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A Report from Milwaukee

Green Party Shifts Into Reverse

by ALAN MAASS

The Green Party rejected the independent campaign of Ralph Nader at its convention last weekend. Instead, the Greens nominated a little-known attorney and activist from California, David Cobb, as their presidential candidate.

Cobb won the party’s presidential nomination by a narrow majority of the nearly 800 delegates voting at the convention, heading off a further vote that could have led to an endorsement of Nader’s independent campaign. Nader and his vice presidential running mate, Peter Camejo–a Green Party veteran who ran twice for governor of California, winning more votes in these elections than any Green candidate in the U.S. other than Nader–had asked for an endorsement of their independent presidential campaign, rather than the party’s nomination.

As close as the outcome was, the contrast between Cobb and Nader-Camejo–and what these campaigns mean for the future of the Green Party–was stark.

The most important issue is that Cobb and his supporters represent a so-called "safe-states" strategy. The idea is that the Green Party presidential candidate should help defeat George Bush in the November election by not running an all-out campaign in "battleground states" where the Greens could do well enough to tip the balance to Bush–as Nader is accused of doing in the 2000 election.

An online columnist for a newspaper in nearby Racine, Wis., summed up the implications when he suggested that Kerry supporters should "put on a Cobb button" to show Greens coming to the Milwaukee convention "where you stand." "If you want John Kerry to be president, you should hope David Cobb wins big in Milwaukee," wrote the columnist.

Medea Benjamin, a leader of Global Exchange and the Green Party’s U.S. Senate candidate in California in 2000, says explicitly that Greens are justified in supporting a vote for Kerry, even though he is opposed to most everything on the Green Party agenda. "In the swing states, where this election’s going to be determined, [Greens should] recognize that we owe it to the global community to get rid of George Bush," Benjamin says. "And if people in those swing states support that strategy of getting rid of George Bush, then voting for Kerry might be the strategic vote for them."

Supporters of Nader and Camejo at the convention rejected this argument. "We’re the Green Party," Gloria Mattera, co-chair of the New York state Green Party, told a Nader-Camejo rally. "It’s not our job to elect a pro-war Democrat into the White House."

As Jason West, the Green Party mayor of New Paltz, N.Y., who came to national prominence by defying state law to marry gay and lesbian couples, put it: "I’ve been asking Democrats all over the country how the world would be a better place under President Kerry then President Bush, and no one’s been able to give me a good answer. The problem with the ‘safe states’ strategy is it leaves unchallenged the illusion that John Kerry is a progressive who is going to do something very different from what Bush is doing now."

At a time when even mainstream commentators are recognizing that the differences between the Republican and the Democrat in the 2004 presidential election are tiny compared to the policies they share in common, Cobb’s nomination represents a retreat by the Green Party from offering a clear and uncompromised left-wing alternative to two parties of the status quo.

* * *

Cobb himself left it to supporters like Benjamin and New Jersey Green Ted Glick to push the "safe-states" strategy. In his convention speech on Saturday, for example, Cobb didn’t even raise the issue of the Greens’ attitude toward Kerry and the Democrats, though it was the decisive political question. Instead, his campaign made Nader the main issue–criticizing the party’s 2000 presidential candidate for seeking only an endorsement and not the Green nomination.

This was a play for support among what Green Party national co-chair Ben Manski estimated was "a majority of Greens [who] would prefer to see a Green presidential nominee, but running in all states unflinchingly."

It’s understandable that Greens would want to have Nader as their party’s candidate, rather than simply endorse his campaign. What was surprising, though, was the number who spoke about Nader with the kind of venom normally associated with the Democratic Party’s anti-Nader attack dogs. Complaints about Nader–that he’s aloof and egotistical, that he won’t join the Green Party, that he has refused to fundraise for the Greens–circulated throughout the convention.

Actually, Nader’s 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns are, by most accounts, primarily responsible for quadrupling the number of organized state Green Parties and guaranteed ballot lines in the last eight years. Nader wasn’t a Green Party member in either campaign, but he promoted the party at every appearance. And since the 2000 elections, Nader raised more money than any Green at the national, state and local levels, according to his campaign’s estimates.

It’s impossible to square the image of Nader as an egoist who hasn’t lifted a finger to "build the Green Party" with the man who campaigned in all 50 states as a Green in 2000 and won 2.7 million votes in the best showing for a left-wing presidential candidate in half a century.

But Cobb’s vice presidential running mate, Pat LaMarche of Maine, doesn’t seem to care. As she told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: "[Nader] walked away and said afterward, ‘Oh, by the way, if you want to throw flowers at me, go ahead.’"

The contempt for Nader contained in this comment is typical among a layer of Greens and dates back to the aftermath of the 2000 election, when–even as Nader was being savaged for "throwing" the election to George Bush–leading Greens privately and sometimes publicly vented their complaints. Early on, Cobb associated himself with the attacks on Nader and used it to lay the basis for his campaign for the nomination.

Last year, when Nader was making his decision about whether to run for president again, 17 well-known Greens, among them Ted Glick, issued an open letter calling on Nader not to run. Now, many of these figures are outspokenly critical of Nader for seeking the endorsement of the Green Party, rather than the nomination. In other words, their gripe with Nader isn’t his relationship to the Green Party, but the fact that he ran at all.

