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[whitespace] Peter Miguel Camejo Third Party Calling: The Green Party's gubernatorial candidate, Peter Camejo, believes that voter disapproval of Gov. Gray Davis and Republican candidate Bill Simon could add up to a victory.


Green Power

Simon-hating Republicans and Davis-dreading Democrats may find a nice place to vote in Green Party candidate Peter Miguel Camejo

By Loren Stein

Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Miguel Camejo stands before his loyal followers--a motley crowd of twentysomethings and '60s leftovers gathered at a San Mateo church--and gamely launches into his stump speech. "Davis won by a 20 percent landslide and then worked to alienate every group that has supported him," he says in his characteristically fast clip with just a touch of lilting Latin rhythms.

"Simon's main qualification is no one knows anything about him yet," he adds. As he preaches the gospel to diehard Greens, it's hard to imagine that Camejo, a millionaire and guru of socially responsible investing, might once again prove to be one of the 10 most dangerous men in California--a label he was once awarded by former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

With incumbent Gov. Gray Davis and Republican nominee Bill Simon locked in what appears to be a close contest of lesser evils (Democratic voters have turned away from Davis in droves while Simon's recently revealed financial debacles have practically doomed his candidacy), Camejo may be about to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Pollsters say voters usually won't support third-party candidates because they fear they might be throwing away their ballots. But this time around, the stars may be in alignment: the two leading contenders in the 2002 governor's race are so distasteful to large blocks of both moderate and left-leaning voters that Camejo may capture a surprisingly high number of their votes.

That theory got a major boost when the latest poll put the virtually unknown Camejo at 5 percent, a notch or more above the 3.8 percent that prominent consumer advocate and Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader scooped up in California in 2000. With Simon losing ground to Davis, Camejo's chances shrink. But if the race closes in again, Camejo's votes might also prove to be the margin of difference that tips Simon--a conservative multimillionaire investor, philanthropist, novice office-seeker, and son of former President Nixon's treasury secretary--into office.

Which makes Camejo a candidate worth watching. "Davis has alienated mainstream liberals with his petty, conservative Democratic politics and his hard-driving fundraising tactics," says Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies. "[Camejo] would be the repository of people's disaffection, a place to dump their dissatisfaction with the party. In that very specific sense, he could be an important player."

Camejo, a 62-year-old grandfather of two and Walnut Creek resident, is a curious blend of capitalist business savvy and left-wing politics. Born in New York to one of Venezuela's wealthiest families, he's the chair and cofounder of Progressive Asset Management, which promotes socially responsible investments.

As a '60s activist who made fiery speeches alongside Mario Savio during the free speech movement at UC Berkeley (winning Reagan's "most dangerous man" label), Camejo was arrested and expelled from the university for speaking, he says, at an unauthorized rally.

He ran for president in 1976 for the Socialist Worker Party. (Was he a Socialist? Is he now? He won't really say.) He only voted Democratic once, he says, to back Jesse Jackson's run for president. He's one of the original U.S. Green Party members, dating back to when the party registered in 1991. Camejo also has the distinction of being perhaps the only gubernatorial candidate who's sailed in the Olympics (with his father in 1960 for Venezuela).

His radical credentials also include forming the Environmental Justice Fund, traveling through Latin America to free political prisoners, and creating an organic farming firm in Nicaragua that helped the county to become the world's largest producer of sesame. He was deported from Mexico while trying to free his activist brother, who was at the time imprisoned in Mexico City.

Earlier in the race, he said he held no illusion that he would actually snag the governor's seat. But now he's changed his mind--or at least his rhetoric. "I can win this race," he says. "What are the odds? Very low. But Davis has weakened terribly in the last four months, what with the Oracle debacle and other continuing scandals. As I talk and tour, I hear over and over, 'I will not vote for Davis, and I cannot vote for Simon.'"

On the stump and in interviews, Camejo blends his deep commitment to the Green Party with tough talk and a natural comedic flair on such issues as environmental protection, social justice, and energy policy. He bounces excitedly from one point to another, gesticulating freely and making wisecracks at his own expense.

How did he get drafted into running? "I wish I knew," he sighs, before explaining that he wants to do his part to support the Greens. "I don't like to claim I can get votes," he says later during a speech. "My wife will vote for me, and I think my daughter might."

But he's also quick on the attack. "Davis capitulated and gave the energy companies $43 billion at the top of the market, which is now worth $11 billion--the worst investment in the history of the world," he says. "If he were the head of a company, he'd be sued."

He advocates universal healthcare, saving old-growth forests, gay and lesbian rights, living-wage laws, solar power requirements, a crash program in affordable housing, and repealing the "Three Strikes" law and the death penalty. He's also a staunch opponent of what he calls U.S. aggression in the war on terrorism.

"The major parties are corrupted at the top because of corporate domination in the politics of America," Camejo says. "The Greens are a new phenomenon, but we're by far the largest third party and our votes increase in every election. Davis is underestimating our strength." (The other third-party candidates are from the American Independent, Libertarian, and Natural Law slates.)

Bob Mulholland, a top strategist for the state Democratic Party, disputes the notion that the Greens are a force to be reckoned with. After 10 years of organizing, the Green Party has signed up just 146,000 people, representing less than 1 percent of the state's registered voters, he says. In contrast, California has 6.8 million registered Democrats and 5.3 million Republicans.

