The Founding U.S. Green Platform and First Presidential Campaign

By Steven J Schmidt – Presented to the German Historical Institute Conference in Washington DC
“The Origins of Green Parties in Global Perspective”
– May 26, 2004
U.S. Greens 1984–94

The first decade of Green political party formation in the U.S., 1984–1994, was as tumultuous as it was promising. Green environmentalism and social activism from the 1960s and 1970s had produced a wellspring of support for green causes. Social reform activists explored links between environmental/economic sustainability and social justice. Deep ecology, bioregionalism and local community organizing, organic agriculture and alternative development, clean air and energy independence were among many branches of green political thought that flourished. Drawing on many threads of “green” organizing to build a “Green” political party was a natural progression that began in the late 1980s.

The “Rainbow Coalition” of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign was, as some described it, the beginning of current Green national electoral efforts that looked to bring together a broad-based coalition of social justice and environmental voters. Jerry Brown’s 1992 “We the People/Take Back America” campaign adopted many themes from the Rainbow platform and ran a historically significant and competitive race against Bill Clinton, finishing a close second after winning the Connecticut primary but losing in New York after Governor Brown chose Jesse Jackson to be his vice presidential running mate.

Greens were a prominent part of the Brown campaign, helping to draft the campaign’s platform and shaping much of the campaign’s effort to reach out and pull together a broad coalition that would substantially impact policy at the federal, state and local levels. The reform platform of the Brown campaign was presented at the Democratic Party platform hearings but was quickly set aside by the Democratic Party,¹ which, under the influence of the assurgent Democratic Leadership Council, chose publicly to take the party to the right and appeal to Reagan Democrats. The rightward slide of the Democratic Party and subsequent rise of Republican Party successes in federal, state, and local races can be traced to the 1992 shift in direction away from the traditional grassroots policy goals of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.²

One of the principal goals of the Brown campaign focused on energizing a broad base of electoral support among progressives, fiscal liberals and forward-leaning conservatives. The platform envisioned many issue- and policy-oriented coalitions forming, such as a “blue-green” alliance that the campaign worked to build between blue-collar labor supporters and environmentalist/community activists around common-ground issues such as the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Many greens who were not active in the electoral arena began to glimpse the potential of a Green political party that would draw together many shades of green to form a powerful influence and direct the growing current of Green activism, electoral efforts and organizing.

At the national level, a nascent Green party organization, The Greens/Green Party USA (G/GPUSA) had only about 1,000 dues-paying members by 1993–94. Support for the G/GPUSA was limited by its anti-electoral tendencies and organizational structure, process and direction, which took a line ascribed to “Left-Green” vanguardism and rejection of political party formations. The G/GPUSA organization was formally established at a 1992 meeting at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN, after a controversial vote the previous year at a Green national gathering in Elkins, WV. The organization’s structure, as described in many commentaries, was the product of prolonged and often acrimonious struggles to make decisions, bylaws and rules.

The G/GPUSA’s ideological underpinnings were memorialized in the minutes of the 1992 meeting establishing the organization name, bylaws and working guidelines. Left-Green Network proposals put forward by Charlie Betz, Don Fitz and Howie Hawkins were adopted by attendees, few of whom supported electoral efforts. A dues-paying membership organization, where voting was limited under a structure of rules, mandates and other strictures, became known as the G/GPUSA model. Central to the organizing model was a belief that dues-paying activist members would, in effect, be the grassroots of the organization and would oversee state Green parties, candidates and campaigns. The G/GPUSA organization appealed to few Greens and quickly became insular and acrimonious. Its meetings were infamous for strident disagreement, member blocking under consensus rules and list and voting irregularities. By the mid-1990s the G/GPUSA had shrunk to a core group of members, locals and a few affiliated state Green parties.

Most U.S. Greens chose not to join the organization, pay dues or agree to adhere to its bylaws/rules and working guidelines. The G/GPUSA rules, often described as Byzantine, maze-like or labyrinthine, were intrusive, overarching, complicated and considered by many to be unworkable. Activist members were given extraordinary oversight powers and could require explicit affirmations from candidates. Activists could order state parties and each other into dispute resolution. Grievance tribunals came and went. Mandates were de rigueur, as was binding mediation under threat of sanction. Any active member of the party could mount a grievance and demand accountability of candidates/campaigns/state parties or Green Party officeholders and representatives. Activist members defined themselves as the grassroots philosophically, and the rules/bylaws/working guidelines and practices of the G/GPUSA were extensions of this core organizational belief.

