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California Recall: Just Being in the Debate a Victory for Progressives
Published on Friday, September 5, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
California Recall
Just Being in the Debate a Victory for Progressives
by Joe Garofoli
 

After years of being arrested, banned and shunned at political debates, just being inside the building for Wednesday's nationally televised recall confab was a huge leap forward for Green Party faithful.

National party co-chair Jo Chamberlain so expected to be tossed to the curb in Walnut Creek with the also-rans preening for leftover camera time that she brought signs and a Green banner to wave on the sidewalk. Just in case.

"I kept waiting for them to say, 'You. Out!' " Chamberlain said. "Being included was off the charts for us."


Peter Camejo, the Green Party candidate for governor, arrives at the debate site, the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek. (Chronicle photo by Mark Costantini)
Despite having 160,000 registered members in California, Greens measure legitimacy, in part, by being included in the debate.

Now that they've got some face time and the legitimacy that follows, their next challenge is convincing California's sizable progressive community as well as its millions of disaffected voters that they won't be throwing away their ballot Oct. 7 by punching the hole next to "Green."

Regardless of the recall outcome, Greens and other previously uninvited parties hope Wednesday's inclusion is a step toward changing the way debate guest lists are compiled.

When Green candidate Peter Camejo looked into the camera during his closing statement Wednesday and asked viewers, "Look at the debate today. Do you want to go back to the day when there are only two people heard?" Third-party candidates used to pressing their noses against the glass cheered.

"Perception is reality," said Nancy Allen, a national media coordinator used to fighting such battles for the Greens. "And the reality is that the Green Party isn't perceived if it isn't in the debates."

More good news came Thursday for Camejo, as well as independent commentator Arianna Huffington and Republican Peter Ueberroth.

Despite not having high enough poll numbers to merit an invitation to the California Broadcasters Association's Sept. 24 showdown -- Arnold Schwarzenegger's only scheduled debate appearance -- all three "will most likely be invited," said Kevin Coe, an association spokesman.

That's a far cry from last fall, when Camejo couldn't get into a gubernatorial debate without a ticket from fellow candidate Bill Simon. Or in 2000, when Medea Benjamin's supporters staged a sit-in at a San Francisco television station when she was banned from a U.S. Senate debate.

Or when presidential candidate Ralph Nader wouldn't be admitted even to view a 2000 face-off, despite having a ticket.

So now, with two progressive, system-bashing candidates in the recall field and drawing attention, it would figure that Bay Area lefties would be overjoyed at finally having someone to back for governor.

Not necessarily.

TOUGH CHOICE

Some progressive stomachs will be churning until Oct. 7 over a crisis of conscience that sounds downright Republican:

Will they have to sublimate their heart's choice (Camejo or Huffington) and support Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to avoid, as many put it, electing "another Pete Wilson?" For a hard-core progressive, little could be worse than seeing the Wilson-tutored actor Schwarzenegger in Sacramento.

"I'm in that conflicted state -- I was a Nader voter in 2000," said Sam Dodge, a 27-year-old progressive who works with low-income housing residents in San Francisco's Tenderloin. Recalling how some felt that Nader cost Democrat Al Gore the election in 2000, Dodge is hesitant to cast a symbolic vote this time around -- one that would satisfy his heart, but perhaps lead to a Republican victory.

At a recent San Francisco demonstration, Dodge shared the fears of fellow marchers who work on the social service front lines: A GOP governor would hack away at programs that affect the people he works with every day. It's hard to cast a symbolic vote, he said, when you have to deal with its human consequences.

"Bustamante looks like a safe bet, but I love Arianna Huffington," said Dodge, who works with the Central City SRO Collaborative. "It's really tough. I feel that my vote could affect the thousands of people I work with down here. "

Dodge spoke as he helped shepherd 14 young activists at a recent noontime protest at a Ross Dress for Less store on Market Street.

ACTIVIST TRAINING

The recent college graduates were part of the JusticeCorps program, a one- week activist training program that places grads with progressive organizations.

Some of the younger activists shouting "Hey hey, ho ho, poverty wages have got to go" to the surrounding sock-buyers were attracted to cage-rattlers like Camejo and Huffington, but unsure of the insurgents' chances. Several said they were undecided about which candidate they would vote for on the second half of the recall ballot -- as were 14 percent of the respondents to an Aug. 16 Field Poll.

"Huffington doesn't seem to be getting much support," shrugged Chrissy Dodson, a 22-year-old undecided voter from Berkeley who held a sign saying, "Profits Up, Wages Down."

The veteran activists marching next to them were more wary of following their hearts into the voting booth -- not to mention angry that the $66 million California may end up spending on the recall could have gone to schools, housing for the poor or social services.

Longtime housing activist Randy Shaw smiled as he noted that his young charges weren't old enough to be politically aware during Wilson's eight-year tenure. If they were, he said, they might be more pragmatic and vote for Bustamante.

"Many progressives are not going to waste their vote on Peter Camejo or Arianna Huffington," said Shaw, executive director with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which sponsors the JusticeCorps program.

Greens say Democrats encourage that kind of fear-mongering to keep progressives under wing. Despite their candidates' low poll numbers, leaders of the Camejo and Huffington campaigns frequently point to Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial victory in Minnesota, where nobody gave the boa-wearing pro wrestler a chance to win until the votes were tallied.

In the next few days, Huffington and Camejo representatives will ramp up their presence at events that draw the disaffected, like Saturday's 911 Power to the Peaceful Festival free concert in Golden Gate Park, which is expected to draw more than 25,000 people.

The challenge, said Van Jones, Huffington's grassroots director, is persuading progressives to take advantage of the "Halley's Comet" nature of the recall. Getting statewide recognition has never been this easy for a third party candidate.

"If all of the progressives in California would vote for a truly progressive candidate, that person would win," said Jones, a longtime San Francisco activist. "To throw that away because of the fear of throwing your vote away would be a crime."

© 2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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