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Flirting with disaster
Brash and controversial, former US representative Cynthia McKinney could lead the Green Party to prominence in 2004 — or right over a cliff

QUESTION: WHICH WAY is the national Green Party headed these days? Answer: toward Cynthia McKinney.

When the party’s presidential exploratory committee put out feelers to Greens around the country about whom they wanted to run for president, the number of recommendations McKinney received was second only to those for Ralph Nader, who ran for president on the Green Party ticket in 2000. McKinney, a former Democratic US representative from Georgia who lost to Judge Denise Majette in a primary challenge last August (Majette eventually defeated Republican Cynthia van Auken in the general election), has yet to change her party affiliation or indicate she’s willing to run as a Green. But the Greens want her. Her name was high on a list of potential candidates compiled by the national Green Party (other names included MSNBC talk-show host Phil Donahue, actress Susan Sarandon, and filmmaker Michael Moore). If the Greens do run McKinney — either at the top of the ticket or with Ralph Nader — it will be a new, high-risk strategy for a party that has heretofore focused on building itself from the ground up.

The Greens, in theory, are well-positioned to build on their plan, instituted in the late 1990s, of running candidates at the national and local levels with the goal of constructing a permanent electoral apparatus and a real third-party alternative to the Democrats and Republicans. The Greens won national recognition — and derision from Democrats, who blame them for former vice-president Al Gore’s narrow defeat by President George W. Bush — in 2000, when Nader won 2.7 percent of the national vote. In 2002, moreover, the Greens did well on the statewide scene. Here in Massachusetts, Lexington physician Jill Stein, running for governor, garnered 10 percent of the vote. In Maine, the Green Independent Party elected John Eder to the state House of Representatives; meanwhile, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Carter won nine percent of the vote. In California, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo received 5.3 percent of the vote and came in second to Democrat Gray Davis in San Francisco.

Nader is still playing coy about a presidential run next year. Co-hosting CNN’s Crossfire last week, he told Tucker Carlson that "it’s too early to say" whether he would run again, adding he would decide "sometime later in the year." As Nader has kept his cards close to his vest, some national Greens have gone looking elsewhere for a 2004 presidential candidate. And they seem to be looking in the same place: Georgia, where McKinney resides. McKinney has several assets that appeal to Greens: she’s progressive; she’s an articulate and seasoned politician who knows how to campaign; and she is black and from the South, an area of the country where the Greens are weakest. Most important, however, is that she can tell the story of how the Democratic Party is no home for progressive politics.

SINCE WINNING election to Congress in 1992, McKinney, who is the daughter of former Georgia House member Bill McKinney, established herself as a hard-working progressive. She became a vocal member of the Congressional Black Caucus, battled for human rights in Africa, and, among other things, opposed the International Monetary Fund. For much of her tenure in Congress, she employed a Green on her House staff and voiced support of Green-inspired legislative ideas, such as instant-runoff voting. She was also among the most tenacious fighters against then–House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s conservative "Contract with America."

But McKinney is not without controversy. She’s shown a troubling tendency to associate herself with the extremes of the American political scene, as when she appeared at a Leadership Summit sponsored by the Reverend Louis Farrakhan — who was then at the height of his political influence, thanks to the Million Man March — at Howard University, in 1995.

But her prominence — or, some would say, her notoriety — soared after the terrorist attacks of September 11. McKinney accepted a $2000 contribution from American Muslim Council founder Abdurahman Alamoudi prior to the September 11 attacks (the money was registered to her campaign account on the 11th). On October 28, 2000, Alamoudi had made incendiary remarks at a pro-Palestinian rally in Washington, DC. A videotape of his comments was obtained by the Phoenix and also aired on Fox News. Alamoudi, who has since been largely discredited, rallied protesters by saying: "I have been labeled by the media in New York as being a supporter of Hamas. Anybody supporters of Hamas here?" The crowd cheered. "Hear that, Bill Clinton? We are all supporters of Hamas.... I wish they added that I am also a supporter of Hezbollah." Both groups, of course, are on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Despite Alamoudi’s statements, McKinney kept the money; her campaign manager even told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she did not know of any donors who might "support terrorist activities." By contrast, both Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democratic senator from New York, and John Sununu, who was then a Republican candidate for senator from New Hampshire, returned donations from Alamoudi after his remarks were publicized.

Around the same time, McKinney also criticized then–New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani for refusing to accept a $10 million donation to the city from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Giuliani turned the money down on the grounds that the donation seemed to come with strings attached. Namely, the prince wanted the US to acknowledge some responsibility — in part for its support of Israel — for the September 11 attacks. The day he offered the money to New York City, for instance, Alwaleed said that America "should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause." Soon afterward, McKinney wrote a letter to the prince criticizing Giuliani and expressing agreement with Alwaleed’s observations.

"Whether [Giuliani] agreed with you or not I think he should have recognized your right to ... make observations about a part of the world you know so well," McKinney wrote. She added that "there are a growing number of people in the United States who recognize, like you, that U.S. policy in the Middle East needs serious reorganization." Finally, she asked the prince "to consider assisting Americans who are in dire need right now" and offered "to provide [the prince] with a list of charities who labor under the most difficult circumstances."

Later, during a radio interview with a Berkeley, California, station, McKinney charged that Bush knew about the terrorist attacks in advance. "What did this administration know, and when did it know it, about the events of September 11?" she asked. "Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?... What do they have to hide?" Apparently anti-Semitic remarks made by McKinney’s closest supporter — her father — have also added to her notoriety. During her 1996 congressional race against Republican John Mitnick, McKinney’s father denounced Mitnick as a "racist Jew." And after McKinney’s defeat in the Democratic primary last year, during which Farrakhan campaigned heavily in the district on her behalf in the race’s closing days, McKinney’s father blamed her loss on "Jews. J-E-W-S."

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Issue Date: January 23 - 30, 2003
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