A G/GPUSA program that described itself in its opening statement as a manifesto of the Green movement was adopted. A mélange of issues with imperative demands was addressed, with little attention given to local governance or domestic or foreign policy. Electoral-oriented Greens recognized that the G/GPUSA program was not intended to be a platform on which Green political campaigns could effectively run. The program was much more an expression of the ideological goals of numerous factions within the G/GPUSA. Activist members of the G/GPUSA often expressed disfavor toward policies referred to as reform or liberal. Greens seeking to run for office would regularly encounter activist members who held that candidates must report to activist members as a model of grassroots democracy. The members’ oversight model produced few candidates or campaigns.

Locals, often composed of a few vocal, active, dues-paying Greens, spoke of bottom-up democracy. Core G/GPUSA members who advocated for municipalism blocked statewide and national campaigns as ideologically incorrect. As a result, most Green campaigns from 1992 to 1996 were run separately from the G/GPUSA organization (although these campaigns were subsequently claimed by G/GPUSA in a failed Federal Election Committee (FEC) filing [Sept. 1996] for national committee status).

By late 1994 the contradictions and failures of the G/GPUSA model were becoming apparent to a wide cross-section of U.S. Greens. Individual state parties and Greens took on the challenge of envisioning and building a viable Green party distinct from the machinations and failures of the G/GPUSA. The New Mexico Green Party was a leader in this effort, as were Maine, California, Hawaii, Alaska and other state parties. In his books The Greens and Politics of Transformation and Against All Odds, John Rensenbrink says the Green Politics Network was established as an organization with an alternative vision to that of G/GPUSA.

A federation of state Green parties was conceived in the 1990s as an inclusive, far-reaching way to build a U.S. Green Party. Maine advanced the concept of a triad model to combine “electoral, educational and movement” work. After the 1992 G/GPUSA decision in Minnesota, Rensenbrink and many others began talking about a different vision and definition, hoping to create a Green political formation offering Green values and positions.

The challenge was to construct a successful model on which to build a growing, vital, U.S. Green Party. A model of party building would come from an unlikely place: a small state in the hinterlands far from centers of power. In 1994 in Santa Fe, named after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the land and animals, the New Mexico Green Party proposed a statewide slate of Green candidates who would run a “serious, credible” campaign based on their founding platform. The campaign became one of the most successful independent, third-party efforts in the United States in nearly four decades and became a model for the national Green “40 State Organizing Effort” launched in December 1994, which led to the founding of the national Green platform and first presidential campaign in 1996.

New Beginnings

A meeting in California between New Mexican Green Steve Schmidt and California Greens Mike Feinstein and Greg Jan set in motion a nationwide organizing effort by Greens in 1995–96. The California Green Party was the largest Green state party, and Schmidt carried with him a resolution passed by the New Mexico Green Council after the November 1994 election calling on California to make its 1996 primary ballot line available to a Green presidential candidate. This resolution was a core element of a national effort to place a Green presidential and vice presidential candidate on 40 state ballots.

The New Mexico campaign convinced Schmidt that the “serious, credible, platform-based” model could be exported. Schmidt, who had been a senior adviser in the 1992 Brown campaign and key participant in drafting the platform, spoke of ballot access laws as impediments to third parties but pointed out that he and Roberto Mondragon received 11 percent of the general election vote in their campaign for governor/lieutenant governor and that the New Mexico Green Party as a result had gained ballot standing as a major party, the first minor party in New Mexico’s history to achieve this.

The 40-state organizing proposal drafted by Schmidt and supported by New Mexico Greens set out a party-building model focused on creating a “serious, credible, platform-based” presidential campaign; a presidential nominating convention to be held in California; and a plan to “build the Green party” at the state and local levels through ballot access and petitioning drives. The presidential campaign would be a catalyst in building the party across states and localities. If motivated Greens could be contacted and mobilized, the 40-state effort would then reach out to environmentalists, social justice activists, labor, students, community groups, small- and mid-sized business—a broad coalition like that seen in the Jackson and Brown campaigns. The “take back America” message spoke to independents, who had come to number nearly 30 percent of the American electorate. Schmidt spoke of drafting a platform that would stand in opposition to militaristic, “one-party Democrat-Republican hegemony” and interject “ideals and ideas” in 1996 that would not otherwise be in the national debate.

Greens began the work of identifying and polling contacts in every state to assess support for the 40-state effort and the new model for building a U.S. Green party nationally and at the state and local levels. In the mid-1990s, shortly after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the Green Party contrasted starkly with the Democratic and Republican parties, which advanced neo-conservative and -liberal positions aimed at furthering globalization and transnational corporate dominance.

In 1994, in a historic shift of political power, a wave of Republican victories led to control of Congress for the first time in 50 years. The Grand Old Party under Speaker Newt Gingrich looked to the South, social conservatism and a renewed military buildup. The “Contract with America” and Reagan-era social and economic agenda prevailed, while the Democrats abandoned long-held policies like the right to universal health insurance and health care. Democrats attempted to step up corporate political contributions even as insurance/health care proposals were devastated by these same contributors. The extent of lobbying and the amount of money contributed were unprecedented.

