Photo of David Cobb by Bob Doran
by HANK SIMS
by HANK SIMS
WHEN THE GREEN PARTY BROKE TIES WITH CONSUMER ACTIVIST Ralph Nader -- its standard-bearer in the last two presidential elections -- at the party's national convention in Milwaukee, Wis., last month, it was the result of four years of uneasiness about its own growing power at the polls.
Most Greens officially reject as "myth" the idea that Nader's presidential candidacy in 2000 only succeeded in handing the election to George W. Bush. They point to other factors: the anti-democratic nature of the electoral college, the disenfranchisement of voters in Florida and the U.S. Supreme Court's order to halt a recount of votes in that state. They cite an exhaustive recount of Florida votes done months after the election to show that Vice-President Al Gore actually did win more votes in Florida than Bush did, despite the final official tally that gave Bush a 543-vote margin of victory.
But it's hard to escape the fact that if even a small percentage of Nader's nearly 100,000 votes in Florida had gone to Gore, none of the above would have mattered. Gore would have carried the state handily, and with it the presidency. Though it may be party orthodoxy that Bush cannot be blamed on the Greens, it became clear in Milwaukee that a good number of delegates felt the sting of this argument. After two rounds of balloting, they rejected Nader and instead chose to nominate someone who, unlike Nader, promised that he would not seek to be a factor in the outcome of the 2004 election: Eureka resident David Keith Cobb.
The choice was far from universally popular, even among Humboldt County's Greens. One of Cobb's stated priorities for this election year -- to evict Bush from the White House -- has an obvious corollary that the candidate is careful never to say out loud. If he wants Bush unseated, he wants Sen. John Kerry elected. This rubs against the Green Party's core political tenets: In every way that matters, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are one and the same. People should not have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Vote your hopes, not your fears.
Cobb's detractors in the party believe that his nomination amounts to a capitulation to the Democrats. They charge that it will rob the party of any influence over electoral politics on the national stage, and so will make it irrelevant and meaningless. Many of them are still actively supporting Nader's independent campaign and will be working to put him on the ballot in their home states.
In the meantime, Cobb and his supporters -- who include several high-profile Greens and other progressives from outside the party -- are sticking with the wager they made in Milwaukee. The most important thing for the future of the party, they believe, is to recoup its good name among the millions of Americans whose dearest wish this election season is to see the back of George W. Bush. The Green Party will have no future, they believe, if it ignores the will of so many potential allies by playing the role of spoiler.
A few days after the convention, Cobb was back in Eureka at the home he shares with his partner, Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, and the offices of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County. Cobb, who moved to Humboldt County just six months ago, has been in progressive politics for years -- working as an anti-corporate personhood activist for Democracy Unlimited is his latest job. While still living in Texas, he volunteered for the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown in 1984 and 1992. He was drawn to the Green Party when Nader was drafted to run on its ticket in 1996, and he spearheaded the campaign to get Nader on the Texas ballot in 2000. He later became the party's general counsel and, in 2002, ran as a Green for the office of Attorney General of Texas.
A few minutes of conversation were plenty to demonstrate why the quick-witted, 41-year-old lawyer has excelled in politics -- he radiated optimism about the future of his party and the country, and he had no problem staying on-message. Perching on the edge of his chair, his voice ringing out with its Texas twang, Cobb explained why he thought Greens -- the "genuine opposition party in this country" -- should tread lightly on the presidential contest this year.
"John Kerry is no progressive," he said. "John Kerry voted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He voted for the Patriot Act. He voted for NAFTA. He voted for No Child Left Behind. He is on the record opposing raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
"Having said all that, George W. Bush is qualitatively worse. George W. Bush is a fundamental problem in this country. He's not the problem -- we understand that the real problem is the social, political and economic system that's destroying the planet and creating this racist, sexist, homophobic, unjust world order. So we're in a very difficult situation. The Green Party really is growing larger and having more influence. But with that growing power comes the responsibility to exercise the power wisely and intelligently, not just for the good of the Green Party, but the good of the country."
Cobb's campaign platform -- aside from working to promote core Green values like ecology, feminism, social justice and electoral reform -- was built on his ideas about the wise use of the Greens' power at the polls in this year. He promotes what has become known as the "safe states" strategy -- he promised to only actively campaign for himself in strong Bush or strong Kerry states, where a vote for the Green ticket would be unlikely to change that state's vote for the presidency. His message for voters in states that could go either way is to "vote your conscience" -- which is taken euphemistically to be a concession to those progressive voters who would vote for Kerry out of fear of Bush.
