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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 02:32 pm

The Green Giant

Rich Whitney, candidate for governor, has big ideas for Illinois

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Dressed in a gray suit, green shirt, and navy-blue paisley tie, holding an umbrella on a windy, rainy day at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rich Whitney preached — and the choir said amen.

Higher education should be made affordable through the reduction of tuition and fees, and K-12 education should be funded better, he tells the crowd of no more than 100 young people who braved the cold weather to attend the noontime rally for Whitney, the Illinois Green Party candidate for governor, and several other Greens running for local office.

Whitney says he’s the only gubernatorial candidate appearing on November’s statewide ballot who’s making an issue of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq by promising to veto any further mobilization of Illinois National Guard troops to Iraq.

The 51-year-old candidate also warns against putting all the state’s “clean-energy eggs in the E-85 basket” and questions ethanol manufacturer Archer Daniels Midland’s large donations to his opponents, Gov. Rod Blagojevich and state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.

The Green candidates’ proposal to clean up pay-to-play politics in Springfield includes refusing to accept contributions from corporations, to which he adds: “If you contribute to a candidate, thou shalt not receive a state contract,” and vice versa.

If Whitney has any doubts that he can become the next governor of Illinois, he’s not letting them show.

Whitney wants to win.

Were his motive merely to make a statement, he could have just as easily thrown together a Web site and fired off the occasional press release from the comfort of his home office, and for less money.

But since the spring, Whitney has been spiderwebbing the Land of Lincoln in his maroon Mercury, which serves as a mobile campaign headquarters and office for his Carbondale-based civil-rights law practice.

Whitney seriously thinks he has an outside shot, and cites the example of ex-pro wrestler and Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura, who surprised the political establishment by winning the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial contest.

That is perhaps a bit of naiveté on Whitney’s behalf.

He lacks Ventura’s celebrity or a memorable polysyllabic foreign surname. Whitney also readily admits that he doesn’t possess any inherent traits that would make him a better governor than Topinka or Blagojevich. And even though he’s been clamoring for months to debate the major-party candidates, Whitney doesn’t consider himself a gifted debater.

Plus, Democrats control the Illinois General Assembly, both of Illinois’ seats in the U.S. Senate, and, ostensibly, the Executive Mansion, which Republicans occupied for almost 30 years.

Whitney is running on the quality of his ideas, which, he says, are better than those of Blagojevich and Topinka — and more voters are starting to believe him.

In a Wall Street Journal/Zogby poll published last week, 11.3 percent of voters favored the Green candidate, marking the first time Whitney has broken the double-digit threshold. It also means that Whitney could be the spoiler.

Conventional thinking considers a vote for a third-party candidate a vote wasted, but there’s another prize to be considered: If Whitney garners at least 5 percent of the vote in November, the Green Party will get established-party status in Illinois. That would be a huge breakthrough, particularly in a major state such as Illinois, and would be sure to change the dynamic of future statewide races.

Whitney says that’s why he’s urging voters not to choose “the lesser of two evils — if you can even tell who that is.”

Nobody would call Whitney a political rock star.

He is sincere and personable but not immediately magnetic. When he speaks, it’s without Blagojevich’s polished, confident delivery or Topinka’s brassiness.

Not even his hair is as exciting as Rod’s helmet or Judy’s carrot top.

Born in Bridgeport, Conn., Whitney went to college at the Illini’s Big 10 rival Michigan State University, then worked as a freelance journalist in California before a “midlife reawakening” took him and his wife, Paula Bradshaw, to Carbondale and the Southern Illinois University School of Law in 1993.

Whitney joined the Green Party around the time he graduated from law school, in 1996, when it was known as the Association of State Green Parties. Its current incarnation, the Green Party of the United States, was formed in 2001.

Despite never having held office, Whitney has already scored a few victories for the party.

In 2002, he ran against incumbent Republican state Rep. Mike Bost for his 115th House District seat. Bost held on easily, but Whitney did win 6 percent of the vote, establishing the Greens in the 115th.

Now, at the very least, Whitney can do the same thing for the state Greens, who are running their first slate of candidates this year.

Rounding out the Green slate are David Black for attorney general, Dan Rodriguez Schlorff for treasurer, Julie Samuels for lieutenant governor, Alicia Snyder for comptroller, and Karen Young for secretary of state.

Getting 5 percent of the vote would save the Green Party the cost, and energy, required to collect 25,000 voter signatures — 20,000 more than the Democrats and Republicans need — to have ballot access the next time around.

Most doubted that the Greens would be able to field a full slate this year for the simple reason that no third party has ever accomplished the feat in Illinois.

Making matters worse was the inevitability that the major parties would object to the Greens’ petition, which contained 39,000 signatures, and the cost of defending the petitions against such a challenge.

On Aug. 31, the Illinois State Board of Elections voted unanimously to certify the Green Party’s petitions, despite a formal objection that, Whitney says, included a challenge of his own signature.

That was the easy part.

When the state elections board certified the Green Party’s petitions, Whitney’s campaign fund contained $860.11. At the same time, Blagojevich had $12.5 million in his coffers, Topinka $1.5 million. Since July 1, Whitney has raised about $21,000.

It’s been difficult for Whitney to get out his message, which he adapted from the Green Party’s “four pillars”: grassroots democracy, social justice, ecological wisdom, and nonviolence.

