Show Us Some Green
You might not know it from watching TV or listening to the radio, but a local landowner recently bulldozed a community garden, a power plant is set to be constructed between two wildlife refuges in the Everglades, and there are still four candidates from the Green Party running for president of the United States of America.
Frustrated by the lack of media attention toward issues it feels are important, the Palm Beach County chapter of the Green Party in March hatched the idea of launching an internet radio station. On April 25, a Friday just weeks after the idea had been pitched, about 30 people gathered at the Little Owl Bar in Lake Worth. Their goal: to raise $1,000 to buy a mixer — a piece of broadcasting equipment for the station. In sustainable style, the fundraiser was a vegetarian potluck.
"The station is going to be a forum for local music, for local writers and artists, for commentators who want to talk about social justice or the environment," said Green Party chapter secretary Jayne King, a former schoolteacher who taught for years on a military base in Spain. She was passing around a sign-up sheet for anyone who wanted to propose hosting a show. A sociology professor from Barry University pitched a program about criminology and the war on drugs. King herself planned a show about urban farming. A guy named Roland on Piano hoped to showcase his musical talents. He says he plays "save-the-planet-type music."
Mainstream radio — hell, even shamelessly left-wing radio — simply wasn't doing it for the Greens. "Randi Rhodes irritates the hell out of me," said chapter treasurer Bonnie Redding, referring to the former Air America host. "She's just a shill for the Democratic Party." Most political parties and media outlets, Greens say, are driven by corporations and profits. Even programs on National Public Radio are underwritten by sponsors. To remain free from corporate influence, the new radio station, like Green political candidates, will refuse to accept money from businesses.
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At the fundraiser, which managed to come off as both low-tech (there was a cakewalk) and high-tech (two DJs battled with tunes from their laptops), conversation inevitably turned to the presidential election. Four candidates are in the running for the Green Party nomination; the winner will be decided at a national convention in Chicago July 10 to 13. With environmental concerns so prevalent in the national consciousness, locals lamented that more individuals aren't paying attention to the Green Party cause.
"People think the Democratic Party is going to [change the status quo]," King said. But even with that party floating history-making candidates — a white woman and a black man — "there are too many people entrenched," she said. "It's business as usual."
Party cochair Echo Steiner laughed at the idea that Democrats would bring about policies much different from the Bush administration's. "Look at their party platform," she said. "Half of it's about war and military spending."
Greens advocate "Ten Key Values" that include "grassroots democracy," "non-violence," and "community-based economics." The same essential values are shared by the international Green Party, which is more popular abroad — in Mexico, Brazil, and throughout Europe, where Greens are regularly elected to parliaments. Currently, 229 Greens hold office in the United States, mostly school board or library board positions, with a handful of mayors and city commissioners.
The Green Party's political director, Washington-based Brent McMillan, suggests that many voters share Green values already — they need only make the connection and identify with the party. "Look at the exit polling from 2006 — it looks like the Green Party platform," he says. McMillan points out three positions where the Green Party differs significantly from Democrats: the war in Iraq (Democrats authorized it, and most support a small but continued presence there, while the Greens advocate a complete withdrawal of troops); inaction on climate change ("Al Gore has done a good job getting the message out, but the biggest cheerleader for the international trade that contributes to global warming was Al Gore!" McMillan says); and health care (Hillary Clinton, McMillan says, is beholden to health-care companies that have funded much of her campaign — "In other words, she has almost no credibility.").
McMillan says it's not just liberals who can identify with the Greens' message — he's a former Republican. "I think Greens can appeal to the old conservative values," he says. Not the neoconservatives, like Bush and Cheney, he explains, but old-school Republicans who, before Reagan, traditionally supported ideas like women's rights and Native American sovereignty. "They didn't trust big business or big government," McMillan says.
Jesse Johnson, another former Republican, is one of four candidates seeking the Green Party nomination for president. "I grew up in a long line of law officers," Johnson says. "I was once a fireman and a paramedic." He is now a filmmaker and also operates a tree farm in West Virginia. "I've watched the Republican Party move away from its own ideals," he laments. He once considered himself a Republican in the mold of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — "the most environmental president ever."
