ALBANY, N.Y. — In a country nearly 8,000 miles away from the United States, being a member of the Green Party carries no stigma, no automatic dismissal by the press or pollsters, no brushoff from other parties.
Instead, what set Lynne Serpe apart in New Zealand, where she worked as a national voting reform coordinator, was her American accent. It made her so recognizable she didn’t have to introduce herself on the phone. But it wasn’t just the novelty of being an American that made her an important player in politics.
Serpe said that New Zealand regularly has five political parties at the negotiating table — including the one she belongs to: the Green Party. “And they get things done,” said Serpe, who helped set up instant runoff voting in the island nation and did advocacy for Green Party legislators.
Serpe hopes her work on community initiatives — not her accent — will help her stand out to voters in Queens’ 22nd City Council District as she campaigns as the Green Party candidate to replace Peter Vallone. Serpe is involved in a number of grassroots initiatives, food scrap recycling programs, works as a consultant to the Queens Library and already ran for the seat in 2009, garnering nearly 34 percent of the vote.
But Serpe may be unique among her fellow Green Party candidates. Serpe has deep governmental experience, established a voter base with her previous run, qualified for matching funds from the city’s Campaign Finance Board, and also faces a field of five opponents who could all split the vote. It may be a longshot, but Serpe sees a real numerical path to victory.
“It is a diverse community and I think they are open to a third party,” said Serpe. “As Green Party candidates, we are involved in the community, we are the grassroots, we give people a reason to vote for us everyday.”
The Green Party’s fortunes have shifted since the early 2000s when political scientists wrote essays on Ralph Nader’s impact on the presidential elections, and wondered whether the time of the third party had come.
After that, the Green Party was thrown back into the wilderness. In New York State, the Greens failed to win ballot status by falling short of the 50,000 or more votes required for a gubernatorial candidate in the 2002 and 2006 elections. But things started turning around in 2008 when the economic crisis hit and voters became more sympathetic to the Green’s anti-Wall Street, pro-environment message.
The party saw real results in 2010 when San Francisco-born Green and Socialist Party member Howie Hawkins ran for governor. Unshaven and with an accent some observers have compared to Foghorn Leghorn, Hawkins was included in a gubernatorial debate — and went on to win 50,000 votes and reclaim the Green Party’s place on the ballot.
Greens and political observers attribute Hawkins’ 2010 success to a number of factors — firstly, his major party challengers both had points that alienated their base. Gov. Andrew Cuomo ran a fairly silent campaign but worried some liberals with his conservative fiscal policy; Republican and tea party nominee Carl Paladino was caught up in scandal involving filthy emails, and controversial statements that many saw as blatantly racist.
Hawkins, unburdened by donations from Wall Street, went after them full-force only two years after the 2008 financial meltdown. He pushed for a “Green New Deal” that included a job for every New Yorker, demanded campaign finance reform so that legislators wouldn’t be “bought and sold” and insisted that the state have independent redistricting so that gerrymandering wouldn’t favor incumbents — all major issues for good-government groups.
Almost four years after Hawkins’ success, the Greens are taking advantage of their ballot status by running candidates across the city. They face the kinds of challenges they have always faced — a lack of campaign infrastructure, being ignored by the media, not being invited to debates. But much has also changed about the public’s attitudes toward them.
The reaction of voters when they meet Green Party candidates has also gone from skeptical to hostile to curious.
“When I used to be on the street tabling, people would come up and go on tirades,” said James Lane, the Green Party candidate for New York public advocate. He said a lot of people used to give him the mantra that followed Nader after he ran in the 2000 and 2004 elections: That the Green Party was responsible for eight years of George W. Bush. “But now people are more sympathetic to the Greens,” he said.
That isn’t to say the Greens running for city office are having an easy time this year. They have been shut out of debates, some have declined to apply for matching funds or not been able to raise enough funds to qualify, and many are running on a splintered set of issues. “All of us have day jobs,” said Julia Willebrand, who is running for comptroller. She points out that the party can’t afford to pay for babysitters for candidates who have children.
They are even shut out of intellectual consideration: Several leading city political observers contacted by the Gotham Gazette in recent weeks declined to comment on the Green Party out of disinterest and admitted ignorance.
Greens also face a basic challenge when it comes to the ballot.
New York County Green Party Chair Tom Siracuse said that the ballots are designed in such a way that third party candidates are lumped together, making it easier for voters to make mistakes and invalidate their ballots. Democratic and Republican candidates, meanwhile, have the top two columns on the ballot, making their candidate’s affiliation and position very easy to find.
“It’s a huge disadvantage,” Siracuse said. “We are going to lose a lot of votes. It is very easy for those who want to vote for third parties to make a mistake but Democrats and Republicans have the first two columns. It makes it easy for them to vote straight down the line.”
The city’s Board of Elections has said that the number of mayoral candidates makes it impossible to sort the ballot in in such a way that each party has a distinct line without using a second page. Siracuse has a solution to that. “Just use a second page,” he said. “It has been done in other states!”
