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Anatomy of a Green Smear:

Backstabbing Nancy Oden

by Bruce Kyle

Bangor Daily News

There are two things you need to know about Nancy Oden. She always laughs. She never gives an inch.

I’ve known those things for more than a dozen years. So when the story broke last week that someone had been rousted out of Bangor International Airport for not being sufficiently compliant with the new airline security regime it was no surprise that this happy warrior for the environment and social justice was that someone.

The story goes something like this. Jonesboro’s leading organic farmer/peace activist is on her way to Chicago Thursday before last to attend a meeting of Green Party USA, of which she is an officer. She’s flagged for an enhanced search by security personnel – she suspects it’s because of her political views, they won’t say precisely what causes one person to be scrutinized more closely than someone else.

There’s a tussle over a carry-on bag – she says she was trying to help with a stuck zipper, they say she was being difficult. Attempts to scan her with the metal-detection wand do not go well. The passive resistor is surrounded by armed National Guard troops, she is turned away from the gate and ends the day not in Chicago but back in Jonesboro.

The story, by BDN reporter Jeff Tuttle, was published last Saturday. It was picked up by The Associated Press and ran throughout the country the next day. By Monday, word of this story had spread beyond the newspaper-reading world and it registered more than 2,800 Web site hits, pretty much a single-day record, according to our Web site guy. E-mail requests for reprints have been nonstop. My conversation with Oden the other day – a hilarious account of soldiers locking and loading in the face of a “woman of a certain age” – was interrupted when she had to take a call from CNN. The episode was the subject of a Seattle Post-Intelligencer political cartoon Wednesday, with a trampled Bill of Rights as the punch line.

With that much coverage, there’s going to be a lot of comment. For starters, I went to As Maine Goes, a Web site where Maine’s right-wingers meet to chat (I visit weekly so I know how I’ll be thinking when I’m 92 if I don’t get myself a good hobby) and the result was enlightening. Sure, there was a fair amount of “it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving Leftie,” but the overall consensus was that this civil liberties thing is pretty darned important.

The shocking comment – a bareknuckle pounding of Oden – comes from the Left. In particular, from the Greens.

This isn’t all that much of a shock to those who know the Left – they are notoriously tough on like-minded individuals who aren’t quite like-minded enough. But this goes deeper. There are, you see, two Green parties in this country and the two shades clash like checked pants with a striped shirt.

There’s Oden’s Green Party USA (which we’ll call GPUSA because of space constraints) and there’s the Green Party of the United States (which we’ll call GPUS because it’s the really awful acronym they chose for their Web address). The two used to be one, but at an ugly convention last summer GPUS broke away from GPUSA.

The GPUS press release on the Oden incident is a marvel. They want their piece of the civil liberties outrage. Mostly, though, they want to slam GPUSA as a mere splinter group (does the group that split, even if bigger, get to call the other a splinter?), a disgruntled faction of malcontents. They also want to correct “erroneous press reports” that misidentified Oden as a member of GPUS. Nancy Allen, GPUS’ media coordinator here in Maine, asks us directly for a correction and thoughtfully sends along a charming little essay by a GPUS member with “Leader of Green Splinter Group Fibs” as the title.

Since those press reports originated in this building, and especially since they were not in the least bit erroneous (Oden is precisely identified as a GPUSA member in both the story and the photo caption, GPUS is nowhere even mentioned), I ask Allen and Scott McLarty, GPUS’ media coordinator in D.C., why they would play the “that darn press” card. Allen replied she didn’t care if we corrected the (already correct) story or not. McLarty conceded “in hindsight that the wording is sloppy.”

Apparently not so sloppy that it needs tidying up, though. The “erroneous press reports” business is still on their Web site. (Incidentally, here’s a tip for you kids who want to be media coordinators when you grow up – don’t say nasty things about people and then come back later to say it was off the record. That’s backward.)

And from GPUS members across the land, we’ve received many helpful little notes advising us that Nancy Oden is pushy and rude. Of course, if Nancy Oden was a GPUS member, she’d be resolute and straightforward.

Knowing her, I have no doubt that Nancy Oden could be an enormous pain to work with. The laughing alone can be unnerving. But it’s a shame that GPUS, if it is the true Green Party, doesn’t have room for her. Here’s why.

A lot of Greens talk about being activists. Nancy Oden’s the only one I know who went beyond talking and actually did something that truly helped real people. Remember Township 30 – the big plan back in the late ’80s to build a gigantic dump in Washington County for incinerated garbage from all over the Northeast? Remember how the entire county – back-to-the-land hippies, crusty old busters, hard-nosed businessmen and sweet little garden club ladies – rose up in amazing unity and told the state and the developers that Washington County was poor, but not that poor? A lot of people helped make that happen, but no one deserves more credit than Nancy Oden. Not that the proven ability to organize and inspire would be of any interest to a political party.

This is not to suggest that the current Green leadership doesn’t have its own record of accomplishment. I covered as a reporter the state Green Party convention after the 1994 gubernatorial election when they first gained ballot status in Maine, and I heard the leaders, now the GPUS crowd, swear that the very next step was to get Greens in the Legislature. Seven years later, they’ve yet to crack that elite 186-member body. They did, however, just this Tuesday get two Greens elected to a local school committee and a board of selectmen, so the juggernaut’s rolling.

And if you worried that something had gone wrong in the 1998 election when the Greens had to go out and hire a Democrat to run for governor, worry no more. There may be two candidates in 2002, which means a contested primary.

John Rensenbrink, the Bowdoin professor known as the father of Maine Greens and a devoted GPUSer, said the other day this is a sign the party is maturing and that he doesn’t think the Greens will succumb to the bitterness and divisiveness that often afflicts Democrats and Republicans when they have contested primaries.

Don’t laugh.

Bruce Kyle is the assistant editorial page editor for the Bangor Daily News.