In San Francisco recently, a group of minority business owners sat down to hear gubernatorial candidate Peter Cameho present his views.
These entrepreneurs, members of a group called the Greenlining Institute, were not conservative, and they had no interest in listening to businessman Bill Simon Jr., the Republican candidate.
But by extending a hand to Cameho, the Green Party's nominee for governor, they evinced a discomfort with the cautious centrism of the Democratic incumbent, Gray Davis.
Cameho, an investor and educator, probably will not be the next governor of California. But his appearance before these business owners shows it's getting a little easier to be Green.
A little less than two years after presidential candidate Ralph Nader collected nearly 3 million votes, more than 10 times the margin that separated the two major-party candidates, Green Party activists in a dozen states have launched aggressive campaigns for state and local office, Cameho among them.
Though party leaders acknowledge they might not win a single, top-of-the-ballot contest, they are confident that a version of Nader's 2000 strategy is reaping dividends, having shown that the Democratic Party has taken for granted its liberal wing, and they hope to gradually convince liberals that the Greens offer a credible alternative.
But like any growing political party, the Green Party has its share of challenges.
Buying a Coattail
It needs to stitch tails to the coat of its nominal leader, Nader. It must attract the attention of a semi-cynical media geared to covering the two major parties. It must convince an ostensibly centrist electorate that "liberal" is not a bad word. And it must avoid the fate of third parties past — from the Tertium Quids to the Loco Focos to the Reform party — for whom internal squabbles undermined brief periods of ascendance.
From the inside, the Greens are being tugged in several different directions. Activists tend to fall into two camps: many want to focus on electing progressive candidates; others think the onus should be on promoting the party itself as an electoral vehicle for American liberals.
Often, the twain do meet. Concerted efforts by well-organized committees have ensured that a Green gubernatorial candidates in Maine and possibly in Massachusetts and Minnesota will benefit from state matching funds. And the Greens remain among the most successful third parties in the nation when it comes to electing candidates to local offices.
Moderate-to-liberal voters uncomfortable with radical rhetoric about "entrenched power structures are increasingly interested" in specifics of the platform itself. These include, according to analysts and observers, a dissatisfaction with the two-party system, a preference for local economic development over globalization, and, more recently, a stress on peace, rather than war.
Stretching Toward Success
But then there are the growing pains.
The party prides itself in granting its state affiliates a high degree of autonomy. So the Green-endorsed Senate candidate in liberal Minnesota does not object to the possibility that he'll take votes from Democrat Paul Wellstone, among the most liberal of nationally prominent American politicians, and swing the election to favor the Republican, Norm Coleman. That decision alienated labor activists in the state and labor union leaders in Washington.
Some states force parties to run candidates in order to keep their line on the ballot, so Greens in New Mexico and Iowa are fielding weak gubernatorial candidates almost by default.
Wisconsin's Green Party endured a debate about whether to run a Senate candidate against Russ Feingold, a moderately liberal Democrat. They decided not to — to the chagrin of many who find Feingold insufficiently progressive.
Dean Myerson, the Green Party's national political coordinator, said these debates are healthy for a growing party and are often resolved by the dynamic candidates the party fields.
The Maine Event
Of the 21 states where Greens enjoy full-time ballot status, Myerson and other party leaders are most excited about Maine. Their candidate, Jonathan Carter, has the twin blessings of statewide popularity and a bushel of money. The Green Party germinated there in 1984 and has led several successful ballot initiative drives.
Carter, an organic food farmer and environmental forester, ran in 1998 and got 7 percent of the vote. Then, he had only $25,000 to spend. This year, thanks to his status as a Clean Election candidate, he'll get at least $900,000.
His opponents are Democrat John Baldacci, who represents Maine in Congress, and Republican Peter Cianchette, a businessman. Incumbent Angus King, an independent, is not eligible to run for re-election.
In late April, state Democrats challenged Carter's right to the Clean Elections money. The subsequent publicity alerted the Maine media to Carter's candidacy.
"The Baldacci Democrats did us a great service by doing what they did," Carter said. "It gave us a tremendous amount of press."
Still, he hovers at between 8 percent to 10 percent in the polls, despite the fact that he is perhaps as well known as either Baldacci or Peter Cianchette.
The belief — Carter calls it a stereotype — that the Green Party is a gaggle of unelectable leftists seems to persist, even within an electorate that elected an independent to the Blaine House in 1998.
