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Monday, April 24, 2006

"The Greens: Portland's Second Party?" by Mike Feinstein in the Green Pages: April 24, 2006

While the roots of the Green Party in both the U.S. and Maine go back to 1984, the party's electoral presence has grown slowly and organically over the years, reaching 200+ candidates nationally only for the first time in 2000.

Compared to the Democratic and Republican parties (founded in 1792 and 1854, respectively), perhaps the best test of Green strength is on the municipal level, where grassroots organizing has a better chance of succeeding.

Portland, Maine is one such example, where Greens are harvesting the benefits of steady local organizing going back more than a decade. Today they have six elected officials on legislative bodies. Only Madison, Wisconsin has as many.

John Eder, State House, District 118, first elected 2002

Why Portland?


Portland's voter registration demographic-approximately 44 percent Democrat, 34 percent Independent, 5 percent Green, and only 17 percent Republican-often makes it possible for Greens to be pitted de facto, directly against Democrats, with little chance a Republican will be elected. This results in a more level playing field for Green candidates, without the distortions of lesser-of-evil politics.

"What we are finding with consistently stronger showings around town," says John Eder, elected to the State House in 2002 and 2004, "is that people are not moved by the spoiler argument and that the Democrats have given up on it for the most part. This is especially the case on Portland's Peninsula-the downtown hip area of Portland. The Democrats may get traction on the spoiler thing with other loyalist Democrats but not with Independents and more disaffected Democrats."

"Part of what made the spoiler argument take hold in the past with Independents and even Greens," continues Eder, "was the fact that we never won seats. But now Independents are not swayed by that argument. They look at Greens as '"the anti-party party'" and are very sympathetic to us. My victories owe much to the Independent vote. The numbers prove it was not solely because of Greens, because there are not enough in my district to win by them only."

Under such circumstances, the Portland Greens hold four of the nine seats on the city's School Board, along with Eder's seat in the State house and a seat on the Portland Water Board. With political demographics similar to Portland and Madison, Greens in Minneapolis, Minnesota have also won in head-to-head, two-way races against Democrats, taking three City Council seats in the last four years there.

A similar dynamic also occurred in a March 1999 Special Election for California State Assembly in the Oakland/ Alameda County area. Green Audie Bock upset a Democrat in a two-way race, with no Republican running. All of these cases suggest with Republicans not a factor, many voters will choose Greens over Democrats.

Ben Meiklejohn, School Committee At-Large, first elected 2001


Even with a more level playing field, Portland Greens have relied on quality candidates, sound positions on the issues and skillful organizing in the community.

Eder's win in 2002 was the first time a U.S. Green had been elected to a state legislature in a General election. But before him, Greens had been running in that same district almost every cycle since 1995: John Herrick in a special election in 1995 (3rd/3, 18.2 percent), then Ben Meiklejohn in 1998 (2nd/3, 26 percent), Derrick Grant in 2000 (2nd/2, 34.8 percent) and Eder in 2002 (1st/2, 66.8 percent) and 2004 (1st/3, 50.9 percent).
After seeing Greens on the ballot so many times, voters appear increasingly comfortable with the idea of voting Green. Indeed, no other district in Maine has seen Green candidacies so frequently. This suggests success elsewhere may occur as districts experience similar ongoing Green electoral presence.

In January of 1999, shortly after Pat LaMarche qualified the Maine Green Independent Party for ballot status via her 1998 gubernatorial run, Meiklejohn convened Portland as the first municipal Green Independent caucus in the State, and formed its first municipal committee. Just a year and a half before, because of a hostile interpretation of state ballot access law, Maine Greens had lost the ballot status they gained in 1994, and along with it, approximately 4,300 Green voter registrations statewide. Starting again at the time of the founding caucus, there were 60 registered Greens in Portland. (By March 2006, there were 2,353.)

