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Thursday, June 08, 2006

"Grass Roots Fire Fight" by Sara Donnelly in the Portland Phoenix: June 7, 2006

Kevin Donoghue slumps deeper in his chair at the 2006 Maine Green Party convention as a debate over one of the most significant structural changes to the party’s governance in its 22-year history swallows up more of his Friday evening. About 30 Greens sit in the theater of the Center for Cultural Exchange in Portland, discussing whether to streamline party leadership in a year when many of them think their gubernatorial candidate, Pat LaMarche, could win.

The single Green state legislator, John Eder, is home sick with the flu. Ben Meiklejohn, aka “Zen Ben,” a 34-year-old Portland school committee member and a candidate for state legislature, stands in the front row and objects to the proposal to fire the party’s current group of leaders (who party founder John Rensenbrink recently said didn’t do much of anything this year) in exchange for a smaller group of new leaders. A Green in a yellow tropical shirt interrupts Meiklejohn and berates him so vehemently Meiklejohn walks out of the room. Donoghue watches, amused and dismayed.

Like most young active party members from Portland, Donoghue, 27, is more energized by winning a political seat, like Zen Ben and other Portland Greens have managed to, than he is by debating the state party structure that hasn’t done much to help him run for office in the first place. But whether or not Donoghue cares much about the party, the party is starting to care a lot about people like him.

Around 8 pm, after some impassioned condemnations of the current party leadership, a tiny fraction of the 24,000 Greens registered in the state raise their mint-green placards and votes to create a stronger central governing body whose first priority is to hire an executive director who will help more Kevin Donoghues from around the state run for office. The 13-member steering committee of the Green Party, which chose not to recruit a single candidate for this fall’s municipal or state elections, is dissolved on the spot and replaced with five new politics-minded Greens including Ben Chipman (the party’s most ardent campaign manager), Jonathan Carter (who ran twice for governor), and Carol Schiller (who lost her campaign for city council last year). In about 25 minutes, the party transforms from a chronically decentralized group of activist-skeptics into a maybe, possibly, if-you-squint-your-eyes-could-be a unified party with a palpable lust for political power. And some key Greens think it’s about time.

Twisted roots
While the 30 or so Greens at the convention debated the merits of a smaller governing board, Jacqui Deveneau mills around the room munching on snacks from the lobby. Deveneau is the party’s “Welcome Wagon Lady” — she contacts new Greens and helps them become active in the party — and is one of the busiest Green activists in the state. Deveneau loves the Greens, and wants the party to be strong and happy and functional and all that, but she’s not much involved in politics of the Kevin Donoghue or John Eder variety. She, like many who join progressive third parties as refugees from the middle-moving Democrats, prefers direct action in protests and advocacy work over courting the voting public.

“There’s those at the party leadership level that would rather be the due processors and not get out and be in the streets, and those people are more heavily into running elections,” she explained earlier this spring in a phone interview. “And there’s always going to be those of us that are activists and don’t really care for the politics of it.”

Deveneau believes, most of the time, activist Greens support the electoral Greens, if from a safe, cynical distance. She hopes the new board, free of what she calls “baggage” from the previous leadership, can bring the party together.

Since its inception, the Green Party has worried about how to navigate the world of politics without forfeiting its progressive ideals. Nationally, this means Green candidates occasionally encourage voters to abandon the party and vote for the Democratic candidate in close races. During their 2004 campaign, Green candidate for president David Cobb and his running mate Pat LaMarche focused most of their efforts on so-called “safe states,” where Democrat John Kerry was sure to win. John Rensenbrink, a former government and environmental studies professor at Bowdoin College who founded the Maine Green Party in 1984, wrote in his 1999 book Against All Odds: The Green Transformation of American Politics, that the Green Party was created to create “profound change” in the way government and society run by promoting a platform that includes protecting the environment, forming a decentralized economy, and coveting local control of government. Rensenbrink describes rocky early days of the US Green party and its Maine branch, when members debated everything from the party’s structure and purpose to how it could remain ideologically true and still convince a majority of voters to elect (and then re-elect) its progressive candidates. The party eventually settled on its 10 Key Values platform — which includes promoting the environment, a decentralized economy, and local control — and two awkwardly mutually-exclusive goals — launch bold protests against corrupt government and get Green candidates elected to change the government from within.

From the beginning, the movement-oriented activists and what Rensenbrink refers to as the political “party types” regarded each other suspiciously from opposite ends of the same dream. The activists worried that politics, which by necessity focuses on winning first and on ideology second, could taint the Greens and twist them into exactly the kind of power-hungry force they were trying to replace.

“If the Green parties are successful in winning elections, will this bring in its train a slew of problems of the sort that electoral success usually brings?” writes Rensenbrink of the debate within the national party during the early 1990s. “Opportunists, who have hitherto hung back, now join in droves. ... The risk is great that the Greens will be co-opted and corrupted by the system.”

Broken branches
In his book, Rensenbrink suggests that the Greens can salvage their integrity by always encouraging both the direct action and the electoral branches of the party, something which, judging by the anger at last month’s Green convention, the most recent leadership has failed to do.

“In my opinion, there’s an argument from within on whether we’re an electoral party or a direct action party or a social club,” says John Eder, who, in 2002, became the first Green to win state-level office in a regular election. (In 1999, Green Audie Bock won a seat in the California lower house in a special election.) Eder, who says some of the direct-action Greens “looked at me and were like, eew” when he won his first election, believes the Greens have just started to figure out how to actually grow a political party that includes a lot of people who distrust politics.

