Why Partisanship Over Progressivism?
Published on Thursday, December 4, 2003 by the Madison Capital Times (Wisconsin)
Why Partisanship Over Progressivism?
by John Nichols

When Dave Cieslewicz was campaigning for mayor of Madison earlier this year, the veteran environmental activist received valuable support from leading local Greens.

Cieslewicz is a Democrat, but his record as director of the 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin environmental group, his very progressive stances on economic and social issues, and his freewheeling style made him attractive to a number of committed Green activists and elected officials in Madison.

Arguably, Cieslewicz's appeal to the core Green voting bloc, and to the broader bloc of Green-leaning voters in the city, made the difference in his narrow win over Paul Soglin in the April vote.

The same thing happened in Minneapolis, where R.T. Rybak, a progressive Democrat with close ties to Paul Wellstone, attracted substantial Green support when he ran as a reform candidate for mayor of that city.

The volunteer army that helped Rybak beat the incumbent mayor, a more conservative, establishment-tied Democrat, had a substantial Green component. And, after his election, Rybak recognized that fact and praised his Green backers for their political flexibility and vision.

These examples of Greens providing essential support to progressive Democrats running in nonpartisan elections are worth noting because they serve as a reminder that the overwhelming majority of Greens and Green-leaning voters are motivated by their concern about issues, as opposed to simple partisanship.

Yes, the Greens want to form a powerful third party that they hope will eventually effectively compete against the two major parties at all levels. But Green activists have proven their willingness, especially at the local level, to forge effective coalitions. And those coalitions have elected some of America's most progressive mayors.

Contrast the work by Greens to elect progressive leaders, no matter what their party affiliation, with what Democratic Party leaders are doing in San Francisco this fall.

San Francisco, like Minneapolis and Madison, is a progressive city with a history of nonpartisan politics. Usually, the two candidates who end up facing off for mayor of San Francisco are both Democrats.

In this year's Dec. 9 runoff for the left-coast city's top job, however, the race has come down to Gavin Newsom, a moderately conservative, business-tied Democrat, and Matt Gonzalez, a progressive community activist who happens to be a Green. Both men have served as city supervisors, although Gonzalez has the added advantage of having served as president of the city's Board of Supervisors. He also brings to the competition a track record of taking on tough challenges that other politicians avoid, forging unprecedented coalitions and achieving radical reforms.

In contrast to Gonzalez's background, Newsom's spottier record is that of a political careerist who has made his name taking cheap shots at the city's homeless population. Newsom has raised $3.3 million for his campaign from corporate givers such as Bechtel, the defense contractor, and prominent Republicans such as former Secretary of State George Shultz. And he is using the money to attack Gonzalez for being too progressive. At the same time, he is calling on Democrats to rally 'round the party banner.

No matter what his party membership, Gonzalez is clearly the progressive contender in this race. And while he is proud to identify as a Green, he is running a very mainstream campaign that invites voters of all parties to support his push for clean government, public ownership of utilities and bold initiatives to aid the working families that are being priced out of the city housing market.

Gonzalez's message is resonating with San Franciscans. He's pulled even in the polls, and he's winning key endorsements. "If Gonzalez wins, then San Francisco will become almost overnight the leading laboratory for activist social policy, the place other cities look to for ideas, the crucible of progressive programs and visions," declared the San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper.

So why are top national Democrats like Al Gore going out of their way to fly to San Francisco to campaign for Newsom? Why is the Democratic National Committee working to beat Gonzalez?

Because, despite his corporate and Republican ties, Newsom proclaims himself to be a Democrat and Gonzalez does not. Forget about the fact that this is a nonpartisan race. Forget about the fact that Gonzalez has far more potential than Newsom to emerge as a national leader on urban issues. Gore and national and local Democratic insiders are choosing partisanship over progressivism.

Next year, Democrats will call on Greens and Green-leaning voters to abandon third-party politics in order to help beat George W. Bush. Many Green voters are likely to answer the call.

But many others will ask why top Democrats always seem to demand concessions in the name of electing the more progressive major candidate at the national level but are not willing to make concessions in the name of electing the most progressive major candidate at the local level.

Copyright 2003 The Capital Times