The Democratic Leadership Council continued to push the Democratic Party to the right in the 1990s attempting to win back “Reagan Democrats” even as the Democrat’s adoption of Republican policies relegated the party to the backbench. Republicans effectively moved to consolidate control of the political agenda as Democratic opposition retreated. The underpinnings of U.S. policy over the decade were set in place as Democrats adopted core Republican Party positions and each party accelerated their outreach to corporate and conservative interests.

“If a voter has a choice between a Republican and a Democrat who acts like a Republican, he'll vote for the Republican every time.” - Harry Truman

Against a background of rightward-shifting U.S. politics, the U.S. Green Party launched a vigorous effort to create an alternative vision to a duopoly of “Republi-crat” politics. It was increasingly evident that a serious challenge to two-party dominance of American politics was needed. If the Green Party was to enter the political arena as a serious, credible challenge to the politics-as-usual, it had become evident that it would first have to confront its own politics.

At the 1995 national Green gathering in Albuquerque, NM, the dissension in the Green Party between the radical, membership-based G/GPUSA organization and state parties like New Mexico and California reached a tipping point when a G/GPUSA caucus met in an attempt to ‘nominate’ Mumia Abu Jamal, a convicted felon on death row. The G/GPUSA members attempt to mandate that state parties place Mumia’s name on their respective state ballots in 1996 as the nominee of the G/GPUSA was defeated.

The bylaws/rules of the G/GPUSA were subsequently challenged and, after the New Mexico gathering, never again would the G/GPUSA successfully act as if it were the legitimate national Green Party. Claims the organization made the following year to the Federal Election Commission were set aside. The 1995 split in the Green Party between those who wanted a nomination process by state parties according to election laws, with serious, credible candidates legally able and willing to run, set the stage for the 1996 presidential campaign and formation of the Association of State Green Parties.

At the 1995 New Mexico gathering in the Great Kiva, a traditional Native American place of reflection and decision, the assembled Greens heard the results of a national survey which strongly supported running a presidential campaign in 1996. The three presenters of the “40-State Organizing Proposal”, Mike Feinstein, Greg Jan and Steven Schmidt, spoke of a short list of potential candidates. They suggested Greens consider Jim Hightower, a well-known Texas populist and nationally respected writer/speaker, labor advocate and radio personality; Delores Huerta, a Latina activist from California who had over several decades, beginning with Caesar Chavez, proven her courage and political capabilities; and Ralph Nader, the incorrigible campaigner for consumer causes who had taken on the biggest corporations and congressional barter in the name of a revitalized civic democracy.

The assembled Greens voted their support of the 40-state effort, and shortly thereafter a series of meetings was held to discuss the national organizing plan. Key would be navigating the intricate and restrictive ballot access laws in each of the states. Richard Winger, the editor of Ballot Access News, became an indispensable resource. Dates and petition requirements were sent to organizers in every state. At the same time, the platform process led by Schmidt commenced in Santa Fe. First consulted were state party platforms; the 1988 “Rainbow” and 1993 “We the People” platforms; historic, constitutional documents speaking to the foundation of American liberty as a revolutionary ideal; civil rights speeches; blue-green alliances; environmental books; and works of groups like the Bioneers. The ad-hoc committee drafting and redacting went online and set up forums for discussion/debate with the assistance of long-time Green and webmaster Cameron Spitzer. Schmidt acquired the domain gp.org and began an extended process to draft a platform that Greens would approve and that would become the foundation of a platform-based 1996 campaign.

The outreach to Hightower, Huerta and Nader was conducted with due speed and in good faith by the 40-state organizers and supporters like Rob Hager in Washington, DC, who almost camped out at Nader’s office in an attempt to convince him of the merits of a run. Other supporters of a national Green presidential campaign, such as Linda Martin and Tom Linzey, also lobbied Nader, and Third Parties 95/96, formed by many of the same Greens, encouraged Nader to enter the race. Green activists like Annie Goeke relayed international voices of support. An open letter from a range of supporters across the political spectrum urged Nader to run. After much back and forth discussion about the scope of his campaign, Nader chose to run a limited campaign, but one of substance.

At the Green’s first national convention, held at the University of California in Los Angeles, a university system former Governor Reagan had publicly stated he would punish and dismantle for its protest of the Vietnam War, Ralph Nader gave his acceptance speech on August 19, 1996.

He held the platform up and repeated what he had been saying throughout the day in a series of press interviews — that he was running as the Green presidential nominee because of the ideas and positions in the platform; that he was running to turn the ideas and positions of the platform into reality.

