Green Party in California Trying to Stem Shrinking Numbers
Faced with diminishing numbers, a threatening ballot measure and the perpetual challenge of being a small third party in a two-party system, the California Green Party may be fading to chartreuse.
But that won't happen if a hardy core of delegates, who gathered in San Jose over the weekend for a semiannual state meeting, have their way. Still, the Greens couldn't even hold the attention of their own members. By Sunday, the meeting had shrunk by half to 40 people.
Even its two candidates for governor, Laura Wells of Oakland and Deacon Alexander of Los Angeles, skipped Sunday's talks on platform and procedures.
Five years ago, there were 158,000 registered Greens, or 0.95 percent of California voters. By January this year, the number had shrunk to 111,000, or 0.66 percent of the electorate.
The party knows of just 33 Greens holding elective office, ranging from members of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board to a San Francisco supervisor to the mayors of Richmond and Sebastopol. Its official list includes no elected Greens in Santa Clara County and just two in San Mateo County, both on the Montara water board.
The local party has focused more on issues rather than races, said Jim Stauffer, 59, one of four Santa Clara County delegates. For example, he said, the party is trying to get instant-runoff voting in San Jose on the November ballot. That, they argue, would be more democratic and less expensive, allowing voters to rank
their first, second and third choices among candidates and naming a winner with majority support in a single election.
Green parties, which have their roots in the environmental movement, gained strength in Europe in the 1980s. Greens began appearing with greater numbers on U.S. ballots in the 1990s.
So why, in an era of growing concern about the environment, is the party losing its appeal?
Some cite the Obama effect, which lured people to register for the 2008 Democratic primary. Also, they say, Greens defected because they wanted to vote for liberal Ohio U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic primary. Indeed, in the same five years, state Democratic ranks swelled by about 390,000 voters to 7.5 million, or 44.6 percent of the electorate.
Green delegates on Sunday denied that would-be supporters remain angry that consumer crusader Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate in 2000, may have cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election in the race against George W. Bush.
Instead, they echoed the perennial lament of small parties: It's difficult to get political traction because of media neglect and scarce resources.
The party, they noted, doesn't accept donations from corporations, unions or political-action committees.
"A 17th-century electoral system keeps minor parties minor," Stauffer said.
With its agenda embracing universal health care, public financing of elections, legalization of undocumented immigrants and free birth control, the party promotes far more than environmentalism. The weekend meeting was partially devoted to hammering out party planks, but some remained unfinished.
Delegates supported downsizing the requirement for passing the state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority but couldn't agree on tax reform, term limits or whether the rights of people to control use of their DNA and body parts belonged in the human rights or health care plank, said delegate Cres Vellucci, 61, of Sacramento.
At a gathering that appeared to have few nonwhite members, delegates acknowledged that the party ought to strive harder to reflect the ethnic makeup of California.
The party is trying to capitalize on liberals disenchanted with President Barack Obama and the Democrats.
It will spend some of its $35,000 budget for 2010-11 on a television ad campaign inviting voters to join the party.
And it's opposing Proposition 14 on the June ballot. The initiative would establish a single primary open to all registered voters. The party believes it would doom its statewide and congressional candidates.
Stumping for votes is hard enough, said Jane Rands, a former state Assembly candidate from Orange County.
"The No. 1 thing people say is, 'I agree with everything you stand for, but I'm not going to vote for you because you are not going to get elected.' "