Further complicating matters for the Green Party is that unlike other third parties — such as the Conservative and Working Families parties — it hasn’t translated cross endorsements into power. Instead, they still function mostly as a party of idealists with grassroots, do-it-yourself candidates who are more concerned with issues than they are with winning.
Earlier this year, the Greens’ mayoral candidate, Tony Gronowicz, stormed the stage of a mayoral forum in which 10 other candidates were participating. Gronowicz had not been invited to participate. He grabbed the microphone, shouting, “I’m on the ballot, don’t take the microphone. Don’t get violent with me.” He was dragged away and arrested.
Gronowicz is running on a platform that calls for a living wage, affordable housing, universal healthcare and bringing back free college education to all city residents at City University of New York. He has also advocating rent control for small businesses, wants to end mayoral control of schools and would end stop-and-frisk and all profiling tactics the NYPD use.
Groncowicz, like other third party candidates, isn’t even included in the polls.
Other candidates have had more success but still face an uphill battle.
Lane is the only person standing between Letitia James and the public advocate’s office. Most assume that James’ win is a formality. But Lane got some attention when his campaign called for Letitia James to avoid a runoff election with Sen. Daniel Squadron by facing him in the general election on her Working Families Party line.
Lane said that Letitia James could have saved taxpayers millions of dollars by abandoning the Democratic line (the city says the runoff cost $13 million); his view was shared by a number of good government groups. “I understand that she wants to win but what does that money mean to the city?” asked Lane.
Lane’s concern about the city’s finances may have handicapped his own campaign. Lane decided not to apply for matching funds.
“We have to close schools and there isn’t enough money for teachers but when it comes to elections they have all the money in the world,” he said.
Lane has also heard from fellow Greens that they are concerned that he is missing a real opportunity to challenge James. That is because he is focused on an issue that is very personal to him — adoptee rights — rather than on the standard Green issues like the environment, transparency and election reforms.
Raised in Harlem, Lane lost both his parents when he was 23 years old to complications from diabetes and cancer. It was only after opening their safety deposit box that he found out he was adopted. Now he wants adoptees to be able to find out who their parents are and reconnect with them — and feels it is a civil rights issue that the next public advocate should champion.
Lane knows the issue may not be a winner for the race but he says he wants to build support around the issue. “No one else is talking about this right now. The Greens didn’t even have a position on this,” said Lane. “It is time to start building a base around adoptee rights.”
Even if he is willing to stake his run on a decidedly unpopular platform, it doesn’t mean Lane has given up on being public advocate. He says one of the themes throughout this election cycle has been that the public advocate is a small, understaffed office with little real power. But Lane says it is the perfect office for the Green Party.
“I love being under budget, understaffed,” he said. “It is great because I can show you what I can do. I don’t want to hire more people. I want to work with community groups and advocates and use the office to organize people and actually listen to them.”
Julia Williebrand has run for six different offices and got double the votes Hawkins did in 2010 in her bid for state comptroller. Now, in her bid for city comptroller, Willebrand says it has been hard to get traction in the city where the media that has been obsessed with scandal and the horse race rather than issues. She also decries the role of money in elections.
“The idea that Anthony Weiner can take old money he raised for another campaign and get matching funds and I can’t be in a debate because I can’t dedicate my life to fundraising is sickening,” said Willebrand, referring to the $4.5 million that Weiner had going into the Democratic primary election for mayor.
Willebrand proposed taking municipal funds out of Wall Street banks and creating a bank of New York so that New Yorkers can benefit from interest generated by loans. She also says she would create an “Office of Public Outrage” to focus on ways that the city budget can save taxpayers money.
In a lot of ways, all three of these Green candidates — Willebrand, Lane and Serpe — support the ideas of good government reformers.
For instance, they are all in favor of instant runoff voting to replace the city’s current system that is expensive and leads to very low turnout. The Greens don’t accept corporate donations and they want major reform to the campaign finance system. “We don’t take $20,000 donations from corporations. I would take a $20 donation but that doesn't make me beholden to anyone,” Siracuse said. “That is why you don’t see Greens involved in all this scandal.”
And yet not having money and a campaign structure means the Greens aren’t treated seriously by the media and can’t get their message across.
“The big problem is we cannot get our message out to the mass media,” said Siracuse. “We have been on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network, but who watches it? Who knows it exists?”
Errol Louis, of NY1’s Inside City Hall, recently dedicated a program to third-party candidates, including Greens. But Siracuse said 20 minutes to talk about the issues does not stack up to months of “talking about the Democrat’s and Republican’s families, their haircuts.” Siracuse said he doubts those third-party candidates will ever be interviewed again during this election.
Perhaps the largest challenge facing the Greens is voter dissatisfaction in the political process in general. “There is more disgust with both parties,” said Siracuse. “But it turns into negative cynicism. It turns into ‘a pox on all their houses’ and they just aren't going to vote.”