A SIMILAR SCENARIO is unfolding in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, though the implications don’t extend to the national level. Right now, most of the attention is focused on the Democratic primary, with Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, Senate president Tom Birmingham, former Watertown state senator Warren Tolman, and former secretary of labor Robert Reich all vying for the win. Although the Green Party in Massachusetts bungled its application for Clean Elections funding by failing to garner the mandatory 6000 $5 to $100 contributions, Green gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein’s campaign is running strong. (Stein attributes the Clean Elections–funding snafu to "technicalities which we thought were unjust." Under the Clean Elections Law, candidates must not only take in contributions, but must also collect detail-intensive cards along with each donation. Stein claims local town halls arbitrarily rejected the paperwork or, in some cases, wrongly applied the same strict rules as those guiding nominating-petition signatures.)
Regardless, current polls suggest that the centrist O’Brien will defeat her Democratic foes. If that happens, Stein will emerge as the one unabashedly progressive voice in the general election. At the state Democratic convention, in Worcester, O’Brien rather courageously linked herself to the centrist tradition of Bill Clinton, and won the convention’s nomination. But Stein blames rightward-lurching Democratic centrist policies, on both the national and state levels, for perpetuating many of the problems in Massachusetts. She maintains that there are stark differences between herself and O’Brien — not to mention the other three Democratic candidates. "Shannon O’Brien is the daughter of a political insider, married to a lobbyist, who is as tied as anybody could be to big money," says Stein. "I don’t think she’s going to change the direction of government."
She is even less impressed with Birmingham, of whom she says: "He’s running with an enormous war chest that comes to him as the leader of the Senate. As big as his war chest is, it’s his back-room deals that he brings with him. He recently proposed this accounting bill that would protect accounting CEOs in Massachusetts from their accounting decisions." Stein even sees sharp distinctions between her candidacy and those of Reich and Tolman. "He claims credit for the Clinton boom, and our slogan on that is ‘a boom for whom?’" Stein says of Reich, who is polling well in Green strongholds like Amherst and Northampton. "Bob Reich is not only making the deals that other traditional candidates make to get their political funding. He’s tiptoeing around Tom Finneran, and he’s bringing in some $800,000 a year with his corporate speaking engagements." She similarly dismisses Tolman: ""Warren unfortunately comes with the party of Tom Finneran."
Although it’s quite possible that Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney could win the general election if a few percentage points’ worth of Democrats vote for Stein in November, the Green candidate isn’t concerned. "The Democrats have become the party of the privileged and elite who fund their campaigns," she says. "They’ve been protecting the interest of their wealthy sponsors and not serving the interest of Massachusetts."
Obviously, the Democratic candidates don’t see it that way. "There is a tremendous distinction between Shannon and Mitt Romney," says Adrian Durban, a spokesman for O’Brien. "We’re confident that anyone who is committed to progressive issues like protecting a woman’s right to choose, providing health care to those most in need, protecting resources for our public schools, and creating more affordable housing will vote for Shannon because she can beat Mitt Romney." Paul Wingle, a spokesman for Birmingham, points to the Senate president’s legislative achievements, such as increasing the minimum wage, the granting of health insurance to all Bay State children (Stein says it’s not enough), and the environment as ample evidence of the differences between Birmingham and the GOP.
Reich campaign manager Mark Longabaugh scoffs at Stein’s assertions. But he allows that only a Reich victory in September will prevent Democrat progressives from voting for Stein in November. "Reich speaks to the issues and values these Green voters care about," he says. Tolman spokeswoman Karen Grant points out that Tolman has "taken on" Finneran on "important issues" such as Clean Elections. "Warren, in fact, says the road to reform on Beacon Hill goes through Tom Finneran, and will continue to lead the charge against things he that he believes wrong with Beacon Hill today," she says.
Despite Tolman’s campaign for reform, Reich probably is the Democratic candidate best able to deal with both Stein and Romney in a general election. Whether he wins or loses in September, says Democratic Party spokeswoman Jane Lane, "the Democratic Party is really going to have to rely on Reich to help bring [Green Party voters] into the Democratic fold." Of course, Stein takes a different view. "We’re here ready and waiting with open arms," she says of progressive Democrats. "They will find a home within our campaign, and I think they may even be more comfortable here working for real change."
Stein adds that if the Democratic Party were truly worried about the spoiler scenario, it could have dealt with the issue legislatively by enacting instant-run-off voting, known by the acronym IRV to political junkies. In IRV, voters rank their candidates. If their first choice loses, then their vote automatically goes to their second choice. So if a voter ranked the Green Party first and the Democrats second and Stein lost, then those votes would be counted for the Democrats. This system eliminates plurality votes and guarantees that the winner receives more than 50 percent of votes. Cambridge already uses an IRV variant in its city-council elections, and the system has been proposed — but gone nowhere — on Beacon Hill.
Things aren’t so critical in Maine, where the Democrats have fielded a strong candidate in the gubernatorial race. Still, voters have seen the Greens and Democrats square off against one another. Jonathan Carter, a Green candidate eligible for up to $900,000 in Clean Elections money, has had to overcome two legal challenges by Democrats to his publicly financed candidacy. But what is blunting the Nader Effect in Maine may be the plain popularity of Democratic candidate John Baldacci, a four-term congressman who was one of the few freshman Democrats elected during the "Republican Revolution" of 1994.
"Obviously we take every candidate seriously, including Jonathan Carter," says Christy Setzer, the communications director for the Maine Democratic Party. But the party is, as Setzer puts it, "extremely confident" about Baldacci. And with good reason: a recent Portland Press Herald poll showed Baldacci with the support of 48 percent of voters, his Republican opponent at 14 percent, and Carter at two percent. Even if Carter were to garner five percent of the vote, Baldacci would still win handily. Carter, for his part, puts his support at around 10 percent, saying, "I can get enough support to win this thing. I just need to get my message out."
Still, even if Carter fails to catch on to the degree he hopes, Maine could end up being the rare case where the Greens get what they need — a substantial chunk of the vote — and the Democratic candidate, through the force of his own personality, gets elected. If so, the Greens, through a practical strategy, will have managed to build for the future and remain in play for the next election cycle.
THE NADER EFFECT has clearly had an impact on national politics. Ruth Conniff of the Progressive has written about how Clinton-campaign veterans James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Robert Shrum have founded the Democracy Corps, which is pushing the party away from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Meanwhile, former vice-president Al Gore skipped the July 29 and 30 DLC "conversation" in New York, which all the other 2004 presidential hopefuls viewed as a must-attend. And on August 4, Gore penned an op-ed for the New York Times defending his populist ("the people versus the powerful") stance during the 2000 campaign — a stance that many politicos believe was a bad strategy.
It should be clear now that while 2000 may have been Nader’s nadir, as some have said, it was no such thing for the Green Party. "The mistake the Democrats are making about the Greens is that they’re acting like they’re going to disappear," says Sifry. "Instead of continuing to move to the right ... the Democrats should move left in a sincere way." With corporate scandals and anti–Wall Street anger in vogue, that just may happen. Where it will lead us is less clear.
Seth Gitell can be reached at email@example.com