During the late 1990s, Meiklejohn, having just graduated from the University of Maine at Orono, began a two-term service in AmeriCorps, working with youth in community policing centers and Big Brothers Big Sisters, gaining insight into Portland's educational system, and seeing how overuse of suspensions can kick-start a downward spiral for low-income children of single parents. Recognizing these patterns of inequity led him to run for office.

By November 2001, Meiklejohn found himself the city's first elected Green, winning an at-large seat on the Portland School Committee in a three-way race for two seats, finishing second with 5,189 votes, upsetting a Democratic incumbent by just 17 votes. Meiklejohn had run twice for the Committee as a write-in candidate (November 1998 and May 2000) and once on the ballot (November 2000), warming up voters to voting Green before he was finally elected. In the same year, 18-year-old Dan Jenkins was elected to the Portland Youth Advisory Council by Portland students, becoming the youngest U.S. Green ever elected.


In 2003, Stephen Spring joined Meiklejohn on the School Committee. The two immediately went to work on an issue near and dear to their hearts: stopping military recruitment in local schools.

"When the Federal 'No Child Left Behind Act' [NCLB] passed in 2002, with huge support from both Congressional Democrats and Republicans, the Bush Administration had at the same time, sent tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan and was preparing to invade Iraq," says Spring. "A few courageous school districts across the country had banned military recruiters from public schools. In response, a military recruitment provision was placed into the NCLB bill with little debate, forcing high schools to give military recruiters access to schools, and personal contact information to the military, of every high school junior and senior."

Susan Hopkins, School Committee At-Large, first elected 2005

Even before Spring was elected, Meiklejohn had led an "Opt-In rebellion" in 2003 as School Policy Committee Chair. He proposed a policy calling for releasing students' personal information to military recruiters only if the student, or his or her parent or guardian opted to do so. By spring 2004, the Committee supported the Opt-In form. But the district's superintendent, with legal advice, rejected it and went with an Opt-Out form instead.
In December 2004, Spring took over as Policy Committee Chair and directed the superintendent to include Opt-Out language on the student's mandatory emergency card. The policy gave high school students and their families the option to opt out of having their private information shared with military recruiters without their permission.

On opening school day in Fall 2005, Meiklejohn, Spring, and then-School Committee candidate Susan Hopkins (G) welcomed students outside Portland High School with oversized copies of the emergency card, and handed out pencils they had made up with the inscription "Welcome Back to School Portland High Bulldogs. Opt-Out or Opt-In. It's YOUR Decision!" They chose Portland High because military recruiters concentrate their efforts there, with its greater numbers of minority and low-income students compared to Portland's other high schools (51 languages spoken there).
Emboldened by this success, came 'Part Two', according to Spring-limiting the physical presence of military recruiters itself on campus. With the help of the Portland Greens, Maine Veterans for Peace, Pax Christi, and the League of Pissed Off Voters, Spring, Meiklejohn and then-21-year old Jason Toothaker (G) (who was elected to the School Committee by one vote in November 2004) organized to build support for the proposed policy. After Hopkins' subsequent election in November 2005, the School Committee passed one of the most comprehensive anti-military recruitment policies in the nation, which accomplished the following:

  • Removed recruiters from cafeterias and hallways by requiring them to do their business in guidance like college recruiters.
  • Limited military recruiters to seven visits per year. Before this policy, military recruiters showed up at Portland High School 28 times in an academic year.
  • Required all mandatory emergency cards to have Opt Out language. The percentage of students opting out from sending their personal information to military recruiters at Portland High School went from 2 to 65 percent as a result.

Not only had Portland Greens help pass a landmark policy, but they made it a threshold question in the November 2005 election. Of the three School Committee races, two anti-recruitment candidates (including Hopkins) prevailed.

Greens and Dems

Hopkins' election in a three-way, citywide race (38 percent-35 percent-27 percent) signified growing Green strength in Portland. An immigration lawyer who works part-time for the University of Southern Maine's Student Legal Services, her victory gave Portland Greens four seats on the nine-member School Committee, which governs 8,000 students and oversees an annual budget of $80 million.

