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Jewish World Review August 16, 2002 / 8 Elul, 5762

Seth Gitell

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Green around the gills: Nader Effect could cost the Dems the election in three states | WHAT HATH BILL Clinton wrought?

Ten years ago, Clinton won the presidency by running on a heavily Democratic Leadership Council-inspired platform. Under the auspices of that centrist, even right-leaning agenda, Democrats embraced the North American Free Trade Agreement, welfare reform, and, in some cases, the reactionary Defense of Marriage Act. American liberals' lurch to the center-right triggered an electoral revolution of sorts - the emergence of a national Green Party. We all know what happened in 2000 when Green candidate Ralph Nader ran for president. The big question today is, what's going to happen in 2002?

The Green Party is poised to dramatically alter the political scene in three states where it is fielding candidates for higher office: Maine, Minnesota, and Massachusetts. In Maine, publicly financed Green candidate Jonathan Carter is getting ready to put up a strong run for governor against Republican Peter Cianchette, Democrat David Baldacci, and Independent John Michael. In Minnesota, the Green Party has nominated Ed McGaa, a Native American and veteran, to run against incumbent Democratic senator Paul Wellstone and his Republican challenger, St. Paul mayor Norman Coleman. And in Massachusetts, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein could rob the Democrats of victory in a narrowly divided general election. At issue is the "Nader Effect," whereby the increasingly well-organized Green Party cuts into Democratic support. The stakes are high. In Minnesota, Wellstone's defeat would give control of the Senate back to the GOP.

For the Greens, though, success in state elections represents a logical next step from a national election where their candidate won 2.7 percent of the vote - still far less than the 19 percent cash-rich independent candidate Ross Perot garnered in 1992, but enough to determine the election. "The Greens are going to run headlong, and if that means running against Democrats, so be it," says Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight, Third-Party Politics in America (Routledge, 2002). "The goal is to build the party, and the way to build the party is to run candidates."

BUT BUILDING a third party in the United States isn't easy. Our political system all but ensures that a third party will succeed only by tearing into one of two major parties. It happened in 2000 on a national scale, and it might just happen again in 2002 in Minnesota, where Senator Wellstone has been deadlocked in the polls with his Republican opponent for the last year and a half. "The stakes are very high in this race," says Jim Farrell, the communications director for Wellstone's campaign. "This race may decide who controls the Senate." While Wellstone is known more for his advocacy on the environment and worker protections, the most important issue to emerge in this campaign, Farrell says, is judicial and Supreme Court nominations.

Republican control of the Senate will mean a return to the GOP's stranglehold on appointment of federal judges via control of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since the Democrats gained control of the committee when Vermont senator James Jeffords left the GOP to become an Independent, they have derailed the nominations of judges like Charles Pickering, a former federal judge in Mississippi who staunchly opposes Roe v. Wade. "McGaa's got the ability to cause Wellstone problems," says Minnesota political consultant Bill Hillsman, who created Wellstone's innovative television spots in 1990, when he defeated Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz. The award-winning ads depicted Wellstone in Roger and Me fashion trying to confront his opponent. (Hillsman also created Jesse Ventura's now-classic 1998 ads depicting the wrestler-cum-gubernatorial candidate as an action figure.) "McGaa is more progressive than Wellstone on a lot of things," Hillsman adds. Indeed, the progressive Wellstone has had to go "more middle of the road," he says, to compete with Coleman for centrist voters. (Wellstone also hasn't helped himself by breaking a pledge to serve only two terms and then return to teaching.)

The Minnesota Green Party endorsed McGaa - who had been a Green for only a couple of months before the May 18 convention - after fierce debate. Nader's 2000 running mate and well-known Minnesota activist Winona LaDuke actually wrote to each Green delegate, urging him or her not to make an endorsement in the Senate race. "Paul Wellstone is the closest we have to a Green in the U.S. Senate; he has been a champion of the vast majority of our issues," LaDuke pleaded. Despite her efforts, the Green Party nominated McGaa. Wellstone supporters are privately hoping that interest in the Minnesota governor's race - which has no incumbent, thanks to Governor Jesse Ventura's decision to step down at the end of his term - will take the wind out of McGaa's sails and save their candidate.

