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Growing the Greens: Report from the National Convention

Chris Anderson
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004

As Democrats and Republicans prepare to unveil their rotating stages at this summer’s media circus in Boston and New York, a different scenario was playing out this past June 23-28 on the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where the Green Party held its national convention.

Green Party members arrived for their Presidential nominating convention with a large bloc of uncommitted delegates, a contested nomination, and rumors of dissent in the air. In brief: as far as political conventions go, this four-day exercise in grassroots democracy was the real deal. When the smoke cleared on June 27, the party’s nomination of Texas-born lawyer David Cobb may have done a great deal not only to set the future direction of the Green Party, but will have a major impact on the 2004 Presidential race as well.

Despite the democratic energy on display in Milwaukee’s sparkling Midwest America Convention Center, some critics on the political left have greeted the notion of a 2004 Green presidential run with rage and dismay. Nominating two-time Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader would be “the greatest mistake made by the left in many years,” wrote ex-Green Joel Kovelo only days before the confab.

As used as they are to fending off charges that they cost Democrat Al Gore the presidency (“Al Gore cost himself the presidency,” is the inevitable retort), the memory of the 2000 election cast a long shadow over the convention. Just underneath the weekend’s idealistic discussions of grassroots democracy and progressive change, it was hard to avoid a few looming questions: how bad has the presidency of George W. Bush actually been? What should be done about it? These questions will help shape the agenda of the American left for at least the next five months, and for better or for worse, it was the Greens in Milwaukee who had to wrestle with them first.

Behind the scenes

Going into the Milwaukee convention, the leading candidates for the Green presidential nomination included two-time Green candidate and consumer advocate Ralph Nader and progressive lawyer David Cobb. By Saturday morning, two major camps within the Green Party had emerged. The first sought to nominate Cobb outright; the second looked to support Nader by nominating “no candidate” but endorsing both Cobb and Nader, a move that would allow the individual state parties to decide which of the two men to place on the Green Party ballot line.

Cobb, a native Texan, manager of an ethical investment firm, and long-time Party member, has consistently called himself the “grassroots” Green candidate, drawing a distinction between his candidacy and the more celebrity-oriented run of Ralph Nader Controversially, though, Cobb has also at times advocated a “safe state” strategy which would see him actively campaign in the 40 or so states considered a lock for either Bush or Kerry, while keeping a lower profile in the remaining “battleground” areas.

“Our plan is simple,” Cobb said in a written statement. “Build the Green Party and go where Green members want us to go. We do not believe that helping reelect George Bush helps build the Green party, and we will work out the details with Greens in each state.” Cobb came into the convention with a plurality of Green delegates – 240.5 out of the 746 total – but lacked the outright majority needed to win.

Ralph Nader, for his part, gave mixed signals about the degree to which he plans to actively campaign in battleground states, as well as the actual value of a Green Party endorsement. Explicitly rejecting the Greens to run as an independent, Nader nonetheless made the politically savvy decision to pick well-known Green and fellow candidate Peter Camejo as his running mate only days before the convention got underway.

Camejo’s Green constituency, combined with Nader’s wide-ranging national support, would represent a formidable force on the convention floor. “Nader’s choice of Camejo for his V.P. was a huge decision,” said Gloria Mattera, co-chair of the Green Party of New York State. “It helped a lot of people move back towards his candidacy.” “Selecting Peter is a big gesture of love from Ralph for the Green Party,” agreed Linda Schade, a Maryland delegate and Nader supporter on Thursday.

Disputes about the impact of a Green run on the 2004 Presidential race, as well as the merits of Cobb’s more localized campaign strategy, echoed around the Hyatt’s hallways and small meeting rooms as nomination day approached. Ted Glick, a New Jersey delegate and self-described member of the Cobb team, said “a lot of us feel that letting Ralph Nader run for President again in 2004 could be suicide for the Green Party, and could really alienate a lot of the progressive constituencies that we need to eventually win over from the Democrats.”

Others disagreed. “Nader is the whole reason I got involved with the Greens in the first place,” said James Lane, a delegate from Brooklyn and one of the few African-Americans attending the four-day convention. “I never even voted until 2000, and Nader was the only reason I voted at all.” “If Cobb wins the nomination the mass-media will drop the Green party like a hot potato and keep chasing after Nader,” added Mattera. “You can’t build a political party if no one knows you’re around.”

“Garnering mass media attention in the 2004 isn’t the same thing as building the Green Party,” responded Glick. “We need to have a candidate and leader who will continue to support this party after November 2nd, and there’s no indication so far that Ralph is going to do that. You can’t separate out our long-term ability to build this party from the short-term effort to get Bush out.”