Maine Public Radio did a 15-minute segment on the incoming School Committee and its potentially changing dynamics. But few predicted how intensely partisan the dynamics of the Committee would become, in what is at least officially a non-partisan board.

Jason Toothaker, School Committee, District 3, first elected 2004

Before the new board's inauguration, the outgoing Committee-consisting of four Democrats, three Greens and two Republicans-voted on whether to raise the superintendent's salary. Citing "fiscal responsibility," the Republicans voted no, while the Greens questioned the evaluative process behind the recommendation, suggesting it was based on emotion and personal contacts, rather than hard data. This produced a stalemate, with a continuation to the new Committee.

Once seated, the new Committee-five Democrats and four Greens-first caucused to elect a chair and sub-committee (finance) chair. The Democrats won both seats on 5-4 party line votes, with the School Committee chair appointed having served only one year in office, compared to Meiklejohn's four, the longest of anyone who hadn't yet served as chair.

The committee considered first going into executive session to update new members, but this failed 5-4 (D-G) on party lines, as state law requires 60 percent to go into executive session.

Meiklejohn argued that state statute prohibits closed sessions unless there is "reasonable expectation that public discussion would damage the reputation" of the Superintendent.

"Since the motion as written focused on compensation, not performance," said Meiklejohn, "it did not meet the statutory standard."
Committee Democrats voted to adjourn rather than vote publicly on the issue. Eventually, at a subsequent meeting with Meiklejohn absent and little discussion, the raise passed. But the effects of this clash have been felt deeply since then, according to Spring, with the Democrats 'closing ranks' and keeping items of substance off the agenda in response.

"Committee Democrats seemingly prefer to support the Superintendent deciding matters in closed session," says Spring, "the public is starting to notice." Fighting back, Meiklejohn and Spring have placed items directly on the agenda, which they believe otherwise, would not have been brought to the School Committee for a vote. Perhaps most important among these were plans to consolidate school and city services on transportation and maintenance, that came from recommendations by a joint School Committee/City Council finance committee after four months of research.
But maybe this should've been foreseen. In 2003, shortly after Eder was first elected to the State House, state legislative Democrats tried to redistrict him out of office, with a plan to place him in a new district to remove his base. That backfired when Eder moved back a few blocks into what was mostly his old district, and handily beat the Democratic incumbent that had been redistricted there to take his seat.


In 2005, Meiklejohn, Spring, and Toothaker supported starting a small progressive school-the Outward Bound High School-despite concerns by some whether it was worth the cost. "It's a huge success," says Spring. "The practices are considered as models for our two large comprehensive high schools. For example, the new school does not segregate kids by perceived ability (which ends up looking like race and class segregation) and relies heavily on service and place-based learning instead."

Erek Gaines, Municipal Water District, first elected 2003

The New York based International Center for Leadership in Education chose the school (now called Casco Bay High School) as one of 75 promising high schools nationwide to participate in a five-year initiative on best methods and policies.

On the environmental front, Meiklejohn, Spring and Toothaker voted to approve Portland's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified new elementary school, Meiklejohn also led a successful effort to approve an Integrated Pest Management Policy.
On the Water Board, Erek Gaines who, like Toothaker, was just 21 when first elected-successfully sponsored an anti-idling policy that applies to all Water District vehicles and subcontractors. He also advocates changing water rates to promote conservation and increasing green energy sources for the District's power.

For his part, Eder introduced and passed a bill for efficiency standards in rental housing, and a disclosure form to tell prospective renters if the apartment they are looking at is energy efficient and what it will cost to heat. Eder is also is House chair of the Governor's Creative Economy Council to foster the growth of the "creative economy." He delivered well for his district and Portland at-large, securing $500,00 for a local arts incubator and $200,000 for Portland's multi lingual center. Since taking office, Eder has twice been voted Portland's Best Politician by readers of the alternative weekly Portland Phoenix.

