With its numbers down and its stars leaving, a progressive party contemplates its prospects
Gonzalez was also critical of the decision by Mirkarimi and other Greens to endorse the Democratic Party presidential nominees in 2004 and 2008, saying it compromised the Greens' critique of the two-party system. "It sort of brings that effort to an end."
But Gonzalez credits the Green Party with invigorating San Francisco politics at an important time. "It was an articulation of an independence from the Democratic Party machine," Gonzalez said of his decision to go from D to G in 2000, the year he was elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Anger at that machine and its unresponsiveness to progressive issues was running high at the time, and Gonzalez said the Green Party became one of the "four corners of the San Francisco left," along with the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which helped set a progressive agenda for the city.
"Those groups helped articulate what issues were important," Gonzalez said, citing economic, environmental, electoral reform, and social justice issues as examples. "So you saw the rise of candidates who began to articulate our platform." But the success of the progressive movement in San Francisco also sowed the seeds for the Green Party's downfall, particularly after progressive Democrats Chris Daly, Tom Ammiano, and Aaron Peskin waged ideological battles with Mayor Gavin Newsom and other so-called "moderate Democrats" last year taking control of the San Francisco Democratic Party County Central Committee.
"Historically, the San Francisco Democratic Party has been a political weapon for whoever was in power. But now, it's actually a democratic party. And it's gotten progressive as well," Peskin, the party chair, told us. "And for a lot of Greens, that's attractive."
The opportunity to take part in that intra-party fight was a draw for Rizzo and Kim, both elected office-holders with further political ambitions who recently switched from Green to Democrat.
"I am really concerned about the Democratic Party," Rizzo, a Green since 1992, told us. "I've been working in politics to try to influence things from the outside. Now I'm going to try to influence it from the inside."
Rizzo said he's frustrated by the inability of Obama and Congressional Democrats to capitalize on their 2008 electoral gains and he's worried about the long-term implications of that failure. "What's going on in Washington is really counterproductive for the Democrats. These people [young, progressive voters] aren't going to want to vote again."
Rizzo and Kim both endorsed Obama and both say there needs to be more progressive movement-building to get him back on track with the hopes he offered during his campaign.
"I think it's important for progressives in San Francisco to try to move the Democratic Party back to the left," Kim, who is considering running for the District 6 seat on the Board of Supervisors, told us. "I've actually been leaning toward doing this for a while."
Kim was a Democrat who changed her registration to Green in 2004, encouraged to do so by Gonzalez. "For me, joining the Green Party was important because I really believed in third-party politics and I hope we can get beyond the two-party system," Kim said, noting the dim hopes for that change was also a factor in her decision to switch back.
Another Green protégé of Gonzalez was Olague, whom he appointed to the Planning Commission. Olague said she was frustrated by Green Party infighting and the party's inability to present any real political alternative.
"We had some strong things happening locally, but I didn't see any action on the state or national level," Olague said. "They have integrity and they work hard, but is that enough to stay in a party that doesn't seem to be going anywhere?"