With its numbers down and its stars leaving, a progressive party contemplates its prospects
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.
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.
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?"
But many loyal Greens dispute the assertion that their party is on the rocks. "I think the party is going pretty well. It's always an uphill battle building an alternative party," said Erika McDonald, spokesperson for the Green Party of San Francisco, noting that the party plans to put the money it saved on its former Howard Street headquarters space into more organizing and outreach. "The biggest problem is money."
Green Party activist Eric Brooks agrees. "We held onto that office for year and year and didn't spend the money on party building, like we should have done a long time ago," he said. "That's the plan now, to do some crucial party organizing."
Mirkarimi recalls the early party-building days when he and other "Ironing Board Cowboys" would canvas the city on Muni with voter registration forms and ironing boards to recruit new members, activities that fell away as the party achieved electoral successes and got involved with policy work.
"It distracted us from the basics," Mirkarimi said. Now the Green Party has to again show that it's capable of that kind of field work in support of a broad array of campaigns and candidates: "If I want to grow, there has to be a companion strategy that will lift all boats. All of those who have left the Green Party say they still support its values and wish it future success. And the feeling is mostly mutual, although some Greens grumble about how their party is now being hurt by the departure of its biggest names.
"I don't begrudge an ambitious politician leaving the Green Party," said Dave Snyder, a member of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District Board of Directors, and one of the few remaining Greens in local government.
But Snyder said he won't abandon the Green Party, which he said best represents his political values. "To join a party means you subscribe to its ideals. But you can't separate its ideals from its actions. Based on its actions, there's no way I could be a member of the Democratic Party," Snyder said.
Current Greens say many of President Obama's actions — particularly his support for Wall Street, a health reform effort that leaves insurance companies in control, and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan — vindicate their position and illustrate why the Green Party is still relevant.
"The disillusionment with Obama is a very good opportunity for us," McDonald said, voicing hope they Green can begin to capture more DTS voters and perhaps even a few Democrats. And Brooks said, "The Obama wake-up call should tell Greens that they should stick with the party."
Snyder also said now is the time for Greens to more assertively make the case for progressive organizing: "The Democrats can't live up to the hopes that people put on them."
Even Peskin agrees that Obama's candidacy was one of several factors that hurt the Green Party. "The liberal to progressive support for the Obama presidency deflated the Greens locally and beyond. In terms of organizing, they didn't have the organizational support and a handful of folks alienated newcomers."
In fact, when Mirkarmi and the other Green pioneers were trying to get the party qualified as a legal political party in California — no small task — Democratic Party leaders acted as if the Greens were the end of the world, or at least the end of Democratic control of the state Legislature and the California Congressional delegation. They went to great lengths to block the young party's efforts.
It turns out that the Greens haven't harmed the Democrats much at all; Democrats have even larger majorities at every legislative level today.
What has happened is that the Obama campaign, and the progressive inroads into the local party, have made the Greens less relevant. In a sense, it's a reflection of exactly what Green leaders said years ago: if the Democrats were more progressive, there would be less need for a third party.
But Mirkarimi and other Greens who endorsed Obama see this moment differently, and they don't share the hope that people disappointed with Obama are going to naturally gravitate toward the Greens. Rizzo and Kim fear these voters, deprived of the hope they once had, will instead just check out of politics. "They need to reorganize for a new time and new reality," Rizzo said of the Greens.
Part of that new reality involves working with candidates like Obama and trying to pull them to the left through grassroots organizing. Mirkarimi stands by his decision to endorse Obama, for which the Green Party disinvited him to speak at its annual national convention, even though he was one of his party's founders and top elected officials.
"After a while, we have to take responsibility to try to green the Democrats instead of just throwing barbs at them," Mirkarimi said. "Our critique of Obama now would be much more effective if we had supported him."
Yet that's a claim of some dispute within the Green Party, a party that has often torn itself apart with differences over strategy and ideology, as it did in 2006 when many party activists vocally opposed the gubernatorial campaign of former Socialist Peter Camejo. And old comrades Mirkarimi and Gonzalez still don't agree on the best Obama strategy, even in retrospect.
But they and other former Greens remain hopeful that the country can expand its political dialogue, and they say they are committed to continuing to work toward that goal. "I think there will be some new third party effort that emerges," Gonzalez said. "It can't be enough to not be President Bush. People want to see the implementation of a larger vision."