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Wednesday, June 28, 2006 02:29 pm

A third way in Illinois

This may be the year when the Greens should be taken seriously

I’m not a big fan of third-party candidates.

It’s not that I’m ecstatic about the two-party system. Too many “mainstream” candidates are media robots, poll-driven to the point that they drive me a little batty.

I wouldn’t mind having another choice, if only to force the other candidates to stop acting like automatons and start speaking like human beings again.

The problem is that third-party candidates are usually a bit, um, goofy. Two words: Ross Perot. Need I say more?

In Illinois, third-party candidates spend almost all their time whining about our rigid ballot-access laws instead of actually doing any work.

They have a point about the requirements for third-party candidates. “Established parties” such as the Democrats and the Republicans only have to gather 5,000 signatures for their statewide candidates; third parties have to collect 25,000 signatures — and because someone from the establishment is almost guaranteed to challenge the validity of those signatures, they actually have to gather far more than 25,000.

That’s a lot of work, to be sure, and perhaps the bar could be lowered. But an argument that many third parties have been making — that our state law is so rigid that no party has ever managed to get around it — may finally be blown out of the water for good soon.

The Green Party claims to have collected more than 35,000 valid signatures for its slate of statewide candidates, 10,000 more than they need. As I write this, they are planning a last-minute push in Chicago and Champaign to pad their totals even more.

Ralph Nader ran as a Green Party candidate for president two years ago and collected 34,000 Illinois signatures. It wasn’t enough. The Democratic Party of Illinois went through his petitions line by line and knocked him off the ballot.

This time around, the Greens say, they’ve learned some lessons and have had volunteers verifying and validating every single signature collected.

Another potential third-party gubernatorial candidate, Randy Stufflebeam, says on his Web site that he’s a “long way” from his petition goals. Stufflebeam is a social conservative, and word is that a certain prominent Democrat was preparing to help him gather signatures on the final weekend, until a reporter called and the Dem had to cancel the scam. The idea was that Stufflebeam would take votes away from the pro-choice, pro-gay-rights Republican candidate for governor, Judy Baar Topinka — but now it doesn’t look as if he’ll make it.

It’s possible that the Green Party would take votes away from Gov. Rod Blagojevich, particularly among young people and disaffected Democrats who can’t bring themselves to cast a protest vote for a Republican. In a close race, the Greens could be a deciding factor.

But the election is still a long way away. First the Greens have to withstand the challenge; then they’ll have to persuade the civic groups and media outlets that will sponsor the upcoming debates to include them. Finally, they’ll have to get reporters to write stories about them.

A spokesperson for the Green Party said letters had already been sent to both Blagojevich and Topinka, demanding to be included in the debates. Good luck with that.

My own opinion is that if any party has enough organizational strength to survive a ballot challenge in a state with literally the toughest third-party ballot-access laws in the world, then it ought to be considered legitimate.

That means that the Greens should be included in all the debates, no matter what their poll numbers might be. And it means that people such as myself should include them in our regular campaign coverage.

Back in 2002, an old acquaintance called with a startling pronouncement. She had been out of the state for the previous two years and was now working on a campaign that I was kind of picking on.

She said she had spent the weekend reading the past two years’ worth of my daily newsletter, Capitol Fax, and realized that what I respected the most was solid organization. After chiding her for wasting her weekend, I said that she was right. She then pitched a story about how her campaign had organized a huge event for young professionals that would pack Chicago’s Navy Pier. Naturally I gave that story a lot of play.

And now I promise to give the Greens the coverage they’re due if they make it over this nearly impossible hurdle. Others should as well.

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