Johnson sounds heartbroken when he talks about what he sees happening in Appalachia. Mining companies, he says, "use 4 million pounds of explosives every day — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," to blow the tops off mountains to access the mines. Toxic residue contaminates streams, vegetation that could combat greenhouse gases is destroyed, and animal habitat is ruined. Depleted topsoil means that trees may never come back. And river tributaries that get blocked with rubble or contaminated contribute to severe drought problems along the eastern seaboard — most notably in Atlanta, where there is a water crisis. Johnson says such problems can be alleviated with alternative, deep-mining technologies that would provide eight times as many jobs. But it's hard to get the word out about his ideas, he says. Even his local newspaper hasn't done a feature story on him.
Johnson's fellow candidates Kat Swift and Kent Mesplay find it difficult to campaign when they have to work day jobs four days a week. On a recent Tuesday, Mesplay, an air-quality technician from San Diego, had to use his cell phone and step out of a building to take a reporter's call. He says it can be challenging to fight anonymity on a limited budget. Federal Election Commission filings show that Mesplay has raised $6,560 and is in debt $9,604. His biggest contribution from an individual, he says, was $250.
The Green Party's best-known presidential candidate may be Cynthia McKinney, an African-American woman who served six terms in Congress representing a Georgia district; she had more than $91,000 in her coffers at presstime. McKinney was famously defeated in a 2002 Democratic primary because, she alleged in a lawsuit, Republicans voted in it, mobilizing to shut her out by voting for her opponent. The practice was deemed legal, and the lawsuit tossed out. Although McKinley has stood up for Hurricane Katrina victims, minority farmers, and government transparency, she is sometimes characterized as haughty. In one infamous incident, she struck a Capitol police officer who stopped her when she passed a security checkpoint. She has also introduced articles of impeachment against George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Dick Cheney.
A stumbling block for the Greens may be the lingering effect of Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential run, AKA "the spoiler effect." When George Bush won the presidency in 2000, the election was tipped by Florida, where Bush eked out a win by just 537 votes. In the aftermath, many Democrats blamed Nader for diverting votes from Al Gore. "There's a perception that we're public enemy number one," Mesplay says. Greens point out that Gore was a weak candidate who didn't win even his home state and that four times as many Florida Democrats voted for Bush in that election as voted for Nader. Nader is running for president as an independent this year.
But the election is still a distant battle as the Greens spend much of their energy simply trying to get their party on ballots. "Ninety percent of the time is taken up trying to be treated fairly," Johnson sighs.
Currently, the Greens will be on the presidential ballot in 23 states, but they are pushing for more. Ballot access varies from state to state. McMillan says that in Florida, getting on is easy — any party organized on a statewide basis can qualify. But in Oklahoma, they'd need to collect 43,324 signatures, making it a long shot.
At last count, in November 2006, McMillan says, there were 289,177 registered Greens in the country — but that's counting only the 21 states where a person is even able to register Green. Florida, McMillan says, listed 6,607 Green voters.
Greens believe their struggle illuminates the cause of third parties everywhere, and sometimes little-guy candidates help each other out. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel initially ran on the Democratic ticket and switched to Libertarian but took the time to endorse the Greens' Jesse Johnson along the way. The Federal Election Commission's website lists 135 presidential candidates this season. And even though he is part of the moneyed and highly visible Republican Party, Ron Paul is still in the running. As recently as the first week of May, Paul still had $4 million to spend.
"I'm not concerned with national politics," Palm Beach County's Jayne King says breezily. "It's about local elections and changing the system."
King points out that Lake Worth City Commissioner Cara Jennings is the highest elected Green in Florida. And this fall, vote-count activist Ellen Brodsky will run for the Broward County Board of Elections as a Green.
By the end of the radio fundraiser, Jennings had won the cakewalk. King was preparing a trip to India to buy fair trade goods. And the Greens had raised $743, largely because Bonnie Redding pledged to donate her $600 economic stimulus check. You can hear about it all at www.pbcgreenparty.org — just as soon as the Greens scrape up the cash to buy that mixer.
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