Published on Sunday, December 31, 2000 in the New York Times
Green Party Makes Inroads in Local Governments
by Michael Janofsky
SEBASTOPOL, Calif. — In mainstream political circles, the Green Party is remembered as having cost Vice President Al Gore the election by pulling in enough votes for Ralph Nader to assure victory for George W. Bush.
But here amid the vineyards and apple orchards of Northern California, as well as in dozens of other pockets around the country, the Greens have become, at the municipal level at least, messengers of change and elected alternatives to Democrats and Republicans.
Though Mr. Nader won only 3 percent of the popular vote nationally, 32 of 240 Green candidates won elections in a dozen states, giving the party a total of 79 elected officials in 21 states, gains that make the Greens the biggest political presence of any third party.
By comparison, members of the Reform Party, the Ross Perot creation that bombed in the presidential election this year with the candidacy of Patrick J. Buchanan, now hold about half as many elected positions as Greens in fewer than 10 states — a level not much greater than they held before the elections.
Reflecting a strategy to build power from the local level, the Greens in office all serve in municipal government, from mayor in five California towns, to the drain commissioner of Charlevoix County, Mich. Nowhere do their recent gains promise a greater impact than in Sebastopol, a quiet town of 8,000 in western Sonoma County, about 50 miles north of San Francisco Bay.
Not only did Mr. Nader gain 7 percent of the county's presidential vote, but by winning the two City Council seats contested this year in Sebastopol, Greens now hold three of the five elected positions of leadership. That concentration of Green power is unmatched anywhere in the country, and it almost makes Mayor Larry Robinson, the third Green elected official, laugh.
"Now we have to reassure people that we aren't going to do anything really terrifying to them," Mr. Robinson said. "Our job is to demonstrate, not through rhetoric but through actions, that we're not bogymen, that our focus will be on day-to- day issues that affect people's lives, like maintaining safe streets and filling potholes."
Mr. Robinson, a Green who describes himself as an eco-psychologist — "a psychotherapist who brings people back to their roots" — was elected to the council in 1998, when three seats were contested, and was voted mayor by the council members. In elections last month for the other two seats, two Greens — Craig Litwin, a teacher's aide, and Sam Spooner, a television studio designer — defeated an incumbent Democrat and a write-in candidate.
That leaves Sebastopol in the hands of three Greens, one Democrat and one Republican, a division that the Greens say promises a wider debate on the town's most pressing issues, like traffic flow and affordable housing. Mr. Robinson, 53, said he and the other Greens offer a perspective to problem-solving that emphasizes the environment.
Skeptics wonder if, for all their lofty idealism, the Greens can make any more of a difference on local issues than conventional politicians, because so few costly initiatives can be addressed without support from the state.
"As far as the Green Party doing anything, I'm sure they're like everybody else," said Bo Bryant, whose shop, People's Music, has been open for 27 years. "It's something to stand for, but they could go way over the edge. Anyway, you can't change overnight and make everything Green, and not everything Green is good."
For all the uncertainty over how much difference a Green majority could make in a small town, liberal politics could not have found a more hospitable place to blossom than Sebastopol, once the applesauce center of the West. As Mr. Bryant noted, the place "is totally weird, with a strange combination of liberals, the liberated, left-over hippies and a lot of gays — it's just wonderful."
Solving traffic problems, high on Mr. Robinson's priority list, may provide the town its first major glimpse of Green Party ideas.
To help relieve congestion, Mr. Robinson said he would support a plan that would narrow a stretch of State Road 116 to two lanes from three and widen the sidewalks to slow drivers and encourage town residents to walk or ride bicycles.
Robert E. Anderson, the Democrat on the Council and a architect, expressed skepticism over the plan, saying it was not only grandiose and inefficient, but also typical of the Greens' unrealistic approach to policy.
Mr. Anderson said he was not as concerned about how the traffic problem would be solved as he was about how the Greens' ideas might be thrust onto residents because of the party's new majority.
As Mr. Anderson and others in the town noted, when Mr. Litwin, 24, and Mr. Spooner, 44, campaigned, they did not emphasize their Green Party affiliation.
"I thought we were electing individuals, not a party," Mr. Anderson said, predicting that by mid-May, when the town budget is developed, "we'll see their priorities for funding."
Angst was also reflected in a nasty anonymous letter Mayor Robinson said he received in which someone expressed fear about what a Green majority might foist on the town. "Green becomes Red in some people's minds," Mr. Robinson said. "This guy wanted to know if we were going to sit around in circles, holding hands."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company