With its numbers down and its stars leaving, a progressive party contemplates its prospects
But he and the other founding Greens have discovered how strongly the American legal, political, and economic structures maintain the two-party system (or what Mirkarimi called "one party with two conservative wings"), locking out rival parties through restrictive electoral laws, control of political debates, and campaign financing mechanisms.
"I'm still very impassioned about the idea of having a Green Party here in the United States and here in California and San Francisco, vibrantly so. But I'm concerned that the Green Party will follow a trend like all third parties, which have proven that this country is absolutely uninviting — and in fact unwelcoming — of third parties and multiparty democracy," Mirkarimi said.
Unlike some Greens, Mirkarimi has always sought to build coalitions and make common cause with Democrats when there were opportunities to advance the progressive agenda, a lesson he learned in Germany.
When he worked on Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential campaign — a race that solidified the view of Greens as "spoilers" in the minds of many Democrats — Mirkarimi was involved in high-level negotiations with Democratic nominee Al Gore's campaign, trying to broker some kind of leftist partnership that would elect Gore while advancing the progressive movement.
"There was great effort to try to make that happen, but unfortunately, everyone defaulted to their own anxieties and insecurities," Mirkarimi said. "It was uncharted territory. It had never happened before. Everyone who held responsibility had the prospect of promise, and frankly, everybody felt deflated that the conversation did not become actualized into something real between Democrats and Greens. It could have."
Instead, George W. Bush was narrowly elected president and many Democrats blamed Nader and the Greens, unfairly or not. And Mirkarimi said the Greens never did the post-election soul-searching and retooling that they should have. Instead, they got caught up in local contests, such as the Gonzalez run for mayor — "that beautiful distraction" — a campaign Mirkarimi helped run before succeeding Gonzalez on the board a year later.
Today, as he considers running for mayor himself, Mirkarimi is weighing whether to leave the party he founded. "I'm in a purgatory. I believe in multiparty democracy," Mirkarimi said. "Yet tactically speaking, I feel like if I'm earnest in my intent to run for higher office, as I've shared with Greens, I'm not so sure I can do so as a Green."
That's a remarkable statement — in effect, an acknowledgement that despite some success on the local level, the Green Party still can't compete for bigger prizes, leaving its leaders with nowhere to go. Mirkarimi said he plans to announce his decision — about his party and political plans — soon.
Gonzalez left the Green Party in 2008, changing his registration to DTS when he decided to be the running mate of Nader in an independent presidential campaign. That move was partly necessitated by ballot access rules in some states. But Gonzalez also thought Nader needed to make an independent run and let the Green Party choose its own candidate, which ended up being former Congress member Cynthia McKinney.
"I expressly said to Nader that I would not run with him if he sought the Green Party nomination," Gonzalez told us. "The question after the campaign was: is there a reason to go back to the Green Party?"
Gonzalez concluded that there wasn't, that the Greens had ceased to be a viable political party and that it "lacks a certain discipline and maturity." Among the reasons he cited for the party's slide were infighting, inadequate party-building work, and the party's failure to effectively counter criticisms of Nader's 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns.
"We were losing the public relations campaign of explaining what the hell happened," he said.