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Green Party Blues

Despite strong election returns, it's still not easy being green. Can the party survive its success?

By Will Harper

The two designated "vibe watchers" didn't intervene, though some people's patience was obviously wearing thin. For what seemed like an eternity the 125 Green Party members who were tucked inside a cramped San Jose State University classroom debated procedural protocol. The party's laudable but impractical obsession with bottom-up, little-guy democracy meant just about everyone who wanted to speak could. The facilitator, a leather-faced woman in her 40s, selected speakers in the audience on a boy-girl basis, a grade school teacher's ethos passed off as enlightened equal opportunity. Someone questioned who empowered the facilitator to choose who spoke and who didn't. Sensitive to the criticism, the facilitator floated the more democratic alternative of pulling random names from a hat. Every few minutes, two arms would wave frantically, indicating someone had a point of order about process. The episode shows the Greens' challenge in becoming a successful political party: They trust no one to lead them. To avoid power-mongering, they prefer to conduct everything by group consensus; one of the party's most publicized efforts was to put "none of the above" on the ballot. The scene also shows why the Greens may never go beyond third-party obscurity.

These should be the best of times for the fledgling party. Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, the party's first ever, attracted unprecedented publicity and brought in a horde of newcomers to the party. Before the Nader campaign, only about five states recognized the Greens as an official political party. That number doubled after the campaign, according to a party veteran. And in the small Northern California town of Arcata, the populace elected the first-ever Green city council majority in the country.

But perhaps fittingly, during these best of times, the Green Party is coming unglued. The Nader campaign exposed and exacerbated already existing divisions in the party between old guard activists who view the Greens as a movement rather than a political party and those who want to win elections and have a better chance of saving the Earth.

Shortly after the election, a group of 70 disgruntled Greens from 31 states met in a farmhouse in Middleburg, Va., and called for a mutiny. They were tired of the bickering and perceived lethargy within the existing national organization, Greens/Green Party USA, a vestige from the days before the Greens became a political party in this country. GPUSA tends to frown on electoral politics except at the local level. It's not an uncommon sentiment among Greens. Many say national campaigns divert resources from the party's more realistic efforts to elect people to local seats on the city council, water board or school board.

But the insurrectionists wanted to build on the Nader campaign's momentum, and they didn't trust Green Party USA to do so. "What we see in GPUSA are people who don't get things done," complains San Francisco Green Steven Hill, adding, "Maybe it's appropriate that some people go in [one] direction, and others go [another] direction." Nader, reportedly considering a run against Connecticut Senator Christopher Todd in 1998, himself seemed to hint that the Greens should get their act together if they ever wanted to be politically competitive. So party rebels formed a confederacy of sorts: The Association of State Green Parties. Unlike the activist-minded Green Party USA, ASGP would be overtly political and serve as the party's national campaign arm, its founders promised.

Fifteen state parties have already joined the new campaign confederacy. The notable exception is the Green Party of California, the country's largest and most active, which met in San Jose last month and voted to remain on the sidelines. Instead, California Greens called for party unity, hoping to accommodate both its activist and its political factions. Gloria Purcell of the Green Party of San Mateo County was one of those who thought it unwise to jump aboard the ASGP's bandwagon. Many Greens are more interested in demonstrating against Lawrence Livermore Lab than walking voter precincts, she says. "We're very issue-oriented as a political party," Purcell explains. "Issues draw us like a magnet, but when it comes to, say, the special election for (Assemblyman) Ted Lempert's (D-Palo Alto) seat, we couldn't find a candidate." Ross Mirkarimi, a founding member of the party, predicts that in spite of near-term turmoil, in the long run the party's activist and political wings will kiss and make up.

At the moment, however, the bad blood is boiling. Green Party USA activists accuse their political counterparts of power-mongering, pointing to the time when a naysayer from GPUSA wasn't allowed inside the meeting at Middleburg. The new campaign confederacy stews about GPUSA's cynical attempt to become the officially recognized national Green Party during the campaign in order to be eligible for federal election funds in Nader broke 5 percent. The Federal Election Commission turned down the request. "There's going to be competition for a while," one defector was quoted as saying on the party's Web page. "We'll see where the chips fall in the next few months."

On April 5-6 the Green Party will be holding its "Spring Forward" event at San Jose State University. For more info call 408/257-9424.

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From the April 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro

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