One of the great untold stories of the 1996 political season was the success of the Green Party’s local electoral strategy. While most of the media’s attention on third parties focused on their presidential candidates and campaigns (including the Greens’ own Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke), a record seventeen Greens won office nationwide, and in Arcata, CA, voters elected the first-ever Green City Council majority in the US. These victories follow a pattern where Greens have organized around local issues, built a base of experience and credibility, and then successfully ran candidates from that base.
In addition to Jennifer Hanan and Bob Ornelas being elected in Arcata (where they joined sitting Green councilmember b to form the Green majority), other highlights of ‘96 include: in Berkeley, CA b became the first Green to be re-elected to a City Council seat for a third term, and four others from around the country were elected to their second. In Santa Monica, CA Mike Feinstein won a City Council seat in the biggest city thus far for any US Green. In both Arizona and Maine, Greens won all three municipal races they contested. And in Santa Fe, NM Fran Gallegos broke ground as the first-ever Green municipal judge. Overall, 1996 saw the Greens elect 10 city councilmembers, a board of supervisor, a municipal judge, two school board members and two planning group members.
The ’96 results bring to 41 the number of Greens currently holding elected office, including 22 city councilmembers, three board of supervisors, four schoolboardmembers and a municipal judge. Where are Greens winning? Many are small-to-medium sized towns and cities with strong liberal and/or progressive constituencies like Arcata, Berkeley, Davis, Ojai and Santa Monica, CA; Flagstaff, AZ; Santa Fe, NM; Columbia, MO; LaCrosse, WI; Fayetteville, AR and Chapel Hill, NC. Although it may seem natural for Greens to win in these places, these places have also traditionally been liberal Democratic strongholds, and some pundits have suggested liberal voters will choose Democrats over Greens. Experience shows otherwise, and suggests future Green growth in these places and others, like Austin, TX; Boulder, CO; Santa Cruz and West Hollywood, CA; Madison, WI and elsewhere.
Greens have also won outside of such communities. Perhaps the most impressive has been in the Twin Ports area of Duluth, MN/Superior, WI. Greens have organized in this mostly working-class area since the mid-to-late 80’s. Currently five Greens hold office there – two City Council and three Board of Supervisors. In rural, conservative Yucaipa, CA, (east of San Bernadino), Alan Drusys won in ‘94 within an electorate of 10,500 Republicans, 7,500 Democrats and 42 Greens. Greens have also won in the suburban community of Menlo Park, CA (between San Francisco and San Jose) and in very small towns like Bisbee, AZ and Eastport and Bowdoinham, ME.
Not only are Greens winning, but Green incumbents are being re-elected. Ten out of thirteen have won re-election since 1993, suggesting voters feel Greens have both good ideas and can govern. In addition to Spring, Green City Council and/or Board of Supervisor/County Council incumbents who have been re-elected include Bill Anderson (Douglas County, WI), Joyce Brown (Chapel Hill, NC), Keiko Bonk (Hilo, HI), Matt Harline (Columbia, MO), Stephan Miller (Fayetteville, AR), Bob Ornelas (Arcata, CA), Debbie Orton (Hermanton, MN). and Julie Partansky (Davis, CA). Only three Green incumbents have ever lost, and even those were very close races – Kelly Weaverling, Mayor, Cordova, AK (lost by 2 votes in ‘94) and Ted Ciskie and Kay McKenzie, Board of Supervisors, Douglas County, WI (each lost by 24 votes in ‘96).
In terms of the public’s perception of Green leadership potential, Terry Williams (Webster Grove, MO) has also been elected as Mayor (in ‘94), Partansky will become Mayor of Davis in ‘98 as a result of getting the most votes in ‘96 and Kirkpatrick, who is currently vice-mayor of Arcata, is expected to be named Mayor in ‘98 by his fellow councilmembers.
Green officeholders and organizing are also having a coattail effect. In Arcata, residents voted in their Green majority in 1996 after having experienced individual Green councilmebmers Ornelas (1990-94) and Kirkpatrick (1994-present). In Orange County, NC the Greens elected Alex Zaffron to the Board of Alderman in Carrboro in ‘95, after that community had experience watching Brown serve two terms in neighboring Chapel Hill. In Santa Fe, Gallegos was elected two years after Cris Moore was elected to the City Council. In Berkeley, with residents familiar with Spring in District 4, Cris Kavanaugh ran in District 8 and finished 2nd by only 91 votes (out of 4600) against a long-entrenched incument. And in California statewide, with voters having experience with a variety of Green officeholders, 35 Greens have won local races since 1990.
A second and somewhat suprising category where many Greens finished strong in ‘96 came in several partisan county, state and US Senate races. Because the US winner-take-all electoral system is so inherently hostile to third party candidates, few normally even reach 10%. Yet in several cases, not only did Greens finish higher, but some actually also finished second ahead of either the Democrats or Republicans.
On the state legislative level, Cam Gordon of Minneapolis, MN finished second with 24.6%, ahead of the Republican. In Albuquerque, NM Bob Anderson finished 2nd with 28%, behind a Democrat and ahead of an independent. In Oahu, HI, Karen Archibald, finished 3rd with (20.8%), just behind the Republican (23%). Results like these have come in ‘96 and in previous years in states likewhere the population of the state legislative districts is low and the campaign is still doable on a grassroots level.
On the county level, two-term County Councilmember Bonk’s mayoral attempt on Hawaii’s Big Island saw her finish 2nd (39%-33%) to the Democrat and beat the Republican. In Bonk’s old County Council District 6, Julie Jacobsen also finished a close 2nd (37%-33%), beating the Democrat. In County Council District 5, Julie Leialoha finished a close 3rd (37%-30%-28%). And in New Mexico, Andres Vargas finished 2nd with 25%, ahead of the Republican for the Taos/Colfax/Union Counties District Attorney office. For US Senate, Jed Whittaker of the Green Party of Alaska finished second with 12.5%, ahead of the Democrat, the first time since 1970 that a ‘third party’ candidate has finished 2nd for US Senate anywhere in the US.
In sum, what this experience demonstrates is that where Greens are organized and able to communicate their message on a grassroots level, people will vote Green. Getting Greens elected to local office is in turn building long-term credibility for the Green Party, as well increasing the credibility of these officeholders themselves, making it more likely for them and/or other Greens to be elected some day should they choose to run for state or Congressional office.