* * *

Ross Mirkarimi, a cofounder of the California state Green Party, says he fears that the rejection of Nader because he isn’t a Green Party member "may have been two steps backward." Mirkarimi pointed to European countries where left parties typically come together in alliances and coalitions to run common electoral campaigns. "I was a little bit turned off by this purist, insular attitude from other Greens saying, ‘No hand holding with somebody from another party, you have to be a Green,’" he said. "That to me was strategically short-sighted.

Donna Warren, a Green from Los Angeles and leader of the party’s Black caucus, is blunt. "What I think took place is that some small-minded Greens failed to see the big picture," said Warren, who won hundreds of thousands of votes as the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor of California in 2002. "When they got to the convention and they saw an opportunity for our voice to be heard over a national stage, they decided that they wanted to keep it within their own confines."

The Greens’ venting about Nader is especially cruel coming as the Democratic Party has stepped up its attack. As the Green convention was getting underway, the Congressional Black Caucus lured Nader to a meeting where members tried to browbeat him into withdrawing from the race.

Every effort of Nader’s to get on the ballot is being challenged with all the resources that the Democrats can bring to bear. In the run-up to a Nader rally in Oregon last weekend–where the campaign hoped to draw more than 1,000 people to meet a requirement for getting ballot access–the Democrats even brought out Howard Dean to attack Nader.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have openly intervened within the Greens, sponsoring the formation of a "Greens for Kerry" organization. But the Democrats haven’t needed to devote their own operatives. Left-wing writers–including former Nader supporters like columnist Norman Solomon–have devoted numerous articles to making the case against Nader, and for a vote for Kerry to defeat Bush.

Peter Camejo believes the Democrats’ attacks on Nader set the stage for Cobb’s challenge within the Green Party. "What’s behind all of this is that they have friends who say that they’ll be angry if the Greens support Nader," he says. "It’s the pressure from the Democrats. They don’t want to defend Nader. They want to hide. That’s their policy. We’re going to be the exact opposite."

* * *

Cobb’s campaign to win the Green Party nomination has been years in the making. He was able to take advantage of a delegate structure, based partly on the undemocratic Electoral College, which gives disproportionate weight to small states with weak state parties.

Thus, Cobb won about 5,000 votes in the California Green Party primary, for less than 12 percent of the total. Fewer people than that voted for him in all of the other state caucuses and primaries combined leading up to the convention. Yet Cobb came to Milwaukee with nearly one-third of delegates already committed to him. Camejo, who won 33,000 votes in the California primary alone, had less than half the number of delegates that Cobb did.

Camejo says that he and Nader have support from a majority of Greens at the grassroots. But this wasn’t organized into representation or support at the convention. So the Nader-Camejo forces were fighting an uphill battle from the start.

Camejo proposed a unity resolution that would have produced endorsements for both Nader-Camejo and the Cobb campaign, leaving it up to state parties to decide which campaign would get the Green ballot lines. But Cobb rejected the compromise.

At a meeting of supporters after the convention vote, Camejo said that one battle ahead was to "organize those Greens who agree with us to make sure our voice gets heard."

Ross Mirkarimi says that "what’s really at play here for the Green Party’s long-term survivability is what happens on the local level. For the Green Party, concentrating hard on local partisan and non-partisan races is where our bread and butter is." Still, the prominence of Nader’s 2000 campaign was an undeniable asset to the Greens in local and state races–and catapulted the party into the national political debate.

As for what happens next, don’t expect to hear much about the Cobb campaign–whether you’re in a "safe" state or not. As one Green put it, "This campaign is a zero. It doesn’t matter whether he campaigns in a safe state or a battleground state, because no one’s going to pay any attention."

The nomination of Cobb is a step backward, away from an uncompromising challenge to the two-party "duopoly" and away from the prominence that the Greens have achieved, thanks in good part to Nader’s 2000 campaign.

For the Nader-Camejo campaign, losing the Green Party endorsement means further difficulties getting on the ballot. Campaign officials say they have the resources to qualify as an independent campaign in most of the 22 states and the District of Columbia where the Green Party could have helped with its endorsement. California will present the biggest obstacle in terms of the number of signatures that need to be gathered.

In 2000, the Nader presidential campaign that won 2.7 million votes was much more than a Green Party operation. It drew supporters and volunteers from a much wider milieu–activists from the global justice movement and other struggles, alongside people new to any political activity who questioned corporate domination of the Washington status quo.

This time–despite the abuse heaped on him by Democrats and the pull of the "Anybody But Bush" syndrome–Nader continues to score more than 5 percent support in opinion polls as an antiwar, anti-corporate, pro-worker candidate. "I think that what happened here was a setback," Donna Warren said after the convention vote, "but I don’t think that it’s going to stop this campaign. It can’t stop this campaign."

ALAN MAASS is editor of Socialist Worker and author of the new volume from Haymarket Books, The Case for Socialism. He can be reached at: alanmaass@sbcglobal.net