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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

It's Not Easy Being Green

Air Date: Week of

The Green Party has made significant headway in California. Thirty Greens currently hold elected office in the state, mostly at the local level. But as Nathan Johnson reports, Green Party candidates are finding it difficult to raise the money and build the organizations needed to win higher offices.


KNOY: The Green Party hopes Ralph Nader's candidacy can boost its overall political clout this November. Already, the Greens hold political office in 18 states. In California, 30 Greens now hold elected office, including a smattering of mayors, city council members, and planning commissioners. Still, as Living on Earth's Nathan Johnson reports, Green Party candidates are finding that breaking the two-party hold on higher office is a daunting task.

(Music plays)

JOHNSON: At the opening of their new campaign headquarters near downtown San Francisco, hundreds of Green Party members are celebrating, listening to live music and snacking on the vegetarian buffet. A T-shirt for sale sums up the crowd's mood. It reads, "Bush and Gore make me wanna Ralph." Ralph Nader state campaign director Ross Mirkarimi is reserving most of his irritation for Democrats. He says the progressive left wing just can't rely on them any more.

MIRKARIMI: You know, we cannot suffer every four years by hoping that they're going to rise to the occasion and then they don't. The time has got to the point where we'll swing that green hammer, you know, non-violently, but we'll swing that green hammer to the point where our impact is felt.

JOHNSON: Mr. Mirkarimi says people are wrong if they think the Green Party is only about delivering Ralph Nader to the White House.

MIRKARIMI: It's not just about Nader and winning in the election in November, but it's about the impact we will make on municipalities around the country so that where Green Parties exist now they will be strengthened. And where they don't exist, they shall be created.

(Audience applause)

BENJAMIN: So we call for an end to all commercial logging in the national forest. That's the Green Party platform. It should be the platform of any politician who loves this earth.

(Whoops and applause)

JOHNSON: Medea Benjamin is a Green Party candidate running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Dianne Feinstein. She's one of the nine Green Party candidates who will be on the ballot in California this November. At a campaign stop in Nevada City, she's addressing a crowd of about 100 people, speaking over a solar powered PA system.

BENJAMIN: There are many ways that we can stop the cutting down of our forests...

JOHNSON: Medea Benjamin should do well among forest activists like these, but she's moving beyond the traditional core of the Green Party, making inroads with groups like the United Farm Workers of America. Groups that cling very closely to the Democratic Party.

BENJAMIN: The first time I went to the central valley, the United Farm Workers didn't want anything to do with me. Second time, they were a little nicer. The third time they put me on their radio show, Radio Campesino.

JOHNSON: The problem is that groups that are the natural constituency of the Greens, like minorities and organized labor are skittish about voting for someone with little chance of winning. Plus the Greens just don't have the organization or, quite frankly, the money to be very competitive yet. Audie Bock knows all about being and underdog. She shocked almost everyone last year, beating a former Democratic mayor of Oakland for a seat in the state assembly. Being the first Green ever elected to state political office led to some awkward moments, like when she pointed out to her colleagues that she deserved to be on the rules committee.

BOCK: Well, you know, it says here that so many members of the minority party will serve on this rules committee. Well, I am the member of my minority party, so I should be on this committee, shouldn't I? And they just laughed, because this was impossible for them to conceive of. That they actually had to deal seriously with a third party.

JOHNSON: Ms. Bock actually left the Green Party earlier this year to become an Independent. She says she didn't leave over political philosophy. Her positions on the issues haven't changed. She left for financial reasons.

BOCK: Let's say you want to send out three different kinds of messages by mail to your constituents. That right there is going to cost you $100,000. (Laughs)

JOHNSON: By dropping her Green Party affiliation, she could get on the ballot through a signature drive. She wouldn't have to run in a costly open primary, and can save her limited funds for November's general election. When it comes to fundraising, candidates like Audie Bock have a tremendous disadvantage. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 99 percent of all political donations in California went to Democrats and Republicans. In the most recent election cycle, that was about $109 million. Third party candidates combined collected only $450,000. It's a system the Green Party tried to expose in Ralph Nader's famous MasterCard spoof.

(Background music: "Hail to the Chief")

ANNOUNCER: Grilled tenderloin for fundraiser: $1,000 a plate. Campaign ads filled with half-truths: $10 million. Promises to special interest groups: over $10 billion. Finding out the truth: priceless. There are some things money can't buy...

JOHNSON: Most Green Party candidates can't afford ads like this. And even if they could, some like Senate candidate Medea Benjamin prefer a more robust debate.

BENJAMIN: I just talked to a consultant. He was one of the guys who helped get Jesse Ventura elected. And he said to me, "Are you running TV ads?" And I said, "No, I don't have the kind of money to run TV ads. And plus, I don't like TV ads. You know, those 15-second spots? We're trying to do something different. We're running a grassroots campaign. We have many, many volunteers." He stopped me and he said, "You're not doing TV ads? You don't have a campaign." And I said you know, this is what's so wrong with the system.

JOHNSON: With so many obstacles in the way of the Greens, it's fair to ask if they even make a difference. Professor Jack Citrin teaches American politics at the University of California at Berkeley.

CITRIN: Yes. I mean, in a certain sense, these parties are not electoral parties. They don't succeed as electoral parties. But to the extent that they do succeed, they succeed in changing the political agenda out of fear that if these ideas are not absorbed that there might be some factional splits within the party.

JOHNSON: But some Greens are not content to simply have their ideas absorbed.

HAMBURG: I think there are people out there who think that we can use the Green Party to nudge the Democratic Party. I am not of that ilk. What I'm interested in is being part of a new political start.

JOHNSON: Dan Hamburg, a former United States Congressman, quit the Democratic Party in 1996 to become a Green. Two years later he ran for governor and lost. But he says in local races, where it's easier to reach the voters, Green candidates are winning with ideas. He says labor rights, environmental protection, and campaign finance are popular across the political spectrum.

HAMBURG: The Green Party positions are very appealing, not particularly radical. If you really got down to what the majority of people in the state of California want, it's pretty darn close to the Green Party platform. It really is.

(Music plays)

JOHNSON: On college campuses like here at the University of California at Berkeley, the Greens are proving they can attract young voters. And this could bode well for their future. But in the meantime, the Greens will have to be content with small victories in city and county elections, where money is not a decisive factor. And of course, what everyone in the party is hoping for is that Ralph Nader pulls in five percent of the popular vote in the presidential election. If he does, the Green Party will be eligible for about $13 million in federal matching funds. And this could keep the party's momentum going for at least another four years.

MAN: Ralph Nader in San Francisco tomorrow. Thursday, last chance to hear Nader speak for weeks.

JOHNSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Nathan Johnson in Berkeley.

MAN: You've always wanted to hear Ralph speak in person. Why get him in the debates when you can hear him in person? San Francisco state...



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