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Wednesday, July 16, 2008 01:15 pm

The Green dream

Growing political party aims to gain nationally what it won in Illinois in 2006


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From the stage of the Chicago Symphony Center, Rich Whitney struggles to regain control of the more than 500 delegates and proxies to the Green Party's national convention.

At issue is one item contained within the party's proposed platform that calls for temporary-worker programs for immigrants who hold jobs in the U.S. but do not want to forfeit citizenship in their home countries — language that some in attendance feel is too favorable to guest-worker programs.

"A guest-worker program is nothing but legalized slavery — and the Green Party is against slavery!" screeches Latino Caucus member CeCe Wheeler, to rumbling applause.

Whitney, the Illinois Green Party's gubernatorial candidate in 2006, scolds the dissenters: "Where was this input during all the months of planning by the platform committee?" he asks amid chants of "No, No, No!"

Sangamon County Green Party chairman Marc Sanson, standing in the back of the room, quips: "I knew there was a reason I didn't sign up to be a delegate this year."

The flare-up catches everyone off guard, including the orange-armband-wearing peacekeepers designated to keep fellow Greens from bum-rushing the podium, which Georgia Green Hugh Esco tries to do in an effort to make a point of clarification before he's stopped by a couple of peacekeepers and party co-chair Phil Huckleberry of Illinois.

The declaration on the printed convention schedule — "9:45: Adoption of 2008 Party Platform" — proves premature. In the end, delegates overwhelmingly reject the proposal, which means an automatic reversion to the previous platform, adopted in 2004.

Minutes later, a woman calling herself Isis, who has the word "PEACE" scrawled down her arm in black marker and who professes to be seeking the party's presidential nomination, begins to repeatedly disrupt the proceedings, demanding to read a statement. When officials ignore her, she storms from the auditorium, grumbling about unfair bureaucracy.

So much for the notion of the Greens as the party of peace and love. Maybe that's a good thing for them.

Despite already having more than 200 local offices across the country and notwithstanding small victories in states such as Illinois, where they secured ballot access in 2006, the Green Party would like very badly to shatter stereotypes of Greens as undisciplined leftists and establish themselves as a major force in American national politics.

They draw inspiration in part from Green parties in other parts of the world, particularly parliamentary bodies in Europe, where other parties routinely must seek alliances with Greens: government by coalition, in other words.

In addition to morning yoga and workshops on such progressive topics as LGBT and peace and social-justice issues, stopping war, and dismantling the military-industrial complex at this year's convention, traditional sessions on campaign fundraising, messaging, and strategy, as well as viral marketing, were being offered. And instead of holding the annual meeting in a muddy field or other low-cost venue, the Greens opted for the opulent environs of downtown Chicago's historic Palmer House Hilton and the Chicago Symphony Center.

But nowhere is the U.S. Green Party's desire for legitimacy more evident than in its selection of Cynthia McKinney — the ex-Democratic U.S. Rep. from Georgia, who famously asked what the administration of George W. Bush knew about the possibility of a terrorist attack before Sept. 11, 2001, and when they knew it — as their banner-carrier.

Unlike previous Green Party picks — consumer advocate and perennial campaigner Ralph Nader in 2000 and Texas activist/attorney David Cobb in 2004 — McKinney has actually won elections.

After serving seven terms in Congress, McKinney says, she decided to jump ship when the Democrats came into power in 2006. She explains the switch: "Nowhere in the Congressional Democratic agenda for their first 100 days in the majority was there any mention of an investigation into the Pentagon's loss of $2.3 billion, nor was there any plan to get that money back for jobs, health care, education, and for veterans. And instead of articles of impeachment to hold the criminals accountable, impeachment was taken off the table."

On capturing the 2008 nomination on the first ballot, with 313 of 532 votes cast, McKinney danced the Electric Slide to John Lennon's "Power to the People," which is also her campaign slogan. Her parents, Leola and Billy McKinney joined their daughter onstage as she introduced them as two of the Green Party's newest members. Billy McKinney served in the Georgia State Assembly as a Democrat.

Days before the convention got under way, McKinney tapped 35-year-old Rosa Clemente, a hip-hop activist, journalist, and community organizer, as her running mate, the third time in a row that a woman has been picked for the No. 2 slot on the Green Party ticket. Clemente, who was born in the Bronx and now lives in Charlotte, N.C., calls on members of her hip-hop generation to become politically involved and, of course, join the Green Party.

"We can lead the nation with a microphone. Hip-hop has always been that mic, but now the Green Party can be the power that turns up the volume of that microphone — and blow the speakers out," Clemente told the crowd during her acceptance speech.

McKinney, Clemente, and the party faithful deny that they're spoilers who will take votes from the more progressive of the two major-party candidates; instead, they say they have trouble distinguishing between Democrats and Republicans on important issues. But although McKinney pays lip service to the idea that she could overtake U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, her goal is to win at least 5 percent of the national vote, which would establish the Green Party nationally, making it eligible for federal matching grants in future elections.

Breaking through that canopy will be anything but a walk in the park.

Besides having to contend with the war chests of the major-party candidates, the Green Party, which was only established formally in 2001, also lacks a prominent central leader, eschewing such an arrangement for leadership by a steering committee comprisingseven co-chairs.

Even in the digital age — news organizations have long cited the constraints of newspaper and the airwaves as the primary reason for shunning third parties — the mainstream media remains largely uninterested in the Greens or any other fringe party. With the exception of C-SPAN, which aired Saturday's events at the symphony hall, no major national media outlets covered the convention.

For now, the Greens understand that their best chance for electoral success lies in small-town mayoral races and in elections for city councils and commissions. For example, in Illinois, one of 21 states with a standing Green Party ballot, more than 30 individuals have signed up to vie for seats in Congress, the state Legislature, and county boards.

Rita Maniotis, a Green running in Illinois' 21st House District who attended the convention, says vital Illinois issues such as education-funding reform, oversight of nuclear reactors (of which Illinois has more than any other state), and examination of the link between autism and flu vaccine have been put off in Springfield for too long.

"Very few houses need cleaning more than mine," she jokes, "but one of them is the Illinois Statehouse."

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


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