Cobb says he will travel the country to stump for Greens seeking local office -- on city councils, school boards, utility districts -- in all 50 states.
"My goals have always been very clear," Cobb said. "I want to grow and build the Green Party in this election cycle -- elect more local Greens to office, register more Green voters and strengthen and hone our skills as citizen-activists."
Though Cobb performed well in the run-up to the national convention -- competing in Green Party primaries, traveling around the country to speak with local Green chapters -- his message has hamstringed him, especially in California. Cobb had been soundly defeated by Nader's running-mate, two-time gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo [photo below left] , in California's March primary. In Humboldt County, Camejo got 60 percent of the vote in the primary; only 10 percent went for Cobb, who even in his new hometown was the lesser-known candidate.
Cobb's success at the national convention hasn't made much of a dent in his obscurity on the ground locally or statewide, and many -- himself included -- are transferring their efforts away from the Green Party to Nader's independent campaign.
Last week, the Green Party of California's coordinating committee issued a statement to county chapters of the party that "reaffirmed" their right to endorse Nader over Cobb, if that was their wish. Piercy resident Paul Encimer, publisher of the Greenfuse newspaper and a member of the committee, said he thought that the statement was necessary, given continued support for the Nader/Camejo ticket.
"So many state-level Greens, important members of the party, are going to be on the streets trying to get Nader and Camejo on the ballot," Encimer said. "The large majority is for Nader/Camejo."
There is no reason for the Greens to offer a candidate who doesn't threaten the Democratic ticket, Encimer believes. The Democratic Party will only take progressives seriously if they hold the power to throw Democrats out of office, he said. Until they take that fear to heart, the Democratic Party will never amount to anything but Republicanism with a happy face.
"There are some in this country who are so alienated we don't find Bush a more frightening alternative than Kerry," he said. "Nader's strength is that he can hurt the Democrats. We are looking to hurt the Democratic Party on a fundamental level, because it's a very harmful organization. There's nothing I can say about the Republican Party that I can't also say about the Democratic Party, on some level."
Encimer's outlook echoes that of Peter Camejo, who in anticipation of the controversy over Nader's 2004 campaign published a manifesto called the "Avocado Declaration" earlier this year. The declaration was intended to toughen the Green Party's nerves for the upcoming election. It exhorted Greens to be like the avocado -- green on the outside, green on the inside -- and to not compromise their principles by not running a candidate for the presidency, or to run one that did not challenge the Democratic Party.
"The campaign of the Democrats will be powerful and to some extent effective But if we do not stand up to this pressure and hold our banner high, fight them and defend our right to exist, to have our voices heard, to run candidates that expose the two-party system and the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party and its complicity with the Republicans, we will suffer the greatest loss of all," Camejo wrote. "The Green Party can and will win the hearts and minds of people when they see us as reliable and unshakeable, if we stand our ground."
With the defeat of "avocado-ism" in Milwaukee, progressive outlets around the country have been decrying the choice of Cobb and the "safe states" strategy. One of the most aggressive has been the influential Counterpunch newsletter, edited by radical journalist Alexander Cockburn [photo at right] , who lives in Petrolia. Cockburn said last week that with the Cobb nomination, he had lost all respect for the party.
"Screw `em," he said. "The Green Party, as far I'm concerned, is a dead letter."
For Cockburn, it's a matter of the party having the courage of its convictions. If Greens believe that the two-party system is corrupt -- that it is the main block to meaningful reform in the country -- why does it tacitly side with the Democrats in a big election?
"I just think that for Cobb to say that because Bush is very unpopular and therefore we can't take the risk, is dumb," he said. "If you're the Green Party, you're a pipsqueak party, you know you're a pipsqueak party. But you can either stand on your feet, or you can squeak. And be a pip."
'Anybody but Bush'
Cobb believes that Kerry is an "incrementally better" candidate than Bush, and he seems to say that a Green Party campaign that works to unseat the incumbent -- rather than simply to win as many votes for itself as it can -- would be a service to the country. But he doesn't believe that he is asking his party to fall on its sword for Kerry. He thinks that not opposing the Democratic ticket this time around is the best strategy for the long-term future of the Greens.
