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It's Not Easy Being Green.

It ain't Hollywood, where celebrities are making the rounds of glitzy parties for the Democrats. It's sure not Philadelphia, where the Republicans are putting on a corporate-sponsored elephant parade. No, the Green Party convention, which took place June 24-25 in Denver at a strip of cheap hotels by the old airport, was more like a political open-mike night. A hodgepodge of activists and hippies with a peculiar focus on legalizing hemp, the Greens beat drums to call meetings to order, giggled at their friends in ponytails and neckties, and generally appeared not quite ready for prime time.

Still, with Ralph Nader as their Presidential candidate, the Greens are attracting major media attention and giving the professionals over at Democratic Party headquarters a scare. Nader hit 7 percent in a recent national poll, prompting The New York Times editorial page to scold him for being a potential spoiler for Al Gore. In Denver, when reporters asked Nader if he was worried about throwing the election to Bush, he replied: "Not at all."

The two parties have become nearly identical fundraising machines, Nader argues. "The only difference is the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when big business comes knocking on the door," he says. On issues ranging from fair trade to product safety to the environment and workers' rights, "only an aroused citizenry can change politics," he contends. Nader has a very specific formula for how it might be done: "A million people, putting in 100 hours a year, and raising $100 each, could form a party to challenge the major parties."

With folk-hero status and decades of consumer activism behind him, Nader is a uniquely credible candidate to try to revive civic participation and democracy. Traveling across the country this summer, he is addressing big crowds who are turned off by corporate-dominated politics and receptive to his broad populist message. He appeals not only to lefties but to the same people who cast primary ballots for John McCain.

Wherever he goes, people run up to him--from state senators and newspaper editors to students and radicals--to tell him how he's changed their lives by getting them involved in grassroots activism. He has built hundreds of citizen action groups that took on corporate power and made lasting regulatory reforms, bringing us seatbelts, air bags, nonflammable pajamas, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Freedom of Information Act, to name just a few of his groups' accomplishments. (All of this was summed up nicely at the Denver convention in an MTV-style biographical video, to the driving beat of electric drums. The video was produced by adman Bill Hillsman, who also devised clever populist campaign messages for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura. Stay tuned for Hillsman's ads for the Nader campaign.)

The $12 million question is, can the Nader campaign give the Green cause a big shot in the arm and establish the "genuine, grassroots, citizens' movement" the candidate says he wants to build? If Nader wins 5 percent of the vote in November, the Green Party will qualify for millions of dollars in federal funds, just as Perot's Reform Party has done in the last two elections. This could make the Greens a much more significant political force, or it could lead to the chaos and dissolution the Reform Party has experienced after Perot did well enough in 1996 to earn $12.6 million for the election contest this year.

Which brings me back to the scene at the convention. As I stood next to Jim Pinkerton, the conservative columnist from Newsday, it was hard for this progressive journalist not to feel like I was at a family reunion, surrounded by my kooky relatives.

Basking in the spotlight of television cameras from CNN and ABC, and addressing reporters from The New York Times and The Washington Post, Nader's fellow Presidential nominees Stephen Gaskin, founder of The Farm commune in Tennessee, and Jello Biafra, former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, took the opportunity to deliver speeches on the issue that seemed to top the agenda of many Green Party conventioneers--the legalization of hemp. "I haven't made so many new friends since I first became a hippie," said Gaskin, who looked like Colonel Sanders with his white beard and stars-and-stripes hat. "I wasn't a very good motorcycle rider. I kept falling off. And I don't have the vision for basketball," he told the assembled delegates and reporters. "But I happen to enjoy playing with my mind."

Jello Biafra brought the house down when he called the war on drugs "ethnic cleansing, American style," and he listed the people he'd like to include in a Green Administration, including Secretary of Education Madonna, and, as head of the NEA, Marilyn Manson.

