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Turf Wars: San Jose attorney Warner Bloomberg, Green Party candidate running against Manny Diaz for the District 23 Assembly seat, says redistricting has made it hard for his party to win state office.

Out of Left Field

How can the Green Party expect its candidates to win top offices when they haven't won state seats?

By Allie Gottlieb

GREENS HAVE a lot to complain about. The electoral system is corrupt, they grouse. It costs too much to campaign. They can't get into the debates. "The biggest thing is the redistricting game, [which is] just insulting to all voters in the state of California," says Warner Bloomberg, the Green who's running for state Assembly in Santa Clara County's District 23 against Democrat Manny Diaz. "It basically carves up districts [in ways] that make them noncompetitive."

And it's true. Democratic and Republican legislators do shape the districts for their own benefit. The Green Party doesn't accept organizations' donations, and it lacks the benefit of the large-scale funding Democrat and Republican establishments provide. The press ignores Greens. They're excluded from debates. As Peter Miguel Camejo's run-in with the Los Angeles Times' gubernatorial debate earlier this month proved, Greens sometimes can't even get into the building for a showdown against their opponents. They're also attacked from the left, their voter base, as spoilers for the Dems.

But while the cards are indeed stacked squarely against the Greens, they also bear some responsibility--especially in California--for sticking to the sidelines when it comes to carving out traditional pathways to major public office. Greens have managed to win a few local seats--in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Sonoma, Los Angeles, Marin and Alameda counties. In the Bay Area, the two most visible Greens are Menlo Park Mayor Stephen M. Schmidt and San Francisco County Supervisor Matt Gonzalez. But most voters primarily see the Green Party aiming for president and governor positions for visibility, often bypassing local and key statewide seats that could take them through the ranks more easily, with the necessary name recognition on the ballot. This year, for the first time, California Greens are pushing a full slate of statewide candidates, including four for state Assembly, but voters shouldn't expect to have heard much about any of them before.

Being Green

Boosters argue that the locally oriented strategy is effective, evidenced by the fact that more people are signing up for this left-of-Democrat party than ever before. California Green Party membership grew by 2.57 percent to 151,000 members in the last month, a growth rate that beats every other party (including "decline to state"). By comparison, major-party membership grew by less than 1 percent.

"We are part of a long-term effort to build the Green Party locally in California and in the United States," says Bloomberg. "I think people are surprised by how far we've come in such a short period of time."

Tyler Snortum-Phelps, the campaign manager for Green Party gubernatorial candidate Camejo, says the Greens' targeted campaign strategy is better than other third-parties' methods. "Like the Libertarians," he says by way of comparison, "who just throw any name up on the ballot, and pretty soon they begin to be perceived as irrelevant. We do want to run campaigns that win, not just put names on the ballot."

Aaron Starr, state Libertarian Party chairman, says Libertarians are more successful than any other third party at getting candidates elected, because they run more of them and are more organized. Libertarians hold 531 elected seats nationally, 64 in California.

Richard Winger, who puts out the 18-year-old monthly newsletter Ballot Access News, says one reason Libertarians are more successful than Greens is that they run more candidates. He also says the Greens are highly selective.

To get the Green Party's backing, a candidate has to have "integrity, experience, intelligence," and she or he has to "be articulate and willing to run for a position and do the work if elected," recites Snortum-Phelps. Greens also must share 10 key values as listed in the party's ballot statement of purpose: ecological wisdom, grassroots democracy, social justice, nonviolence, respect for diversity, feminism, community-based economics, decentralization, personal and global responsibility, and sustainability.

Greens currently hold 157 seats in 20 U.S. states, including 54 in California, according to the California Green Party's latest figures. That's nearly double the number of Green officeholders from just two years ago.

Grass Is Greener

Nevertheless, the Green Party admits that there's a giant hole in its representation. There's only ever been one Green Party candidate elected to a statewide position in the entire country. She was Oakland's Audie Bock, who won on a fluke--a 1999 special election against one Democrat for a prematurely vacated California state Assembly seat. Bock won by about 300 votes. While in office, she abandoned her Green Party affiliation and switched to "decline to state."

"We really should increase the number of reps in the state Legislature to ensure that there's fair representation of the great diversity in the country," popular Green Santa Monica Mayor Michael Feinstein concedes.

Feinstein [no relation to Senator Dianne Feinstein] has been on the Santa Monica City Council since 1996, and the Los Angeles Business Journal referred to him in March as "the most visible of the 138 Green Party members holding office in the nation." Why doesn't he run for a higher office?

"I look at my situation and [ask], Does it make more sense for me to stay on a local level than to fight the good fight but maybe not win?" Feinstein says. "Most of our candidates are running on a municipal level because we have a chance to win there."

Unsafe Seats

Feinstein's not alone in apparently lacking the will to move up in the ranks. A lot of people don't run for state offices, San Jose's Bloomberg says, because they think, "I don't want to spend all the time and money to run when the deck is so clearly stacked against me."

Since 1992, when the Green Party first got on the ballot, only 22 percent of Green candidates in California have run for state seats--75 out of 334. The rest have vied for local offices.

By comparison, 56 percent of Greens running for office nationally in the Nov. 5 election are vying for state or federal level seats. Thirteen Greens are listed on the Secretary of State's website as running for state offices in California's Nov. 5 general election. They include a video producer/artist, a businesswoman, an accountant, financial advisers and managers, teachers, an author/historian and a couple of attorneys. None of those candidates is moving on from a previous position in an elected political office.

"We are a brand-new political party," Jo Chamberlain says, trying to explain why Greens haven't made more effort to tackle statewide and congressional races, as a bridge to the highest elected offices in the country. Chamberlain, a former high-tech and communications worker who is running for San Mateo's District 19 state Assembly seat, says Greens in municipal positions, such as city councils and water and school boards, will move up eventually. "What we find is our people are re-elected, overwhelmingly, because we've turned out not to be all that weird after all." She does, however, make an argument against shooting for state-level offices. "City council people are not normally termed out, but assembly people are."

Regardless, the Green Party has future plans to seek more statewide offices.

"California historically has not emphasized higher-level partisan races as much as some of our other states have," says Dean Myerson, political coordinator for the Green Party of the United States. "Moving up to state Legislature is the next logical step for a grassroots party that works at the local level. Local-level candidates deepen the party. High-level candidates broaden the party. And we need to do both."

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From the October 31-November 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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