"Like other minority parties, they'll get 2 [percent] to 3 percent [of the vote]," Mulholland says. "They'll drink all night celebrating. It's their 15 seconds of fame."

The Green Party has made some inroads recently, especially in left-leaning towns. They've won several dozen local offices, including city official seats in Santa Monica and the North Coast's Arcata, and a San Francisco Supervisor seat for Matt Gonzalez. For the first time, the Greens have put together a full slate of seven statewide candidates, including an African-American woman for lieutenant governor, Donna Warren, and two other female candidates.

Are California Democrats taking the Greens seriously? "Obviously we pay attention to [third-party candidates], but we're not too concerned he'll peel away votes from us," says Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the Davis campaign. Adds Mulholland: "He's not on the radar. We have meetings all the time, and no one ever mentions the guy." (Davis hasn't met Camejo.)

"I'm sure Davis is not taking Camejo seriously, but I'm equally sure that he should be," says Dan Schnur, a prominent Republican campaign consultant. "As Nader proved, you don't have to have a lot of votes to have a major effect in a close campaign." In March's statewide primary, he says, about 20 percent of Democrats supported candidates other than Davis, although he had no real competition. "That speaks to real voter dissatisfaction among traditional Democrats," he says.

To draw ahead in the race and repair Davis' tattered image, Democratic Party strategists are counting on a fierce new negative TV ad campaign that they hope will demolish Simon's reputation with voters. But Simon may have done that himself by revealing to voters the darker businessman within when he refused to release his tax returns and the investment firm he owns was convicted of corporate fraud.

"In the last two years, Davis has been hammered by [gubernatorial hopefuls] Richard Riordan, Bill Jones, and Simon, and we've had a pretty tough time getting out our side of the story," acknowledged Davis' Salazar, before the fraud was declared. "But this isn't my first barbecue; we know what we're doing." Salazar may be right: the ads won Davis a slim but crucial seven-point lead in early July, and now Davis has shot ahead by 17 points.

Simon's strategists are of course delighted that Camejo may siphon votes away from the governor. Davis' "mismanagement of the state" will help Camejo "chip away at his already weak base," says Mark Miner, a Simon campaign spokesperson.

As for Simon, Camejo says that he's in a "time warp" and should be debating the Founding Fathers over the separation of church and state. Simon opposes a woman's right to choose and favors a moratorium on gun control legislation. In addition, the candidate, who has no experience in elective office, hasn't voted in California state primaries since 1992, according to the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters.

Camejo knows that if Green votes ultimately help elect Simon--whose political views are more onerous than even Davis'--he'll be labeled a spoiler in much the same way Ralph Nader was in the controversial 2000 presidential election. (While a great admirer of Nader, Camejo says he doesn't agree with Nader's oft-quoted statement that Democrats and Republicans are one and the same.)

To offset that criticism, Camejo and the Greens have been calling for instant runoff voting, where voters rank the candidates. If their top choice doesn't win, their vote passes instantly to the next candidate of their choice.

Defeating Davis might help push Democrats to institute the new system. "The day we have runoffs, the vote of the Green Party will explode," says Camejo, believing that voters will more readily vote their conscience and send a message to second-ranked candidates that they weren't their first choice. "But Democrats prefer Republicans to be elected rather than see free elections."

Predictably, the Democrats' Mulholland scoffs at the idea of runoff voting. "When third parties can't win the hearts and minds of voters, they come out with all these tricks--they can't do it naturally. They want to take a 1 percent party and make it [a] 5 percent [party] on the basis of trick math."

What Camejo also needs is money and visibility. At this point, he's raised $40,000, "an equivalent of one drop of the ocean," he says, and a far cry from Davis' war chest of nearly $32 million and the roughly $6 million raised by Simon, who's been loaning his own money to his campaign on an as-needed basis. Participating in any upcoming gubernatorial debates would also go a long way toward raising his profile with state voters.

Due to his national stature and star power, "Nader had the ability to take voters who were not going to vote at all," says political scientist Bruce Cain. "Camejo can't do that. But if he spent money, he could have a chance."

Adds Cain: "The Green candidate is an interesting guy; he's not a total kook. But he's certainly not a household name or attracting people to the ticket because of his achievements or charisma."

Camejo is hoping to draw the support of Latino voters and other ethnic minorities, whom Davis desperately needs to hold off Simon. "I think the minority community is so disillusioned with the governor that Camejo has the ability to spark that interest and do more than just [be] a protest vote," says John Gamboa, executive director of the San Francisco­based Greenlining Institute, which advocates for minority businesses. "The governor treats the minority community as if he has their vote because there's nowhere else to go, that he's the lesser of two evils. But [minorities] will vote for their needs rather than throw [their votes] away."

Camejo met with minority leaders to discuss their concerns and win their support after getting a letter from Gamboa stating that neither majority party addresses their issues and that 20 percent to 30 percent of the minority vote could be captured by the Green Party candidate. (He also noted that in the past the Greens have appealed primarily to middle-class whites.)

"Our party is like the abolitionists 175 years ago--we stand up and say unpopular things," says Camejo. "You can agree or disagree with us, but no one can deny that we care about the economy, people's rights, democracy, and nonviolence."

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From the August 29-September 4, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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