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Will Black Become the New Green?

On November 7, 2017, Elston McCowan could well become the first Green Party candidate to defeat a Democrat in Missouri. If he wins the Ward 2 race in St. Louis City he will also become the first Green Party candidate to beat a Democrat in an overwhelmingly black district.

And it might not be crazy to think that McCowan can actually win. In 2015, he received 37% of the vote as the Green Party candidate against an incumbent. That incumbent left her position to work in the government of the new mayor, infamous for her efforts to shut down the only 24 hour homeless shelter in St. Louis. The vacancy left Ward 2 needing a special election.

The Democratic Party Central Committee nominated Lisa Middlebrook, its Ward 2 Committeewoman. During an October 7 debate Middlebrook complained that one of the problems of the ward was the City undervaluing its property by 50%. This means she was calling for a doubling of property values which would mean a doubling of taxes – not exactly the most popular campaign slogan.

Knowing that the regular Democratic candidate was not the sharpest tool of the St. Louis business class, Democrat Jasmine Turnage got enough signatures to get on the ballot as an Independent. Turnage lost the 2015 race for the Democratic nomination by only four votes.

So, on November 7 Green candidate Elston McCowan will face a split Democratic Party, with more name recognition than either opponent. In 2015, he showed that a huge portion of the ward is willing to break with the Democrats.

An exceptional candidate, McCowan is always energetic and usually smiling – the exception being at strategy meetings when someone has not been doing assigned campaign work. Pastorof the Star Grace Missionary Baptist Church, Rev. McCowan follows in the footsteps of religious leaders whose beliefs inspire them to stand up against oppression.

In order to canvass Ward 2, Elston built a wide coalition of dozens of supporters from the Green Party of St. Louis, Universal African Peoples Organization, NAACP, several other ministers of black churches in St. Louis, his neighbors, and family members.

The Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) has taken a central role in organizing against police violence in St. Louis. During election time, OBS typically works for Democrats. For the first time in its history OBS has backed a Green, saying that it…

… endorses Green Party candidate Rev. Elston McCowan for alderperson of the 2nd Ward. OBS uses a specific set of criteria for endorsements and McCowan scored high in all of them. McCowan had a track record of community involvement prior to running for office. He has an energetic campaign organization and his prospects for winning look good.

Over the years, OBS has worked with McCowan on many fronts and in his varied capacities whether it be to rally faith leaders on issues, fighting for justice for prisoners and their families, organizing around environmental concerns or building political power for disenfranchised communities.

Several years ago the Missouri legislature decapitated the St. Louis School Board (chosen by a predominantly black electorate) by “temporarily” giving its power to an appointed board. As the time approaches to return power to the elected School Board, many politicians are hemming and hawing. Rev. McCowan opposes any maneuvers and insists that authority to run St. Louis Public Schools be returned to the elected school board.

Sensitive to the high rate of violence in Ward 2, he wants to deal with crime through jobs, education and recreational facilities. But he participated in and supports demonstrations that occurred after Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder for killing Anthony Lamar Smith. In a televised interview, Mcowan noted that…

Peaceful demonstrations are a non-violent response to a very violent situation. The courts are saying that you can kill a black man. It gives a sense of ‘other than’ – not being an American; worse than a second class citizen – that someone can kill you and there are no consequences for it.

Rev. McCowan wants the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to urge the Missouri legislature to approve a Single Payer (Medicare for All) system for the state. He believes that “No one should die from a curable disease because the person cannot afford health care.”

Black religious leaders often advocated for social justice causes. Rev. McCowan fulfills this tradition simultaneously with environmental advocacy. He has spoken out against the City dragging its feet on removing lead from buildings, has taught gardening in schools and pledges to combat “food deserts” by bringing shops with healthy foods to the ward.

A McCowan win on November 7 could ring victory bells far beyond Ward 2 of St. Louis. The biggest obstacle to persuading people to vote Green is a deep-seated belief that Green Party candidates “can’t win.” When those who support Green ideas accept this, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only way to break free of this circular defeatism is by actually winning Green victories.

Unfortunately, those running for office on the Green ticket can be their own worst enemies. Progressives tend to do one of three things: focus on offices that can’t be won; run for offices that are non-partisan (races where candidates do not list party affiliations); or, run for local offices without focusing on local issues.

Offices that can’t be won. The larger the constituency, the more corporate money needs to be spent and the less likely it is that anyone other than a Democrat or Republican will win. Of course, it is good to run for national office because it is good to get people used to voting for a non-corporate party. It is typically necessary to run for state-wide offices in order to get ballot status. Once ballot status is attained, it becomes possible to focus efforts on the race rather than wasting time collecting signatures.

In order to win, Greens need to focus on races with the smallest constituencies possible so the candidate can actually meet most of the people represented. A small race means candidates might not be fabulously outspent by the corporate parties.

Offices that are non-partisan. Greens and other who are elected to office almost always win races where the candidate’s party is not on the ballot. For Greens, this is typically a school board race or a council position for a city which has non-partisan positions. The same is true for other non-corporate parties such as Socialist Alternative (SA).

The much-celebrated victory of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council in 2013 was for a non-partisan race. Though her socialist affiliation appears on the Seattle web page, she was not listed on the ballot as a socialist. Similarly, SA candidate Ginger Jentzen is running hard for a Minneapolis City Council position which is also on November 7; but is non-partisan.