“We began winning seats only recently and really running to win only recently,” says Eder. “And it’s sort of created an identity issue. I think some in the party were satisfied to be issues-based, direct-action based and not seriously pursue electoral goals and when we began to take seats in Portland it began to bring [electoral politics] to the fore.”

Rensenbrink, who is now 77 and active with the Topsham Merrymeeting Greens, is concerned that all 12 Green candidates for office this year come from Cumberland County, evidence that the rural Green committees have detached from the electoral game. During an interview at the Little Dog Café in Brunswick in April, Rensenbrink was most animated, albeit with frustration, when talking about what he referred to as the “political dissidence” or the “down with politics” attitude of some Greens.

“If our country goes down the tubes, it’s because of that — the profound alienation of political consciousness,” he said, shaking his head dismally.

But during a phone interview after the convention, Rensenbrink sounded optimistic that the new board will give the party “a greater coherence and sense of direction” by raising money, reconnecting those detached Green committees, and eventually helping more candidates run for office.

“It would be great if we could have enough time and energy to field effective candidates for US Congress and Senate. I hope that will come in the future,” he said. “It’s really important for us to being to devolve power from Washington [DC] down to the states and then down to each locality, we’re always trying to find more effective ways to do that.”

Cutting through
If the new governing board proves to be as strong as intended, it will be a significant change from the origins of the party, which for the first six years of its life functioned exclusively through small, non-hierarchical committees scattered haphazardly throughout the state. These committees focused on platform building and direct action without the benefit (or hindrance) of a strong state party governance. It wasn’t until 1990, six years after the Maine Greens were founded, that the party created a statewide team to even look at running a candidate for office, and it wasn’t until 1992 that they could actually find someone to do it. That someone was Jonathan Carter, who ran unsuccessfully for the US House and, two years later, on a campaign budget of $32,695, managed to attract over six percent of the Maine popular vote as a candidate for governor. This total was enough to exceed the state minimum of five percent to get the Greens official party status in Maine for the first time. Party status is crucial, many Greens say, because it allows candidates to run officially as Greens (which makes for great publicity), it qualifies the party for some state funding, and it allows party leadership to gather a list of registered Green voters. According to the Maine Secretary of State, the Green party registered 24,155 voters in 2004 (the most recent numbers available), up from 16,169 during the last election cycle in 2002.

But winning the country’s most powerful seats has proven to be a pipe dream for any color that’s not blue or red.

“The only evidence we ever had of a third party winning at the national level and kind of knocking off one of the two major parties was of course the Republican Party in 1860. Civil war can tend to do that,” says Mark Brewer, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine, who specializes in US electoral politics (see sidebar, “What Republicans Can Teach The Greens”). “There is no third party in the United States right now that has any shot of winning a presidential election or even a congressional election.”

According to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, a 22-year-old Web site and newsletter based in San Francisco that tracks third parties in the US, the Maine and US Green parties have guilt to wrestle with on top of the challenge of breaking into high-level mainstream politics. After waiting years to jump into politics — most third parties run a candidate the same year they launch — to avoid diving into a race only to help a Republican win, the Greens watched their presidential candidate Ralph Nader realize the party’s worst nightmare in 2000 when he helped swing the election for George W. Bush. Winger says that experience made many Greens recoil even more from pushing third-party candidates, even at the state level.

Winger says the strongest national third parties in the country are the Libertarian Party, the Green Party, and the Constitution Party. Green Party membership nationally has stagnated in recent years, while the Constitution Party, an ultra-conservative group that believes US law should be based on the Bible, has lately gained the most registered voters of the five top third parties (see “Party People” sidebar). More than a decade after their slow-to-spoil start in politics, Winger says the Maine Greens are one of the strongest state third parties in the country in part because Eder has been elected to state office twice.

Sowing seeds
It’s not easy being Eder, the lone representative of a small party that must devote all its resources to the gubernatorial race to maintain party status, and which struggles with a perennially anemic budget. The party’s 2006 budget, according to documents passed out at the April convention, is $15,000, the bulk of it raised from either tax check-offs or direct contributions from registered Greens. During the first quarter of this year, which was reported to the state Governmental Ethics and Election Practices Commission in April, the Maine Greens collected only $607, compared with $67,000 raised by the Maine Republican Party and $334,000 raised by the Maine Democratic Party. The Green Party can’t afford to provide Eder with a state House clerk who can work more eight hours a week and, in 2005, the party closed its Augusta office for lack of funds (the Portland office is still open, but is funded by the Cumberland County Green Committee, not the state party). As it currently stands, the party budget is hardly healthy enough to hire a full-time executive director, which is one of the board’s first goals. The Greens are therefore not hiding that dredging up more green is their first order of business. The new board will hold its first meeting later this month. Until then, the board’s chair, Jane Meisenbach, says she does not know how the party will focus its future fundraising efforts.

Most Greens we spoke to, including party leaders and average voters, see the changes at the top as necessary growth.

“We’re reinventing the way we view politics,” says Bob Dunning, chairman of the Bridgton Green Independent Committee. “We don’t want it to be traditional and it’s not always going to be the same solution because organizations change all the time. Everything has to change or die.”

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