Considerable sentiment exists within the Green Party in favor of activists shifting attention away from the Senate race and toward Green Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel, best known for his environmental activism. Pentel is running against Republican Tim Pawlenty, Democratic Farmer Labor Party candidate Roger Moe, and Independence Party candidate Tim Penny. In that race, Pawlenty, Moe, and Penny - a former Democratic congressman who elected to run this race under Ventura's party banner - are bunched near the top with around 25 percent, while Pentel has been solidly polling five percent or better, enough to guarantee the Greens' major-party status into the next election. If there is a "spoiler" in the Minnesota gubernatorial race, pulling the election away from one of the major-party candidates, it will be Penny of the Independence Party, not Pentel of the Greens.

"If you're a good Green activist, concerned about the Greens maintaining their five percent and keeping their public financing, you don't have to vote against Paul Wellstone," says Sarah Janecek, the co-editor of Politics in Minnesota, an eight-page newsletter published 20 times a year. "You can vote for Ken Pentel in the governor's race and you can vote for Paul Wellstone and feel good about it."

The Wellstone campaign seems to be subtly pursuing a strategy of encouraging Green voters to do just that. Wellstone-campaign spokesman Farrell seems to be trying to appeal to pragmatists within the Green Party by pointing to Wellstone's record on energy policy (he helped stop President Bush's attempt to cut funding for development of renewable energy) and the environment (he helped draft a conservation-friendly farm bill). "Ken Pentel is well known within the Green Party. He's probably a good deal more known than Ed McGaa," says Farrell, sounding a bit like a campaign strategist for the Greens.

"Pentel's going to be a strong candidate. They get public financing with this election. They need to get five percent to reach their major-party status - the trigger for public financing."

A SIMILAR SCENARIO is unfolding in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, though the implications don't extend to the national level. Right now, most of the attention is focused on the Democratic primary, with Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, Senate president Tom Birmingham, former Watertown state senator Warren Tolman, and former secretary of labor Robert Reich all vying for the win. Although the Green Party in Massachusetts bungled its application for Clean Elections funding by failing to garner the mandatory 6000 $5 to $100 contributions, Green gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein's campaign is running strong. (Stein attributes the Clean Elections-funding snafu to "technicalities which we thought were unjust." Under the Clean Elections Law, candidates must not only take in contributions, but must also collect detail-intensive cards along with each donation. Stein claims local town halls arbitrarily rejected the paperwork or, in some cases, wrongly applied the same strict rules as those guiding nominating-petition signatures.)

Regardless, current polls suggest that the centrist O'Brien will defeat her Democratic foes. If that happens, Stein will emerge as the one unabashedly progressive voice in the general election. At the state Democratic convention, in Worcester, O'Brien rather courageously linked herself to the centrist tradition of Bill Clinton, and won the convention's nomination. But Stein blames rightward-lurching Democratic centrist policies, on both the national and state levels, for perpetuating many of the problems in Massachusetts. She maintains that there are stark differences between herself and O'Brien - not to mention the other three Democratic candidates. "Shannon O'Brien is the daughter of a political insider, married to a lobbyist, who is as tied as anybody could be to big money," says Stein. "I don't think she's going to change the direction of government."

She is even less impressed with Birmingham, of whom she says: "He's running with an enormous war chest that comes to him as the leader of the Senate. As big as his war chest is, it's his back-room deals that he brings with him.

He recently proposed this accounting bill that would protect accounting CEOs in Massachusetts from their accounting decisions." Stein even sees sharp distinctions between her candidacy and those of Reich and Tolman. "He claims credit for the Clinton boom, and our slogan on that is 'a boom for whom?'"

Stein says of Reich, who is polling well in Green strongholds like Amherst and Northampton. "Bob Reich is not only making the deals that other traditional candidates make to get their political funding. He's tiptoeing around Tom Finneran, and he's bringing in some $800,000 a year with his corporate speaking engagements." She similarly dismisses Tolman: ""Warren unfortunately comes with the party of Tom Finneran."

Although it's quite possible that Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney could win the general election if a few percentage points' worth of Democrats vote for Stein in November, the Green candidate isn't concerned. "The Democrats have become the party of the privileged and elite who fund their campaigns," she says. "They've been protecting the interest of their wealthy sponsors and not serving the interest of Massachusetts."