Looking to 2006

With a series of municipal and state legislative races all concentrated in the city's most progressive districts, Portland Greens are aggressively attempting to win more seats. They hope overlapping campaigns will increase synergies even more so than has already occurred in the past.
Excitement around this potential has led many Greens to declare for office much earlier than the typical months of July and August. On March 4, Rebecca Minnick announced for District 1 School Committee, and Spring did so for re-election in District 2.

If both win, it would yield Maine's first Green legislative body majority. "We'll be able to educate our children in nonviolence," dreams Spring, "make sure our new elementary school uses alternative energy as its primary power source, and ensure high school youth use public transportation to get to and from school."

Meilklejohn hopes to join Eder, running for State House District 120, which overlaps most of District 1, including the Mount Joy Hill neighborhood. Joining them is affordable housing advocate Kevin Donoghue, who is running for City Council District 1, meaning there will be significant overlap among Green School, City and State legislative candidates.

Stephen Spring, School Committee, District 2, first elected 2003.
Springcares Blog

In Eder's District 118, there is also overlap with much of District 2, where Spring is running, including Portland's West End and Parkside neighborhoods, along with part of the University of Southern Maine. District 2 also overlaps with State House district 119, where Jeff Spencer won 40.3 percent in 2004 and Portland Greens are seeking to field a candidate to win the seat in 2006.

Citywide, Greens are running for five State House, one State Senate, two School Committee and two City Council seats overall-all in a city of 64,000 residents and 51,000 voters, albeit one in which one out of every ten Greens in the state live.

Statewide, LaMarche is running again for Governor. In 1998, she received 6.8 percent, including 7.7 percent in Portland. The Maine Greens need at least 5 percent of the vote in her race to retain ballot status, which was first achieved in 1994 when Jonathan Carter received 6.5 percent statewide, and 10.5 percent in Portland. In 2002, with increased name recognition after years as a leading state forestry activist, Carter ran again. Bolstered by $900,000 of public financing from Maine's Clean Election Law, he received 9.3 percent statewide. In Portland Carter garnered 15.6 percent, tying or beating the Republican to finish second in five out of the city's 20 precincts, and second in District 2 overall.

"Looking ahead, 2006 looks promising on the grassroots level," according to Martin Stephens, who worked on the ballot qualification drives for both LaMarche and Portland's local state legislative candidates. "We targeted areas with a high density of Greens-I was paired up with a driver who knows the area well, and armed with a highlighted map and a list of Greens broken down by district and indexed by street. In areas where a State Senate district overlapped a State House district, I would carry a two-sided clipboard and ask for both signatures. When people were enthusiastic, I would ask for a signature and Clean Election donation for LaMarche. We organized materials to get the most out of each door knocked on, and got an impressive number of candidates on the ballot."

The presence of Clean Election funds also makes it easier for grassroots Greens to succeed, according to Eder. For the State House, candidates receive approximately $4,800 to communicate to districts of approximately 6,500 voters, allowing Greens to focus on meeting voters. "It protects us when other candidates violate the spending limits," says Eder. "The D's and R's have been having their candidates run 'clean.' But then they put more money in-supposedly without the candidate knowing. During my 2004 campaign, my opponents raised and spent an extra $3,000 and I received that same amount in matching funds."


Portland Greens enjoy many advantages most Greens around the country don't: some of the smallest legislative districts in the nation, overlapping campaigns, public financing of elections, progressive neighborhoods, large numbers of independent voters and a lack of the "'spoiler dynamic."' Even the party's official name-the Green Independent Party-works in their favor, in a state where almost 40 percent of the voters are not registered in any party.

But Portland Greens are also working to take advantage of these opportunities, with consistent organizing going back more than a decade. Increasingly, Portland voters are demonstrating that they believe local Greens not only have good ideas, but also can govern. It will be seen in 2006 whether Portland Greens can take the next step, and win more seats in all three legislative bodies.


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The Foresider said...

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