"We have to develop the momentum," Carter said. "Even if I didn't do any campaigning, I'd get 8 to 10 percent of the vote. We need to show that we're on a forward trajectory and getting broader and broader support in the polls."
Though she has yet to formally qualify for the ballot, Jill Stein of Lexington turned in signatures to acquire $850,000 to spend as the Green candidate in Massachusetts. Stein, 52, is a doctor best known for her environmental advocacy and her work for Nader's 2000 campaign.
If she gets the money, Democrats admit that she has a chance to tip the balance of the government.
Late this week, a state panel denied her Clean Elections request because, it said, many of her signatures were not valid. Stein may appeal.
Voters in the Bay State approved a Clean Elections law in 2000, setting up a mechanism to fund candidates who adhered to strict donation limits. But Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran, a Democrat, said the state didn't have enough money. Earlier this year, the state's top court forced the Legislature to sell its own possessions, trying to create a cash reserve for qualified candidates. Stein's campaign to get public money was the primary beneficiary, and the resulting publicity spread apart the chasm between Massachusetts Greens and Massachusetts Democrats.
"They deserve absolutely no sympathy from me," Myerson said of Massachusetts Democrats. "This is a classic case where a third party is needed. Just because Democrats are seen as being liberal doesn't mean they deserve a vote."
Because Republican Mitt Romney polls well in this heavily Democratic state, the state party needs every liberal to turn out in favor of its nominee. But Ralph Nader got 173,000 votes — and Stein counts on at least half to vote for her. Republican Paul Cellucci beat Democrat Scott Harshbarger by just 65,000 votes in 1998.
If Stein is disqualified from the ballot, or if she's unable to raise money, Romney and his Democratic challenger will face opposition from Carla Howell, an articulate libertarian who polled 15 percent of the statewide vote against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 2000.
Minnesota is another state where independent candidates have fared well. The Greens endorsed gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel, a self-styled activist from Minneapolis. Though his run in 1998 attracted just over 7,000 votes, party officials hope to capitalize on the possibility of a three-way race — Gov. Jesse Ventura will run again as an independent, and one candidate each will run on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and Republican Party tickets. Nader got more than 126,000 votes in 2000.
Minnesota Green Senate candidate Ed McGaa says he will focus his campaign on fellow veterans and on progressives dissatisfied with Paul Wellstone's vote in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act and his support for the president's war on terror.
He says of his approach to politics, "I am an author. I am a HarperCollins author. An author is a person that sits down and focuses hard on an issue."
McGaa said his biggest problem is likely to be the press, who, he says, misrepresent his record and his competence as a candidate. He denied that he is an anti-Semite, though he did not specify where that allegation originated.
Scott McClarty, a national party spokesperson, acknowledged an internal debate about the propriety of running an untested candidate against a thoroughly liberal incumbent. "If the party were so unified that there were no factions at all, I'd be worried."
Not all advocates for third parties promote the absence of party discipline.
Richard Winger, an expert on ballot access, said that the Greens had little choice: There are no official nominating conventions in Minnesota — only party endorsements. Minnesota Greens, he said, had to endorse McGaa, lest a candidate with less credibility seek the mantle of the party.
That did not stop Democrats from complaining, privately and publicly, that McGaa would strip away liberal votes.
Credibility and Ballot Access
Intra-party splits aside, Greens acknowledge their biggest obstacle is getting on the ballot.
For example: The Greens recently qualified as a recognized party in Mississippi, but not time to get a line in this year's ballot.
And once they qualify for the ballot, they must persuade state candidate debate commissions to let them participate.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott McCallum, a Republican, refuses to debate anyone other than his Democratic opponent, despite the protests of several third-party candidates. One of them is Ed Thompson, a libertarian and brother of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, himself a former governor of the state.
And on top of all this, there's the credibility problem.
In Winger's opinion, the Reform Party withered because its founder, H. Ross Perot, neglected to pay attention to it after his two failed presidential runs. He said he believes strong guidance from Nader would be the ticket to electoral success.
Micah Sifry, an author and observer of third parties, attributed the Greens' difficulties to "a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Because they are politically marginal, they have a very hard time attracting experienced organizers or experienced candidates. Without those kind of stabilizers, in many places, it falls to earnest, but inexperienced volunteers to organize and representative the Green Party."