Between the speeches and platform meetings, a doctor who is running as a Green Party candidate for Congress in New Mexico approached a knot of reporters, including representatives from The Nation and Time magazine, to hand out campaign literature--and offer sample bottles of prescription drugs. Hard on his heels came another Green Party member from New Mexico to hand out opposition research on the doctor and explain that the state party has denounced his campaign. There were more opposition papers from members of the Green Party USA, a separate sect from the Association of State Green Parties and, according to its literature, a more genuinely radical group. A Green Party USA rep explained that Nader is far too soft on the marijuana issue--he favors medical marijuana and legalization of industrial hemp, but he doesn't go all the way on unmolested dope smoking.

All this might help explain why Nader himself has refused to join the party ("It's just a thing with me," he says. "I've always been an independent.") and why he seemed to float above the proceedings, not shaking hands or working the crowd, his staff hanging out in an office several floors up from the convention hall.

So what happens after Nader's run? Will the Greens be a mere sideshow? Or is there any momentum for a real third party to build from this, as Nader describes it so ringingly, as the Republican Party built itself from a scrappy third party based on abolition of slavery and women's right to vote, and then elected President Lincoln, four years after its founding convention in 1856?

The Association of State Green Parties brags that it has won races in twelve states and put fifty-nine candidates in office. But the vast majority of those are nonpartisan officials on local school boards and city councils. The truth is the Green Party is in its infancy. Ted Muga, the national chairman of the American Reform Party, which has endorsed Nader, has first-hand experience with third party growing pains. Muga's group of 750 to 1,000 active members broke off from the Reform Party after it was hijacked by Pat Buchanan. He's impressed by the Greens: "It's not a top-down organization like Perot's was," he says, and he is already talking to the leadership about being ready for the attempted takeover by outside elements (including disaffected Reformer Lenora Fulani) who may want a piece of the federal election fund action.

Fortunately for the party, between the dope-smokers and Ralph Nader there are some other impressive Green candidates. Medea Benjamin, the cofounder of Global Exchange, is running for the Senate from California against Dianne Feinstein, whom she calls "the consummate corporate candidate." Benjamin gave a tight presentation to CNN at the convention. "I was in Seattle where tens of thousands of people came out to say no to corporate-led globalization," she says. "This is a historic wave. It's so exciting to feel that energy among young people. It's cool to be Green!" Benjamin sees her campaign and the Green Party as the electoral arm of the activist movement that burst onto the scene in Seattle. Ten years from now, she believes a coalition of leftwing Democrats and Greens could be a major new political force.

Another bright star at the Green convention was Texas populist radio show host Jim Hightower, who gave a speech that got people on their feet. "We need not just the beansprout-eaters but the snuff-dippers," he said.

Veteran civil rights activist Manning Marable delivered a similar message. "Well-meaning white liberals must recognize the central role of people of color," he said to huge applause from an audience of two black people and 250 well-meaning white liberals.

(The audience didn't just clap, it "twinkled," wiggling the fingers of both hands in the air during speeches. The effect, a sort of mass groping toward the speaker, alarmed Hightower, who waggled his fingers at some friends after his talk and asked, "What's this?!")

If the Greens are going to be more than a vehicle for old lefties and a few minor celebrities to talk among themselves, it's going to take a lot of legwork.

"Think of the farmers in East Texas who in the late nineteenth century started the populist progressive farmer revolt against the big banks and railroads," Nader says in his stump speech. "They had nothing but their hearts, their minds, and their feet. Do you think they gave up?"

Nader's e-mail lists and the organizing network of his Public Interest Research Groups would help a lot, too. So would his continuing commitment to the Green Party after this Presidential campaign.

The Greens have a long way to go. But "look how far we've come!" says Mike Feinstein, who helped set up the Green Party of California. "I have a video of the founding meeting of the California Greens in 1990. You'd crack up! It's just a bunch of ordinary folks." David Cobb, secretary of the Green Party in Texas, also becomes rhapsodic when he tells how Texas organizers got 74,100 signatures to put Nader on the ballot in only seventy-five days.

One thing is certain: You won't see this much pure idealism at the other conventions.

Ruth Conniff is Washington Editor of The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:Green Party convention
Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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