Obviously, the Democratic candidates don't see it that way. "There is a tremendous distinction between Shannon and Mitt Romney," says Adrian Durban, a spokesman for O'Brien. "We're confident that anyone who is committed to progressive issues like protecting a woman's right to choose, providing health care to those most in need, protecting resources for our public schools, and creating more affordable housing will vote for Shannon because she can beat Mitt Romney." Paul Wingle, a spokesman for Birmingham, points to the Senate president's legislative achievements, such as increasing the minimum wage, the granting of health insurance to all Bay State children (Stein says it's not enough), and the environment as ample evidence of the differences between Birmingham and the GOP.

Reich campaign manager Mark Longabaugh scoffs at Stein's assertions. But he allows that only a Reich victory in September will prevent Democrat progressives from voting for Stein in November. "Reich speaks to the issues and values these Green voters care about," he says. Tolman spokeswoman Karen Grant points out that Tolman has "taken on" Finneran on "important issues" such as Clean Elections. "Warren, in fact, says the road to reform on Beacon Hill goes through Tom Finneran, and will continue to lead the charge against things he that he believes wrong with Beacon Hill today," she says.

Despite Tolman's campaign for reform, Reich probably is the Democratic candidate best able to deal with both Stein and Romney in a general election. Whether he wins or loses in September, says Democratic Party spokeswoman Jane Lane, "the Democratic Party is really going to have to rely on Reich to help bring [Green Party voters] into the Democratic fold." Of course, Stein takes a different view. "We're here ready and waiting with open arms," she says of progressive Democrats. "They will find a home within our campaign, and I think they may even be more comfortable here working for real change."

Stein adds that if the Democratic Party were truly worried about the spoiler scenario, it could have dealt with the issue legislatively by enacting instant-run-off voting, known by the acronym IRV to political junkies. In IRV, voters rank their candidates. If their first choice loses, then their vote automatically goes to their second choice. So if a voter ranked the Green Party first and the Democrats second and Stein lost, then those votes would be counted for the Democrats. This system eliminates plurality votes and guarantees that the winner receives more than 50 percent of votes.

Cambridge already uses an IRV variant in its city-council elections, and the system has been proposed - but gone nowhere - on Beacon Hill.

Things aren't so critical in Maine, where the Democrats have fielded a strong candidate in the gubernatorial race. Still, voters have seen the Greens and Democrats square off against one another. Jonathan Carter, a Green candidate eligible for up to $900,000 in Clean Elections money, has had to overcome two legal challenges by Democrats to his publicly financed candidacy. But what is blunting the Nader Effect in Maine may be the plain popularity of Democratic candidate John Baldacci, a four-term congressman who was one of the few freshman Democrats elected during the "Republican Revolution" of 1994.

"Obviously we take every candidate seriously, including Jonathan Carter," says Christy Setzer, the communications director for the Maine Democratic Party. But the party is, as Setzer puts it, "extremely confident" about Baldacci. And with good reason: a recent Portland Press Herald poll showed Baldacci with the support of 48 percent of voters, his Republican opponent at 14 percent, and Carter at two percent. Even if Carter were to garner five percent of the vote, Baldacci would still win handily. Carter, for his part, puts his support at around 10 percent, saying, "I can get enough support to win this thing. I just need to get my message out."

Still, even if Carter fails to catch on to the degree he hopes, Maine could end up being the rare case where the Greens get what they need - a substantial chunk of the vote - and the Democratic candidate, through the force of his own personality, gets elected. If so, the Greens, through a practical strategy, will have managed to build for the future and remain in play for the next election cycle.

THE NADER EFFECT has clearly had an impact on national politics. Ruth Conniff of the Progressive has written about how Clinton-campaign veterans James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Robert Shrum have founded the Democracy Corps, which is pushing the party away from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Meanwhile, former vice-president Al Gore skipped the July 29 and 30 DLC "conversation" in New York, which all the other 2004 presidential hopefuls viewed as a must-attend. And on August 4, Gore penned an op-ed for the New York Times defending his populist ("the people versus the powerful") stance during the 2000 campaign - a stance that many politicos believe was a bad strategy.

It should be clear now that while 2000 may have been Nader's nadir, as some have said, it was no such thing for the Green Party. "The mistake the Democrats are making about the Greens is that they're acting like they're going to disappear," says Sifry. "Instead of continuing to move to the right ... the Democrats should move left in a sincere way." With corporate scandals and anti-Wall Street anger in vogue, that just may happen. Where it will lead us is less clear.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix Comment by clicking here.

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02/28/02: Time for hipsters to do a reality-check

© 2002, Seth Gitell