The challenge facing the party this year, Cobb believes, is capturing the large groundswell of opposition to the Bush presidency in the progressive community. The Greens can oppose Kerry in word, but to stay credible among the Fahrenheit 9/11 crowd they can't be seen as undermining his chances.
"Many progressives are in this `anybody-but-Bush' mindset," he said. "I believe that as an organizer, we have to understand where people are. That terror is real, and we have to acknowledge that it's real and reach out to them and say, `We hear you. We understand, and we want to work together with you.' The nuanced strategy that I'm describing is providing breathing space for progressives. It's going to give an opportunity for Greens to work with progressive Democrats at the local level."
Richard Winger is the publisher of Ballot Access News, a monthly newsletter that tracks the efforts of small parties and independent candidates to get on ballots around the country. Winger studies the history of third parties in America, and he said last week that the situation facing the Green Party this year is not unprecedented.
"The Communist Party had this dilemma in 1936," Winger said. "After four years of the New Deal, the decided that they liked Roosevelt's presidency. Even though they ran a candidate of their own, Earl Browder [photo at left] , he went around the country telling people to vote for Roosevelt."
Fraser Ottanelli, professor of history at the University of South Florida and author of The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II, agreed with this interpretation of that election. Ottanelli said last week that the key issue for the Communist Party was to maintain its ties to progressive movements, especially labor, who supported Roosevelt overwhelmingly over his anti-New Deal opponent, Republican Alf Landon.
"The important thing, to Browder, was not to be considered a spoiler," Ottanelli said. "It paid off in two ways. Clearly, Roosevelt won. But what it did for the party was that it allowed it to maintain its credibility and ties to all those [progressive] groups."
A year later, according to Ottanelli, the Communist Party was at the height of its influence in American politics.
"They became the left wing of a broad, ideologically progressive movement in the United States," he said. "Not because they infiltrated these groups, because they were accepted. Had they opposed Roosevelt in `36, none of that would have been possible."
If some members of his party are charging that Cobb has become an unwitting tool of the Democratic Party, there's a more concrete case to be made that Nader [photo at right] has become a not-so-unwitting tool of the Republicans. The San Francisco Chronicle published a thorough auditing of Nader's finances last week -- it found that nearly 10 percent of donations over $1,000 to the Nader campaign came from people who had also given to the Bush-Cheney re-election committee or other Republican causes. Republican state parties and conservative grassroots organizations in Oregon, Arizona and Michigan have led petition drives to get Nader on the ballot in those states, with the admitted aim of sapping votes from Kerry. Nader, so far, has waved off calls to return the money or refuse help from Republican campaigners.
But the deliberate ambiguity of the Cobb campaign has already resulted in embarrassing moments for its supporters. Cobb's running-mate, talk-show host Pat LaMarche [photo below left] , is from Maine -- a state which leans toward Bush but which the Democrats may hope to contest. Shortly after the convention, in an interview with the Portland Press-Herald, LaMarche hinted that she might cast her vote for the Democratic ticket rather than her own. The comment elicited a flurry of caustic articles and chat-room comments from the Nader rump of the party, which forced LaMarche to issue a press release calling the Press-Herald's article mistaken. "It's a no-brainer," the statement read. "Of course I'm voting Green." The paper's reporter, Joshua L. Weinstein, last week said that he stood by his story, and noted that LaMarche had never asked the paper for a correction.
That the party now has to engage in spin-control of this sort could be interpreted as evidence that it has become politically mature, for better or worse. The very idea of a radical party running a "nuanced" campaign is another such sign -- and though some may scorn it, others find it an attractive proposition.
After discussing the history of the 1936 election last week, Fraser Ottanelli took some time to speak as a Floridian rather than an academic. He recalled driving around African American neighborhoods -- which voted for Gore overwhelmingly -- on the day of the 2000 presidential election and being shocked at the turnout. The lines to get into the polls went around the block, he said. Recalling the scene, Ottanelli can't contain his residual bitterness over Ralph Nader's message in that campaign.
"Those people clearly knew that there was a difference between the two candidates," he said. "Those people you can't turn away from."
In choosing Cobb over Nader, the Green Party indicated that it would not turn away from those people this time around. Cobb's gamble, which remains to be tested, is that some day they will turn to the Green Party.
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.