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Thursday, March 11, 2004 03:29 am

Uphill battle

As the Green Party candidate in 2000, Ralph Nader won nearly three million votes. With Nader and the Greens going their separate ways this year, neither is likely to do as well.

When Ralph Nader decided to go it alone in his race for president, he left the Green Party scrambling for a candidate to help build its national profile. It hasn't been easy, as party members seemed sharply divided about what strategy to pursue this year.

Back in 2000, running as the Green Party candidate, Nader garnered nearly three million votes nationally, or 2.7 percent, and more than 103,000 votes in Illinois, or 2.2 percent. For better or worse, Nader and the Greens played a decisive role in the outcome of the national election.

While the consumer activist helped put the Greens on the map, the fledgling third party still struggles for membership and recognition. Without a high-profile candidate this time, state-level Green organizations, including the 520-member Illinois Green Party, will have to make do with grassroots organizing. But in that effort, the Greens, like Nader himself, face an uphill battle.

But first, the how and why of Nader's decision:

Nader, who announced Feb. 22 he was mounting an independent run for president, did not return phone calls for this story. According to published reports, Nader has said ballot-access deadlines were a factor in his decision not to wait for a Green endorsement. Illinois, for example, requires 25,000 signatures by June 21 for the November ballot, but the national Green Party nominating convention begins June 23.Other states also have filing deadlines in the late spring or early summer. By running as an independent, Nader can begin collecting qualifying signatures now -- and not wait for a Green endorsement.

But even if the Greens aren't Nader's party, that doesn't mean he can't still be the Greens' candidate. In fact, there are still some members who are looking to endorse him in what is informally referred to as the "draft Nader" campaign, though that position isn't popular.

Jim Senyszyn, a Green Party member from Peoria, believes this strategy may split the party irreparably. "I think it's a little calculated," he says. "I think there might be factions in the party that might want to sabotage things."

The Green Party has other options. At the state party's convention, held in Springfield late last month, David Cobb, a lawyer who managed Nader's 2000 campaign in Texas, received the highest number of Illinois delegate votes. Cobb was one of seven possible choices for presidential nominees, including "no candidate" and "uncommitted." At the same time, the Illinois Greens picked Peter Camejo, who ran for California governor during last year's recall election, as the name that will appear on Illinois petitions beginning March 22.

"Under state law, we're not really collecting signatures for a particular person, we're collecting for the party," said Illinois Green Party executive committee member Phil Huckelberry. "So, once you get the petitions signed, if someone else is selected [as the presidential candidate], you can replace the name on the ballot."

With so much noise around potential nominees, and so much other work to do, there is some question as to whether the Greens should run candidates at all. Some Greens say defeating President Bush is their top priority, and they don't want a repeat of 2000, when their party's candidate was blamed for tipping key states like Florida in Bush's favor.

"I was really fence-sitting on that," says Lee Hartman, secretary of the Shawnee Green Party in Jackson County. "There's the spoiler argument, but there's also the question of whether to spend our energies that way. Running campaigns lets people know that there is this option."

To that end, the Illinois Greens are continuing their fight for ballot access. Its latest effort takes the form of actively rallying around HB 4011. The bill, introduced in the state House in January, would allow municipalities to adopt an instant run-off voting procedure for nonpartisan city offices, such as mayor, city clerk, city treasurer, and city councilman or alderman. Voters would then have the option of choosing first-, second- and third-choice candidates.

"With this bill, if your first preference doesn't win, the votes get allocated to the next preference," Senyszyn says, "so you don't have a whole new, expensive runoff campaign."

It would also eliminate the "spoiler" effect Nader is so often accused of creating, as voters could then vote for third-party candidates along with Democrats or Republicans.

The Greens are also trying to qualify as a major party in the state. To do that, the party must get enough petition signatures to equal 5 percent of the vote to be allowed in future primaries.

But that won't be easy. Hartman says that getting petition signatures is hard for a small group spread out over areas with less population density than major cities like Chicago.

"This is a rural district," he says. "Traveling around to get signatures is less efficient."

Meanwhile, the Illinois Greens must meet other challenges of organizing in far-flung regions of the state. Even getting meetings together can be a difficult task

"It's not so easy," Senyszyn says. "The 'meet-ups' were big with the [Howard] Dean campaign. There are plenty of house parties in the Chicago area. But it's easier said than done, out here."

Hartman suggests, however, the bigger problem is that the party is less recognized downstate than in places like Chicago. For that reason alone, he says, the party must continue to run candidates in local, state and federal elections.

"We need to find ways to make our existence known," says Hartman. "We knock on doors and say 'Green Party,' and people say, 'Oh yeah. Greenpeace, right?'"

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