SAN FRANCISCO - Is America ready for a Green Party mayor, even in one of its most liberal big cities?
As San Francisco votes on a new mayor next Tuesday, a Green candidate, Matt Gonzalez, 38, is seen as having a chance to score a major upset against Democrat Gavin Newsom, 36, who has the backing of his party's heavyweights.
"It would be very significant. Number one it would be the biggest city with a Green mayor," said Ralph Nader, who ran for president as a Green in 2000. "It will give progressive Democrats in other cities the sense they can defect and go to the Green side."
"As a moral factor it is not to be underestimated. It will get more Greens to run in their own towns and city levels," he said in a telephone interview.
In some European countries, the Greens are an influential political force. In Germany, they are the junior partner in the ruling coalition and Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has long been rated his nation's most popular politician.
Not so in the United States, where Democrats and Republicans have long dominated. Founded in 1984, U.S. Greens boast 205 party members in elected office in 26 states, most in city council positions. Their ranks include mayors of a few smaller cities including Sebastopol, California, a town known for its links to the Grateful Dead rock and roll band.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Kelly Weaverling of the isolated fishing community of Cordova, Alaska became the first U.S. Green mayor in 1991, but said it was not easy to counter preconceptions about his party.
"People would hear the word Green around here and not think Green Party but Greenpeace," he said in an interview, "then instantly assign you all the baggage that goes along with this stereotypical granola-crunching, Birkenstock-wearing, protesting, long-haired environmental radical."
COMBATING RADICAL IMAGE
Gonzalez has also fought Democratic efforts to portray him as a far-out idealist.
"I'm not the radical my opponents make me out to be," Gonzalez told Reuters at his office which was hosting a monthly art viewing party. "I'm a former attorney, I'm kind of lawyerly in my approach to issues."
"I represent a style of politics that would undermine the kind of remaining vestiges of ... Tammany Hall urban American politics that still exists."
Some analysts say such an outsider approach could make Gonzalez the surprise victor in heavily Democratic San Francisco following the anti-establishment mood that swept Arnold Schwarzenegger into office as California governor last month.
"Why the Democrats are concerned is that they did lose the governorship in California," said Jo Chamberlain, a co-chair of the national Greens. "Now they see this major city in San Francisco, this gem of a Democratic city, possibly going Green, so they are, I'm sure, feeling pressure from the Republicans and the Greens."
Gonzalez's rival Newsom is a wealthy pro-business politician known for a tough line on homelessness and has backing of the state's major Democrats. A member of the city legislature like Gonzalez, Newsom has close ties with Gordon Getty, son of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, a relationship his opponent often criticizes.
© 2003 Reuters Ltd