready to move full-speed ahead," Myerson explained.

Indeed, he has drafted a field plan for the 2002 elections, which includes sending field organizers out across the country to help educate state parties and individual candidates on the nuts and bolts of how to run winning campaigns. The national party does not plan to raise soft money or engage in recruiting candidates but will provide staff to help with drives to get Green candidates on ballots, which is still the movement's foremost challenge.

Myerson is working on hiring a professional fundraiser, although the national party will not give donations directly to candidates. He is also considering opening a Washington, D.C., office to serve as a central clearinghouse.

"The role of the Green Party as a national party is not the same role as national Democrats and Republicans play," Myerson explained. "Our role is to serve the states and help educate them. We're essentially a service organization where the main power is at the grassroots and the decision making is there."

Furthermore, Myerson said the national Green Party would not "target" races - that is, decide where it has the best chance to win and funnel attention and resources in that direction. But Greens do plan to pay particular attention to Texas, Iowa and New York in 2002 in attempting to secure their ballot access.

"We don't have a policy on what races we should run," he said, explaining that was the appropriate function of state parties. "That's their choice; it isn't up to us to pass judgment on that."

Yet many Democrats did judge Nader for acting as a spoiler for Gore's bid. Some still angrily contend that Gore would be president if Nader hadn't siphoned off enough progressive voters to throw the election to George W. Bush.

It is unclear what role Nader, who has formed a grassroots group called Democracy Rising and is currently touring the country, will play in the 2002 elections. He did not return repeated calls for comment.

"I don't know exactly what role he's going to have next year," Myerson said. "I would assume he would have occasional visits on behalf of Green parties and Green candidates."

In interviews with Green Party officials across the country, they acknowledged a vigorous debate within the party about whether to run candidates against Democratic incumbents and risk being viewed as spoilers. But most said that shouldn't be a factor in their planning.

"It's hard to spoil a rotten system," said Trey Smith, the treasurer for the Pacific Green Party or the Oregon Greens.

In order to blunt the spoiler argument, many Greens are promoting the idea of "instant runoffvoting," which would allow voters to pick candidates in order of preference. Under such a system, computers would automatically tally the second-choice candidate of voters in the event that no candidate received a majority of the vote.

However, House Democrats contend that the tight margin in the 2000 presidential election and Bush's triumph will blunt the Green Party's effect on the 2002 midterms.

"The combination of the close election last time and the fact that [Bush's] party is engaged in a widespread reversal of critical environmental and choice issues has re-energized a lot of people," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Communications Director Jenny Backus said.

"Our party's values have come into clearer focus, and most people who have thought about voting for the Green Party before to make a statement will now make that statement by voting Democratic."

Backus pointed to the "cynical use" of Green Party candidates by Republican activists in Washington state as a reason why Greens might vote for Democrats in the midterms. Controversy erupted recently in Washington when Republican consultant Stan Shore was found to have encouraged Green candidates Young Han and Michael Jepson to run for local offices, allegedly to hurt the prospects of Democratic candidates.

One place where a Green Party candidate could make a difference in 2002 is in Tennessee, where Jonathan Farley, a 31-year-old Vanderbilt mathematics professor, has already announced his candidacy against Rep. Bob Clement (D-Tenn.).

An African-American Harvard University graduate who received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Oxford, Farley said he is running against such things as corporate welfare, the growth of prisons and for reparations for slavery and segregation.

He announced his candidacy last week at Fisk University, a historically black institution, after collecting the 25 signatures he needed to make it onto the ballot in Tennessee, where he will technically be running as an Independent.

"Actually, I find Congressman 'Inclement' almost irrelevant," Farley said. "I'm concerned about focusing on the issues that the Al Gores of the world aren't going to be talking about. ... [Clement] just happens to be in office."

But Farley, who has raised just $41 to date, has lived in Nashville for only four years and will soon be departing to become the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar of the Year at Oxford University in England during the 2001-2002 academic year.

Nonetheless, he believes he has a solid chance of winning due to the fact that about a quarter of the voters in the district are African-American and because of his connection to young voters as a college professor.

"Given that he is in office here and is at least nominally a Democrat - although he votes a lot with the Republicans, I understand - the fact of the matter is, this race is the one to watch," Farley contended.

In truth, Clement, an eight-term veteran who nixed a potential bid for governor this year to run for re-election, has been easily re-elected since first winning the seat in 1988. His Nashville-based 5th district is one of three districts in Tennessee that supported Gore in the last presidential election, giving the then vice president a margin of 20 points.

Nader took just 2 percent of the vote in the 5th last year. "I defend anyone's right to run, and I expect an opponent or opposition every two years," Clement responded. "I'm sure on a lot of issues we probably agree."

The lawmaker did, however, take a shot at the fact that Farley will be studying in England for much of the next year, and noted that he himself has strong ties to young voters as a former college president and has always done well in minority communities.

"It's a little difficult to run a political campaign when you're not even in the country," he dryly observed.

Greens have never elected a Member of Congress, but they have enjoyed electoral success in some of the races they have run for various state and local offices this year. Of the 29 contests that Green candidates have participated in thus far, Greens have won 16 offices, ranging from alderman in New Haven, Conn., to Montana school board member to Wisconsin city councilman.

Overall, 130 Green candidates will run in 22 states for 46 types of offices in 2001, according to Green Party statistics.

Last year, with Nader at the top of the ticket, Greens ran in 279 races of all varieties in 32 states and clinched 39 victories.

Myerson said the party has already set a record for the number of Green candidates running in an odd-numbered year and predicted that there would be "hundreds and hundreds" of Greens running for office in 2002.

Although the party is likely to field Senate and House candidates in states with strong Green presences, such as California, Washington, Oregon and New Mexico, leaders explained that most of their candidates would probably focus on winning state and local offices.

"It's very important that we build a strong base before we get too high up because the structure in the U.S. does require that there be a strong party structure," said Jo Chamberlain, a California Green Party official and member of the national party's new steering committee.

"This is really a hard issue when you're an alternate party," said the Pacific Green Party's Trey Smith. "Senate races, House of Representative races, things like that, they bring you a lot of publicity ... but you're probably not going to win."

After running a candidate against Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) in the last election, who took 6 percent of the vote, Smith said the party was considering putting up a candidate to challenge Sen. Gordon Smith (R) in his potential race against Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) in 2002.

Smith seemed sensitive to the difference a liberal third-party candidate could make in a close race. "The governor has done a good job in some areas and not such a good job in others. He's very charismatic, he talks a good line, but he hasn't done that much for working-class Oregonians," he explained.

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