Whitney says that although his campaign is working on producing a television ad, there isn’t enough money to air it in any of the state’s major TV markets.

That’s why he wants to cap campaign contributions at $500 — that way, candidates won’t be able to run attack ads “that we’re all sick of anyway.”

Asked why he wants to be governor, and not why he thinks he’d be better than the major-party candidates, Whitney says:

“You can’t separate them, in a sense, because I have devoted most of my adult life to the cause of progressive politics.

“I really am interested in being a public servant, and the times demand that we make some pretty substantial changes — energy, education, the fallout from a disastrous war. With Green politics, we can hopefully do better.”

As he campaigns, Whitney is making education-funding reform the centerpiece of his platform.

Whereas Topinka and Blagojevich have proposed leaning on state-sanctioned gambling to provide more money for schools, Whitney calls these ideas hidden taxes on the poor.

He’s promoting House Bill 750, legislation sponsored by Democratic legislators that has remained in the House rules committee for more than a year. The bill would swap higher income taxes for lower property taxes and would pump about $9 billion into education.

Opponents of HB750 call it a tax increase, but the Green Party candidate encourages them to look at the whole package.

Not only would taxpayers save on their property taxes, he says, but the state would also benefit by having a better-educated citizenry, which, Whitney believes, will attract businesses.

Another major theme of Whitney’s campaign is ending the war in Iraq, which, Whitney says, was about the rights of sovereign nations, not whether Iraq’s former president, Saddam Hussein, had weapons of mass destruction.

Although Whitney is the only one among the three candidates appearing on the ballot to make the war a campaign issue, Topinka did tell Illinois Times in February that President George W. Bush’s use of the state’s National Guard was unwise.

Blagojevich, the Democrat, has been silent on the war but, as a congressman, voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

The Green Party is perhaps best known for its advocacy of environmental issues, and for that reason it’s been caricatured as a collection of wide-eyed, granola-munching, longhaired tree-huggers. The stereotype is tough on Greens such as Whitney, who aren’t as far to the left as people might assume.

In addition to supporting environmental cleanup and proposing a “New Deal for Sustainable Energy” — which includes taking steps to fight global warming, weaning the nation off oil, and expanding the use of clean coal — Whitney says that law-abiding citizens should have the right to carry guns.

However, he wants to crack down on illegal gun sales by sending testers to Illinois gun shows.

Whitney hopes that his opposition to gambling and his support of Second Amendment rights, which are traditionally conservative positions, will resonate with independent Republican voters.

Christopher Z. Mooney, a professor of political studies with the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says that Whitney can pull votes from both Topinka and Blagojevich:

“He’s trying to get his 5 percent, and I won’t be surprised if he did it because of the fact that neither one of these alternatives is looking all that great — the campaigns look so awful.”

Mooney doubts that Whitney and the Green Party will score double digits in November, however.

“He should be excited about every percentage point above 5 he gets — anything above that is gravy for them.”

One benefit of not having money for TV ads is that the major-party candidates also can’t yet afford to toss any mud in Whitney’s direction — although without his participation the gap between them might be negligible — and Whitney in turn doesn’t have to defend against their attacks.

Lately Whitney has been getting a little more press coverage, much of it focused on his ideas — and the fact that he’s been shut out of most meetings between Blagojevich and Topinka.

But Whitney badly wants in on a debate.

On Oct. 3, after the only major debate of this election season, Whitney responded to the same questions that had been asked of Topinka and Blagojevich in a nearly empty lecture hall.

Meanwhile, outside, Blagojevich was caught in the middle of a chanting contest between his own supporters and Whitney’s.

Last week, in front of an audience of about three dozen in Fairview Heights, Whitney appeared in his first debate with other people.

Illinois Channel executive director Terry Martin, who moderated Whitney’s solo debate, facilitated the debate between Whitney and a pair of Metro Easters — Mark McCoy and Randy Stufflebeam, the write-in candidates for the Libertarian and Constitution parties, respectively.

Here, Whitney was the star.

The WSJ/Zogby survey showing Whitney with double-digit support had just come out earlier that day. His campaign materials — T-shirts, yard signs, buttons — took up most of a table in the back of the room, and his supporters outnumbered McCoy’s and Stufflebeam’s.

At one point Stufflebeam, whose Constitution Party is more ideologically conservative than the GOP is, recognized the efforts of Whitney and the Green Party.

“I want to thank you for advancing the cause of third parties,” Stufflebeam, a former Marine, told Whitney.

No matter what Whitney thinks of his chances of pulling off an upset of Jesse Ventura proportions, expect him to get body-slammed in November’s general election.

It remains unclear whether Whitney’s inching up in the polls means that more voters are jumping aboard the Whitney bandwagon or they’re just getting sick of what’s turned out to be one of the nastiest — and hollowest, in terms of ideas — Illinois gubernatorial races in recent memory.

“We can win. Springfield cannot be worse off than it is right now with either Rod or Judy,” Whitney says.

Election Day is less than two weeks away, and, if you listen to Whitney’s supporters, the significance of his campaign becomes evident: He represents choice.

“Ugh. Anybody but Hillary,” says one young man, expressing his disenchantment with the Democratic Party.

Kostas Yfantis, a Green running for the Champaign County Board, sums up the most important thing about Whitney’s candidacy: “It feels good to have a candidate you can not feel bad about voting for. Finally, I can vote my conscience.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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