“No single individual has done more to grow the Green Party than Ralph Nader,” said David Cobb on Friday. “But the Green Party is bigger than Ralph Nader.”

Democracy in action

“This is What Democracy Looks Like,” read the brochures for this year’s Green Party Convention, and you didn’t have to go very far to find the democracy in Milwaukee this weekend. On June 25, the day before the party would select a presidential candidate, breakout rooms at the Hyatt Regency hotel bustled with meetings on media reform, universal health care, green urbanism, and American foreign policy. Outside the meetings, the sound of animated and passionate conversation between delegates filled the sterile hallways of the hotel.

A presidential candidates debate on June 24 reinforced the feeling of hyperkinetic democracy. The event was a raucous, standing room only affair, with the room evenly divided between supporters of Nader-Camejo and Cobb. Cobb’s statement that he encouraged voters in “swing states vote with their conscience” elicited a heated response from the crowd. Peter Camejo’s contention that “I want to debate Dick Cheney,” a sure-fire applause line in election years past, provoked almost as many boos and catcalls as it did cheers.

Underneath the dialogue, discussion, and passion, however, lurked several issues that served to highlight the tensions between grassroots democracy and political power. Throughout the convention, Nader supporters argued that the floor nomination rules were biased against them, and at least one attempt to rewrite them in committee prior to Saturday failed by a two-thirds margin. At the same time, a member of a pro-Democrat Green group called “Greens for Kerry” alleged that Green Party organizers denied her table at the convention. “I’m shocked that my own party would deny our campaign access to the convention,” said Greens for Kerry Founder Sarah Newman. (A convention spokesperson later denied that the Party ever refused the Newman’s request.)

As the hour to pick a nominee drew near, the tension between democratic commitment and political necessity would continue to grow.

Floor fight

In many ways, the Saturday nomination fight began a few hours early, launched by an energetic Nader-Camejo Campaign Rally inside the Midwest Convention Center on the evening of Friday the 25th. A few hundred people attended the rally, many of them waving yellow and green Nader signs in the air. Speakers at the rally included New Paltz Mayor Jason West, who gained fame for his acts of civil disobedience in support of gay marriage this past spring. Nader addressed the rally by speakerphone, and was interrupted multiple times by rapturous roars and chants of “Nader, Nader!” The sound of the consumer advocate’s disembodied voice urging his supporters forward seemed, in many ways, to capture as well as anything the contradictions of this convention.

As Saturday dawned, the suspense remained. Which candidate would garner the 385 delegates needed for victory? Cobb? Nader? No one? The first round of voting began at 10am and ended at 1:30pm with no single candidate garnering the majority needed to win, though Cobb quickly emerged as the clear front runner with 308 votes. Throughout the first round, representatives of the various states used their reporting platform to advance various local progressive causes; the speaker from the District of Columbia, for example, called DC the “last land based colony in the United States,” eliciting a lengthy chant of “Free DC” from the Greens assembled on the floor. The delegates broke for lunch, reconvening at 2:30 for a second and, it turned out, decisive round of voting.

Once again, the assembled states and delegates submitted their votes. This round, rather than being committed to the nominee that their state had selected during its own Green Party convention weeks or months earlier, delegates were “freed” and able to vote their conscience. When the second ended at approximately 6:30pm Cobb emerged the clear winner, tallying 408 votes, as compared to the 308 votes for “no candidate.”

A roar went up from the Cobb supporters assembled on the floor. For the first time in their history, the Green Party had nominated a fellow Green for President. Nader’s run had been rejected, though not without a fight. Although he went out of his way to praise Nader in his acceptance speech, Cobb later told reporters that the party “has gotten out from under the shadow of a man who has probably cast a larger shadow than any other living American.”

Nevertheless, a number of questions still remained unanswered as the weekend in Milwaukee drew to a close. What impact will Ralph Nader have on the larger Presidential race, now that he no longer stands to gain the type of ballot access that a Green endorsement would provide? How extensively will Cobb campaign in so-called “swing states”? With Ralph Nader, the man most credited for drawing the Green Party into the political spotlight sidelined, can the Greens continue to grow?

“The Greens decided to back someone else,” concluded a Nader spokesman. “They won’t know until election day whether that decision is going to pay off.” For that matter, neither will George W. Bush or John Kerry.

Additional reporting by Marc Frucht (Milwaukee Indymedia) and, the New Spark Media collective.