The Green Party's nadir

With its numbers down and its stars leaving, a progressive party contemplates its prospects

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This should be a great time for the Green Party. Its namesake color is being cited by every corporation and politician who wants to get in good with the environmentally-minded public; voters in San Francisco are more independent than ever; and progressives have been increasingly losing the hope they placed on President Barack Obama.
But the Green Party of San Francisco — which once had an influence on city politics that was disproportionate to its membership numbers — has hit a nadir. The number of Greens has steadily dwindled since its peak in 2003; the party closed its San Francisco office in November; and it has now lost almost all its marquee members.
Former mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez, school board member Jane Kim, community college board member John Rizzo, and Planning Commissioner Christina Olague have all left the party in the last year or so. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi — a founding member of the Green Party of California and its last elected official in San Francisco — has also been openly struggling with whether to remain with an organization that doesn't have much to offer him anymore, particularly as he contemplates a bid for higher office.
While a growing progressive movement within the Democratic Party has encouraged some Greens to defect, particularly among those with political ambitions, that doesn't seem to be the biggest factor. After all, the fastest growing political affiliation is "Decline to State" and San Francisco now has a higher percentage of these independent voters than any other California county: 29.3 percent, according to state figures.
Democratic Party registration in San Francisco stood at 56.7 percent in November, the second-highest percentage in the state after Alameda County, making this essentially a one-party town (at last count, there were 256,233 Democrats, 42,097 Republicans, and 8,776 Greens in SF). Although Republicans in San Francisco have always outnumbered Greens by about 4-1, the only elected San Francisco Republican in more than a decade was BART board member James Fang.
But Republicans could never have made a real bid for power in San Francisco, as Gonzalez did in his electrifying 2003 mayoral run, coming within 5 percentage points of beating Gavin Newsom, who outspent the insurgent campaign 6-1 and had almost the entire Democratic Party establishment behind him.
That race, and the failure of Democrats in Congress to avert the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, caused Green Party membership to swell, reaching its peak in San Francisco and statewide in November 2003. But it's been a steady downward slide since then, locally and statewide.
So now, as the Green Party of California prepares to mark its 20th anniversary next month in Berkeley, it's worth exploring what happened to the party and what it means for progressive people's movements at a time when they seem to be needed more than ever. Mirkarimi was one of about 20 core progressive activists who founded the Green Party of California in 1990, laying the groundwork in the late 1980s when he spent almost two years studying the Green Party in Germany, which was an effective member of a coalition government there and something he thought the United States desperately needed.
"It was in direct response to the right-wing shift of the Democrats during the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations. It was so obvious that there had been an evacuation of the left-of-center values and policies that needed attention. So the era was just crying out woefully for a third party," Mirkarimi said of the Green Party of California and its feminist, antiwar, ecological, and social justice belief system.