Spoiling the Party?

Why are Greens running a candidate against Paul Wellstone, the Senate's most liberal member?

| September/October 2002

Denunciations of Minnesota's Green Party have appeared all over the national alternative press this election season, as pundits who normally aim their rhetorical firepower at right-wingers and corporate criminals are up in arms that the state's growing band of Greens is fielding a candidate against progressive champion Paul Wellstone in an extremely tight Senate race. Pointing to the role Ralph Nader's Green candidacy played in sending George W. Bush to the White House, magazines from the leftist Nation to the liberal American Prospect worry that this latest experiment in political purity could tip the U.S. Senate to the Republicans.

Despite a moving appeal from Nader's two-time running mate Winona LaDuke to not challenge Wellstone, delegates at the party's May convention nominated Native American activist Ed 'Eagle Man' McGaa for the Senate seat. For many Greens, Wellstone's support of a bill authorizing President Bush's war on terrorism was a major issue-although a largely symbolic one, since the measure passed with only one dissenting vote. But as The Alternet News Service (June 3, 2002) and The Progressive (July 2002) point out, McGaa does not even share the Greens' views about the war. 'As a Korean War vet,' reports The Progressive's political editor Ruth Conniff, 'he says he believes constructive military intervention is sometimes warranted.'

McGaa is not considered a particularly strong or sophisticated candidate, a view reinforced by his suggestion that Wellstone might not survive the election due to his health. Wellstone announced earlier this year that he has a mild form of multiple sclerosis, but on the campaign trail this year he displays the same fire that fueled his stunning 1990 upset of two-term Republican Rudy Boschwitz. But this time Wellstone is the two-termer fighting to win back some people's trust after overriding a 1990 campaign promise to serve no more than two terms.

This is the biggest obstacle he faces in the race against Republican nominee Norm Coleman, a newly minted right-winger who defected from Minnesota's Democratic Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party while serving as mayor of St. Paul. Coleman is a formidable campaigner, and polls this summer showed him and Wellstone in a statistical dead heat with McGaa pulling a significant 3 percent of the vote.

Wellstone's reelection is important to hopes of turning back George Bush's conservative onslaught-and not just because of his near-perfect progressive voting record and pivotal position in a deadlocked Senate. Through 12 years in the Senate and many more as an activist, Wellstone has pioneered a style of politics with lessons for any progressive who wishes to someday be part of a political majority in America. He brings a spirit of populism to electoral politics, emphasizing economic and environmental issues in a way that appeals beyond the usual liberal circles: to veterans' groups, to voters in farm country, blue-collar suburbs, and mining and lumber and factory towns.

'Virtually alone among Senate Democrats,' writes The Nation's Washington correspondent, John Nichols (May 27, 2002), 'Wellstone sees himself not just as a member of Congress but as a member of a movement. He . . . organized family-farm rallies in Washington, marches with striking hotel workers.' A recent poll shows Wellstone's support coming not just from reliably liberal voters in Minneapolis and St. Paul but also from nonmetropolitan counties, where he leads Coleman by eight points. Coleman, however, enjoys enormous support in the Twin Cities' affluent suburbs.

'Wellstone is the single most effective proponent of lower-case g green politics in America,' declares Harold Meyerson in The American Prospect (July 1, 2001). Minnesota Greens defend their decision to run against him as a necessary step toward their goal of becoming a viable alternative to the two major parties, which they view as not much different on most of the key issues.

As much as I agree with the Green Party on most issues (and truth be told, I played a role in convening the first public meeting of what would become the Minnesota Greens, but soon returned to the DFL fold, largely because of Wellstone), I seriously question their strategy. Why don't Greens in Minnesota and elsewhere concentrate on elections where they can make a difference in some way other than being a spoiler?

Last fall, for instance, two Greens were elected to the Minneapolis City Council and another serves on the city council in Duluth. In neighboring Wisconsin, Greens claim a city council member in Milwaukee, three county commissioners in and around Superior, and three county commissioners and three city council members in Madison. Around the country 146 Greens hold elected office in 20 states, including the mayors of Santa Monica and Menlo Park, California, and city council members in San Francisco and Berkeley; Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut; Laramie, Wyoming; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Missoula, Montana; Boulder, Colorado; Salem, Oregon; Cocoa Beach, Florida; and Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Greens have been able to exert a positive influence on national politics in countries that have proportional representation voting systems. With 10 or even 5 percent of the vote, Greens in Germany, Sweden, and elsewhere have attained genuine political power by working with mainstream parties. But under the confines of America's winner-take-all election system, Greens will often find themselves knocking off worthy progressives and handing power over to conservatives who despise the Green political agenda. Remember that in Great Britain, which bequeathed us our antiquated electoral system, Margaret Thatcher dismantled a half-century's worth of social reforms without ever gaining more than 44 percent of the vote, thanks to competing parties on the left.

But let's be honest: Democrats can't shirk their own role in creating the Green opposition. Often, Greens are correct in saying that there's not much difference between the two major parties. If the party of FDR and RFK had remained welcome to progressive ideas, rather than becoming a me-too chorus to Republicans' slavish devotion to corporations, then the Greens would not be in a position to make trouble. Adding to the problem is Democrats' resistance to electoral reforms such as fusion voting-an innovation adopted in seven states where people have the choice to vote for the same candidate on different party tickets. Fusion voting directly addresses the third-party spoiler issue by allowing independent-minded voters to support a favored candidate even if they want to register disagreement with that candidate's party.

Under this system, Paul Wellstone, could run as both a Democrat and a Green. A strong showing on the Green Party ticket would send a message to Democrats about how many Wellstone supporters are seeking something more than politics-as-usual. Or let's say a conservative Democrat won the Minnesota party's Senate nomination. Then Greens could run their own progressive candidate. This is the strategy behind the new Working Families Party in New York State. In Minnesota, however, Democrats opposed a recent fusion voting initiative. So if Paul Wellstone loses his Senate seat in November, Democrats should look in the mirror as well as at the Greens when they're seeking people to blame.

Working to establish proportional representation (New Zealand made the switch a few years back, and even the U.K. has taken some small steps in that direction), fusion voting, and other electoral reforms ought to be the number-one strategic goal of American Greens-well ahead of challenging progressive Democrats like Paul Wellstone. It would be a shame if the rise of Green politics in America led to right-wing domination of national politics for another generation.

Jay Walljasper is editor of Utne Reader.

When (and where) is it okay for Green candidates to run against Democrats? Discuss Green politics in the Currents forum at Café Utne: cafe.utne.com

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