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Nader began his acceptance speech after a prolonged welcoming ovation:

“You know that you are responsible for all this. All I did was accept. Some of the prior speakers touched on a number of issues and as I was listening to them, what occurred to me was that most of the issues and subjects that the Green Party is adhering to are majoritarian issues to the United States of America. And what commended the Green Party so much to those of us who were not in on the founding is that if you look very carefully at the Green Party Platform that’s being proposed for your approval, this is by far the most comprehensive, broad-based platform that deals with a wide range of systemic justice that’s needed in this country: from the political, to the corporate, to the cultural, the civil liberties, the civil rights platform of any party in the country. I wouldn’t begin to compare it with the flaccid, insipid, empty, cowardly platforms of the Democratic and Republican Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee parties… As a matter of fact, the Democratic Party Platform doesn’t even contain an affirmation of universal health coverage for all Americans. It even backed off of that. While they took money from the hospital lobby, the medical lobby, the drug industry lobby, the giant HMO’s, and insurance lobby. And as far as the Republican Platform goes, this one could’ve been written by the Fortune 100.”

The Nader campaign that left the campus that day would form the core of a Green campaign of ideas and ideals. The results of the 40-state 1995–96 organizing effort led to new state parties being formed, existing ones revitalized and, one month after the November election, the formation of the Association of State Green Parties that was to become the Green Party of the United States. In December, at a post-election meeting in Middleburg, VA, close to where Thomas Jefferson farmed, the representatives of the state parties gathered to announce a newly structured national party.

This was a foundation to build on, and the party grew broadly. State parties were affiliated, national meetings were held, a formal relationship and platform were approved between U.S. and European Greens and, with the assistance of Tom Linzey, Dave Cobb, Steve Schmidt and Dean Myerson, a 300-plus page application to the FEC was filed that led to a legal advisory option. The national Green Party, a “national committee of a national party,” had arrived.

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Postscript:

Today, the Green Party has grown from some 60 Green candidates for office in the mid-1990s to well over 400. Greens continue growing a unique political party combining electoral/movement/educational work, yet face a barrage of obstacles and legal barriers to full participation by minorities, minor parties, independents and all who have walked away from a rigged system rewarding incumbents, power brokers, wealthy contributors and lobbyists.

In the near term, the U.S. Green Party no doubt will continue challenging the winner-take-all U.S. voting system. A break in the bulwark of incumbent party opposition to voting reform can be found in public recognition of the failings of the 2000 presidential election and disenfranchisement and voting irregularities that produced a president with a troubling victory. The U.S. electorate is becoming increasingly aware of how elections are conducted, how voters and votes are manipulated and how difficult it is to oppose the system in place. The U.S. Green Party is speaking to this core issue by its very existence. Having established itself as a serious, credible force in American politics and a voice of opposition to politics- and business-as-usual, the Green Party now faces the challenge of being a consequential force in politics. As a result of the 2000 campaign, the Green Party has come to be perceived as a swing vote, and, along with independent voters who continue to grow in numbers as the two-party system fails to garner wide support or commitment, the Greens and independents will increasingly exert perceived and real political leverage. If the Greens choose to continue working toward making the platform a political reality, then much will continue to be possible.

One of the leading issues will be proportional voting, preference and instant run-off voting, which are moving to the forefront of many of Green’s agendas. The Green Party’s platform positions on electoral and political reform, alongside positions taken by allies like the Center for Voting and Democracy, League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other public interest groups, will undoubtedly play an increasing role in shaping the future U.S. political arena. The European Greens, who have proportional voting systems, will no doubt keep a close eye on progress toward opening up the American political system to Green, independent and opposition points of view.

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¹ Chapter 4, “An Insurgent Campaign,” from American Twilight, by Steven Schmidt, ©July 2003.

² During the eight years of the Clinton administration, the Democratic Party lost more political races and offices at the federal/state and local levels than at any time since the 1890s’ presidency of Grover Cleveland, which led to the election of William McKinley and the historic period known as the “Age of the Robber Barons.”

Sam Smith, editor of Progressive Review (http://prorev.com), wrote of Clinton’s record:

Here's what happened to the Democrats under Clinton, based on our latest figures.

    • GOP seats gained in House after Clinton became president: 48
    • GOP seats gained in Senate after Clinton became president: 8
    • GOP governorships gained after Clinton became president: 11
    • GOP state legislative seats gained since Clinton became president: 1,254 as of 1998
    • State legislatures taken over by GOP after Clinton became president: 9
    • Democrat officeholders who have become Republicans since Clinton became president: 439 as of 1998. Republican officeholders who became Democrats: 3

Since Clinton was inaugurated, the Democrats have lost 12% of their registered voters, and lost during his administration the largest number of seats in Congress, the governorships, and state legislatures of any Democratic White House incumbency since Grover Cleveland.