[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
June 29 - July 6, 2000


Green Party gets serious

Intent on becoming a viable third party, the Greens are supplementing their grassroots efforts with a dose of political savvy

by Seth Gitell

DENVER, COLORADO -- Anyone expecting a granola fest at this past weekend's Green Party presidential nominating convention would have been disappointed. Sure, there were plenty of Birkenstock-clad conventioneers, but they were overshadowed by those shod in wingtips and loafers. If this convention was about anything, it was about sartorial image. There were suits on the presidential candidate. Suits on the candidate's aides. And suits on the advance people.

Advance people? Yep. This isn't your groovy mother's Green Party. This political movement, which grew out of the grassroots anti-nuke environmental activism of the 1980s, is maturing as it grapples with global trade policies and political reform. The Green presence at last fall's Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization boosted the party's public profile. And when party leaders, including members of presidential candidate Ralph Nader's campaign, know they need to dress in suits and employ advance people, that says as much about where the Greens are going as the party's platform and policy positions.

The organizers of the Association of US Green Parties (ASGP) convention clearly set out to put a new face on their brand of progressive politics. The controversial decision to hold the convention in the tony Renaissance Hotel -- with its Brasserie Restaurant, glass elevators, and space to host the national press corps (which included CNN, NBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post) -- was a deliberate break with Green tradition. And the convention, which drew 2000 delegates and supporters, even featured a slick five-minute movie featuring catchy music and photos of Nader in his early days.

That's not to say the Greens are all about style sans substance: the Green Party is on the brink of a major growth spurt at the local and national levels, and both mainstream political parties would be foolish to ignore it. Unlike other US third parties -- and even, to an extent, the Republican Party in Massachusetts -- the Greens are hustling to turn themselves into a credible alternative by running candidates for elective office across the country. "Our sustainability as a long-term party will depend on the municipal level," explains Ross Mirkarimi, the convention's smooth media coordinator.

At a pre-convention press conference designed to showcase some of these local Green politicians, Mirkarimi introduced Michael Feinstein, a Santa Monica city councilor. Both Mirkarimi and Feinstein were impeccably dressed -- Feinstein sported a blue suit and yellow power tie, with his long hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. "We're showing the credibility of people in office who show they can govern," Feinstein said. The numbers tell the story: in 1996, the Greens had 43 elected officeholders; today that number is near 80. The Reform Party, by contrast, lists just eight officials nationwide, and their highest-ranking one -- Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura -- abandoned the party. The sparsely attended press conference -- the press cares about Nader only as a November spoiler -- also featured Elizabeth Horton Sheff, an African-American city councilor from Hartford, Connecticut; Art Goodtimes, a county commissioner in Colorado; Julie Jacobson, a member of Hawaii's county council; and Gail Dixon, a member of the Washington, DC, Board of Education.

An even bigger sign of credibility is that Nader's Green Party effort is fueled with political veterans -- most of them refugees from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Steve Cobble, the former delegate director of Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential effort, serves as Nader's informal strategist. Steven Schmidt, an aide to Michael Dukakis in 1988 and a former senior adviser to Jerry Brown's 1992 presidential campaign, worked as the chairman of the platform committee. Nader and the Greens aren't fooling around this year; they hope to build on the unexpected success that both Jackson and Brown had when they ran. Jackson won close to a third of the primary vote in Pennsylvania, Oregon, and California, and won some Southern states outright; Brown won Connecticut and shaped the public debate during the summer months of his campaign.

The Greens may never be as successful as they've been in Germany, where the party was once synonymous with angry protests against the placement of American missiles and where Joscha Fischer, a Green Party member, is now foreign minister. To be sure, Germany's system of parliamentary politics makes it easier for marginal parties to succeed than America's two-party system does. Nevertheless, Ralph Nader figures he'll draw support from voters fed up with Al Gore and George W. Bush -- and the parties they represent. He may also get a boost next month, when activists sympathetic with Green Party principles try to embarrass the two major parties at their conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Perhaps the most newsworthy aspect of all this is that none of it -- from the dress of the party aides to the venue of the convention to the party platform -- happened by accident. While the Reform Party has devolved into chaotic internal feuding, the Green Party has been quietly planning for its moment -- and this may be it.

Page 1 | 2 | 3 | Next

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.

The Talking Politics archive