Growing backyard Greens

Sam Smith

One of my big hopes for the Green Party in 2012 is that Fred Horch will be elected to the Maine state legislature, joining over 130 other Greens who hold elective office around the country. He almost did last time around so it’s not a wasted dream.

One of the things that Fred Horch had going for him was that he was a small businessman, running a store devoted to sustainable goods on Brunswick’s main street. Not your typical Green but just what the Greens need more of: not your typical Greens.

Like Asher Platts, aka The Punk Patriot and a bassist, who has decorated the Portland landscape with wonderful  construction signs advising that we “occupy the ballot.”

Portland has elected three Greens to its city council and, thanks to Green effort, moved to instant runoff voting for its mayor’s race. It’s not weird to be a Green in Maine.

That’s true in more places than many realize. Like Douglas County, Wisconsin, where a Green, Dave Conley, has occupied a seat on the board of supervisors for 26 years. Or Minneapolis, where Annie Young has been on the Parks & Recreation Commission for 19 years. Or in Richmond, CA, a town of over 100,000, where Gayle McLauglin is in her second term as mayor. Or in 23 states which have elected Greens to municipal posts. Or in Texas, where Greens will be running 56 candidates this year.

I helped to get the national Green Party going back in 1990s, spurred by my happy experience twenty years earlier helping to create the DC Statehood Party (now the DC Statehood Greens). From its name to its work list, the DC Statehood Party made the local its major business, not surprising since many of its members had helped stop the city’s massive freeway plans, thus preventing DC from becoming another Los Angeles. They had also come out of the organizing efforts in the 1960s including civil rights and the war on poverty and naturally assumed that change came from the bottom up.

One of the problems with seeking change in those days, however, was that there was no political component. There was no easy way to get from the streets to power. Which was one reason some of us were attracted to the third party idea; it was just another good form of community organizing.

A decade later, not only was the Green Party being formed in DC, but the Umoja Party, then the only ballot status black-created party in America. One of its leaders was Mark Thompson, a young black activist who is now a host on Sirius XM (your editor is among his weekly guests). By the time the Umoja Party got underway, Thompson had already helped organize the shantytown that led to the Georgetown University’s divestment from apartheid South Africa. He would get 12,000 votes in his campaign for city council.

For a brief while, there were actually three third parties in DC despite the city’s lack of full self government or voting representation in Congress. I suspect what spurred this odd phenomenon was that in a colony you learn to organize things, instead of just voting for them and waiting for something to happen.

We once had a meeting of all three parties and what came through was a clear similarity in policy, but significant differences in demographics. From an organizer’s viewpoint of those days, that was fine: everyone gets their own label while heading the same direction.

Mark served on the Million Man March national committee but also chaired a local NAACP committee on police and justice. These days, you don’t run into as many people who are as geographically flexible as that.

And it’s not surprising, especially with the Internet bringing the world into our home as though it was next door. It’s easy to forget what actually is next door or how to go there to ask for help.

We have tended to fleet up our attention to the grand and diminish our interest in the small, despite the fact that it is at the local level where people can still act as decent, democratic humans no matter what the mass media and powers that be say. Despite the fact that it is in individuals’ minds and hearts that change first occurs.

Which is why, I suspect, the Green Party has spent so much time on its presidential campaigns, time that hasn’t served it well and could, in fact, lead it into irrelevance.We are trapped in a culture of the large.

Yes, national politics is important, but if you don’t have the money and the power to play the game, and if the rules are all rigged against you, shouldn’t you be functioning more like a community organizer, figuring out some effective way to make the whole system start to crack and seem foolish?

I’ve been lucky enough to live in two places where local Greendom has been strong: DC and Maine. While the power may not have been plentiful, there was a subtle influence anyway. In many ways, for example, a Maine Green is treated more like a member of another faith than as an atheist. Your voice is not alien, just a bit different and stronger than others.

On the other hand, I have been at odds with many Greens for a long time because of my lack of enthusiasm for party presidential campaigns. For me this is not an ideological thing or a matter of principle. It is simple pragmatism.

Just for a little perspective, add together the vote total of the last four Green presidential candidates and you end up with less votes than Eugene Debs got in two of his runs, and less than half what he got in two others. And that’s before you add in the population explosion since Debs’ time.

Further, as one who has spent over a decade trying to get people, even normally sensible ones, to understand that Ralph Nader was not actual responsible for Al Gore’s defeat, I feel that if you are going to run a third party presidential campaign you better get more out of the deal than hate, ridicule and total media indifference.

Which is why I consider myself a backyard Green, who will vote for every Green I can find a marker box next to, as long as they don’t just make it easier for the GOP to win the Senate or the White House.

Which is why I would like to see the Greens act more like 1960s community organizers and make strong local alliances with groups like those representing labor, small businesses, blacks, latinos and the young. The Greens could become the new cool for youth. They could be the great salon des refuses of American politics.

Which is why I would like to see a campaign to organize Lite Greens, people who will register as Greens to put some pressure on the Democrats while retaining their freedom to vote the way they want – people like Occupiers, disaffected students, and union workers.

Which is why I would like to see the Greens avoid the trap that liberals have fallen into: becoming a demographic niche of the personally self righteous and politically ineffective.

And which is why my favorite Green campaign of the year is that of Fred Horch.

Hope you can find one in your ‘hood that makes you feel as good.

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