While it is great to have Greens and Socialists elected to city council positions, it is highly doubtful that their elections will transfer to victories when the same parties confront Democrats and Republicans.

Local races with candidates focusing on broader issues. If candidates from non-corporate parties are going to run and win races with the smallest partisan districts, they need to focus on both broad issues and issues specific to that community. Making the demand for $15 per hour minimum wage is an essential part of a campaign, but the candidate also needs to address problems of the neighborhood represented. While distributing T-shirts “emblazoned with messages, like ‘Tax the Rich’ and ‘Minneapolis Needs a Political Revolution’” broaden the campaign message, it needs to relate to concerns particular to that community.

The flip side of the problem is that a campaign concentrating only on local issues will likely end up with an elected progressive candidate who ends up looking like a standard Democrat once in office. Again, it is the integration of particular local issues with national and even international concerns that educates as it empowers for victory.

To win, a candidate must tune in to ordinary problems and Elston McCowan is a specialist in the ordinary. Ward 2 is the furthest north of the 28 wards in the City of St. Louis. It is heavily industrialized with one precinct having a single voting household listed. Many of the homes adjacent to industry are poor, multi-famity, and/or boarded up and empty.

When going door-to-door in one of these areas, 2 of the first 5 people I spoke with told me that they could not vote because they were felons. So, I got permission to put up a sign for McCowan in their yard. When explaining McCowan’s goal of improving conditions in jails, I said that a yard sign would be very helpful because of their Broadway Street location.

Other areas have nice, middle-income homes. In recent years, whites have fled Ward 2, leaving it 95% black. Many residents are current or retired City employees, making them particularly loyal to Democratic Party candidates. But the previous Alderperson, Dionne Flowers, had antagonized both residents and business owners by refusing to work with the City to enforce anti-dumping ordinances in Ward 2.

She had also irked many by not using the $2 million awarded to Ward 2 to improve parks. This led McCowan to adopt a slogan for “Strong and Effective Leadership,” indicating that predominantly black wards in north St. Louis deserve alderpeople who will stand up for them as aggressively as alderpeople representing overwhelmingly white wards in south St. Louis do for their constituents.

This issue of trash in alleys has become huge in Ward 2. Residents strongly suspect that folks from neighboring municipalities drive truckloads of discarded mattresses, broken appliances, and whatnot to Ward 2 alleys and dump it, knowing that they will not be ticketed. When a neighbor of McCowan took the license plate number of someone doing that on his street, the police came to his home and ticketed him for too much trash. As McCowan related this story during the October 7 debate, others nodded in agreement that they knew of similar happenings.

Being in touch with what his neighbors want is what sets Elston apart from so many other leftists and Green Party candidates who run for local office without attending to neighborhood concerns. His platform includes areas important to everyone in St. Louis: $15/hour minimum wage, jobs for youth, lead abatement, improving home energy efficiency, reviewing police misconduct and supporting all homeless shelters. But it also includes issues specific to the area where he lives, such as park renovation and ward job fairs.

The demand for “No more trash bills!” might seem overly mundane to a professional leftist. Yet, it rings true to those who used to have free trash collection and agreed to pay for it only when promised to have cameras in alleys to record illegal dumping, cameras which never materialized.

McCowan’s campaign is somewhat unique because it is occurring on three levels: specific Ward 2 concerns; St. Louis City-wide issues; and, areas requiring US and international concerns. You can read on McCowan’s website that he faults US imperialism for interfering with rebuilding black communities:

“Many of the challenges confronting St. Louis can be addressed at a local level, but not some of the most important issues. Therefore, when McCowan is elected to the Board of Aldermen, he will call for a Conference of Progressive Urban Elected Officials. The Conference will address needed funds for schools, libraries, parks, job training, recreational programs, construction of affordable housing, employment opportunities that pay a livable wage and other needs of US cities.

“Needed funds are unavailable due to endless wars for a bloated Pentagon budget. Many problems are made worse by the current administration – climate change, racism, and a horrible role model for young Americans – requiring urban leaders to come together to coordinate their local efforts.”

If Elston McCowan wins on November 7, his combining neighborhood, local and international issues may chart a new course for the Green Party. It could fundamentally alter the way Green Party candidates run.

Why would a black pastor run as a Green? As Rev. McCowan says in his televised interview

“For a long time African-Americans were with the Republican Party. After Roosevelt’s New Deal blacks went over to the Democratic Party. We’re going to go with the party that’s going to help us.

“I’ve been in the Green Party since 2008. The Democratic Party has made a lot of promises to the African-American community but have not been keeping their promises. In 2009 I rand for mayor on the Green Party ticket because I asked myself ‘What party best represents my values?’ and I said it is the Green Party that is moving and advancing our community in a more leftward direction and identifying some of the things we want like better schools and fewer prisons.”

Can he make the difficult happen? As McCowan points out: “The Green Party needed to get ballot access throughout the state and I was Ballot Access Coordinator for the Green Party in the State of Missouri and we got ballot access.”

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Don Fitz is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, where this article first appeared. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His articles on politics and the environment have appeared in Monthly ReviewZ Magazine, and Green Social Thought, as well as several online publications.    

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