Life of the party

Pub date January 16, 2008
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY Amid the much-hyped speculation about whom Democratic and Republican party voters will choose as their respective presidential nominees this year, California members of the Green Party will vote for their representative Feb. 5.

Candidates Jared Ball, Kent Hesplay, Jesse Johnson Jr., Cynthia McKinney, and Kat Swift met for their only planned debate Jan. 13 at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, addressing a near-capacity crowd and laying out platforms that are decidedly more aggressive in tackling environmental and social problems than any proposed by the major-party candidates.

The candidates echoed one another on plans for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and shifting funding from the Pentagon into domestic programs for education, health care, and jobs. All professed grave concern about the environment, with Johnson calling the coal-mining method of mountaintop removal "ground zero for climate change."

By the end of the debate, Ball, a Baltimore hip-hop artist and professor in communications studies, fully endorsed McKinney, a former Democratic congressperson from Georgia. He emphasized that his greatest desire was for a strong national movement of people of all races, places, and income levels to continue what he called "incomplete revolutions" in the civil, labor, and women’s rights movements.

McKinney received the longest, most sustained standing ovation of the evening when she said, "Please unite the party. We can’t do it divided." She said the Greens represent the best hope of bringing together the large percentage of the country that’s spurned membership in both the Democratic and Republican parties. "I’ve never seen anything like I’ve seen in the Green Party," she said. "Please come together."

Also on hand — not participating in the debate but taking questions afterward — was Ralph Nader, a presidential candidate in 1996, 2000, and 2004, who hasn’t yet ruled out another run this year. Some Greens and other high-profile figures are urging him not to run and expressing concern that he’s become a polarizing figure who could hurt the party. Nader addressed the issue of party unity by saying, "I have very little to offer about how to unite the Green Party internally."

But he told the Guardian that if powerful institutional forces collude to limit his or the Green Party nominee’s access to the ballot, as he charges they did in 2004, he might run to highlight the need for greater political participation, saying, "I’ll be deciding within the next month." Nader has sued the Democratic Party, the John Kerry–John Edwards campaign, the Service Employees International Union, and a number of law firms and political action committees for allegedly conspiring to prevent him from running for president in 2004.

"Ballot access is a major civil liberties issue," Nader said. "Without voters’ rights, candidates’ rights don’t mean anything."

Yet the five announced candidates and Green Party activists on hand all seemed ready to rally around a new nominee for 2008, even as questions remain about whether the party should pool its energy and resources for national races or focus on state and municipal elections. Greens represent less than 3 percent of San Francisco’s registered voters and are outnumbered by Republicans four to one. Statewide, Greens amount to less than 1 percent. However, nearly 20 percent of California voters and 30 percent in San Francisco decline to state any party affiliation.

"I’m not sure yet that running a presidential candidate helps to grow the party, based on the experiences of the last several presidential attempts, especially in contrast to us focusing on races that can be won locally," Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, a Green who helped found the party in California, told the Guardian outside the debate. When asked if a national Green Party candidate trickles down attention and funding to the grassroots races, he said, "The theory is that it does. There isn’t any concrete evidence that it has coattails."

Since the Nader runs, Greens are wary of being tagged as presidential spoilers, but when that question was posed to this year’s prospects, they denied that it accurately portrays the voting landscape. As McKinney said, "When you’ve got a million black people who go to the polls … and nobody counts their votes … then don’t you dare call the Green Party spoilers."

Editors note: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that Ralph Nader was the Green Party candidate for president in 2004. Nader ran as an independent. The Greens nominated David Cobb.