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

The US Green Party Thinks Locally

Air Date: Week of

Richard Mahler reports on the Green Party in the United States and its grassroots strategy for the mid-term elections. Mahler looks at how current political trends favoring third parties may work in favor of the outsider Greens this time around.


CURWOOD: As the presidential election season heats up, many are talking about a third party alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, and billionaire and past presidential candidate Ross Perot is in fact trying to build one. There have always been small alternative political parties in the US, and in recent years the Green Party has joined the list. But unlike the other marginal parties, the Greens have been steadily growing in recent years. And instead of trying to start at the top with national candidates, the Greens are getting folks elected to local offices. Richard Mahler has our report from Santa Fe.

(Green Party member Chris Moore, speaking before a group: "I think that's a good point the city manager's made and I would like to open up a discussion by moving that we indicate in our transmittal letter to the charter commission that we would like them to maintain...")

MAHLER: The City Council of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is in most respects like any other. Its members spend much of their time in a mundane workaday world of public meetings, like this session on redistricting. One thing that makes Santa Fe's City Council different is the presence of Chris Moore, a member of the Green Party.

(Moore: "... Civil Rights movement in situations where you have an area which is...")

MAHLER: Moore was elected in 1993 as part of a Green Party campaign to focus on local, rather than national, politics.

MOORE: The Greens, I think, have deliberately run in a few elections that were well-chosen, where we would at least make a good showing, and in some cases like myself here and like a lot of other elected officials on the local level actually win.

(Moore: "... or any Hispanics at all ... ")

MAHLER: Moore is one of 40-some Greens holding elected positions in 12 states. In addition to more than a dozen city councils, Greens now serve on school boards, county commissions, and in at least one mayor's office. While still a small party in terms of registration, the Green vote last fall was substantial in some key races. In New Mexico, for example, the Green candidate for governor won 10% of the vote, and 2 other statewide candidates received between 30 and 40%.

WOOD: I sense a lot of energy. There are a lot of people interested in the electoral politics.

MAHLER: Betty Wood is coordinator of the Green's national clearing house and helped organize a recent Green Party convention in Albuquerque.

WOOD: Our membership has grown about 15, at least 15% in the last 3 or 4 months; I believe it's more than that. There are many other people back in the localities who aren't a part of the national organization, who are doing a lot of good local and state work.

MAHLER: Greens like Wood say the party is benefiting from the surge of voter interest in independent political figures, such as Ross Perot and Colin Powell, as well as disenchantment with legislative gridlock and bickering among Democrats and Republicans. Many voters are also discouraged by what they see as a retreat from strong environmental protection by Washington. David Helvarg, an investigative journalist who's closely followed the Greens, says the party is tapping a rich vein in current politics.

HELVARG: Recent polls put out by ABC, by Newsweek, even a poll done for the Republican leadership, shows an overwhelming majority of the public, anywhere from 60 to 80%, saying they believe that we need stronger environmental protection and environmental legislation. That they support a cutback in government, unless it means restrictions on these kinds of environmental laws. In addition, the Clinton Administration has really not come through for the environmentalists.

MAHLER: Some other observers, including University of Michigan political science professor Steven Rosenstone, say that while the big environmental debates are being carried out in Washington, the Green strategy of concentrating on local issues is a good one.

ROSENSTONE: You can target the parts of the country where you're likely to have a real constituency, and so you're spending your effort very prudently, with great savvy. I think the other part of that strategy that I think makes good sense is that to the extent that you can participate in nonpartisan election the rules of the game with respect to ballot access, as well as the spin that comes with being an independent as opposed to being a member of a party is quite different, and it can actually work to their advantage.

MAHLER: Rosenstone believes powerful institutional barriers, such as ballot access rules and campaign financing, still stack the deck against third parties in state and national elections. He says Greens should not underestimate the power of the 2-party system, or overestimate the impact of changes in the public mood.

ROSENSTONE: I think where people have misinterpreted the 1992 election is that they've attributed the tremendous support that Ross Perot received as a sign of growing disaffection with the political system. That somehow we've transformed the system from one of a 2-party system to a system of 3 or 4 or 5 or more parties. And I think that's a great mistake.

MAHLER: Much of the Green's impact is still occurring within the context of a 2-party system, echoes journalist David Helvarg, who sees the Greens functioning more as a special interest group than a political party. Helvarg doesn't see them gathering a lot of votes, but rather influencing the direction of races where the environment is a salient issue.

HELVARG: Certain in areas like Montana and Northern California, the Greens have intervened in Congressional campaigns against the Republicans and Democrats they saw as weak on the environment and in fact influence the campaigns, either for some Democrats and even some Republicans, to begin addressing the environment more sympathetically rather than lose disenfranchised voters to the Greens.

MAHLER: Both Helvarg and Rosenstone are convinced that the Greens' national impact will be limited unless they can extend their perceived focus beyond the environment. The key to expanded influence, they say, is becoming a well-rounded party.

(Moore: " ... on the city council. I enjoy working in fact for the City Council, which is over half Hispanic...")

MAHLER: Santa Fe City Councilor Chris Moore agrees that his party suffers from a one-issue image, and concedes that the Greens need to reach beyond the white, well-educated middle class that makes up most of its membership. Moore says his party is starting to do this through grass roots organizing.

MOORE: By being involved in community movements, we show that we're not just politicians, and we don't just make promises during election season. In Ohio, the Greens are fighting nuclear waste; in New Jersey the Greens are organizing a credit union. Here in New Mexico we're involved in co-ops. In California they fought Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant law. So, you know, we're there all the time, even on the off-years, and that's another thing that big parties don't do. That shows people we're in it for the long haul.

MAHLER: The Green Party's leadership predicts a record 100 or more Greens will campaign for office next year, compared to 62 3 years ago. Despite their grass roots, local focus, the Greens are still thinking about running a candidate for president in 1996. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler in Santa Fe.



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