Carol Miller for Congress: New Mexico Greens Play for Keeps

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Rick Lass, Tammy Davis & Cris Moore

ON MAY 13, 1997 New Mexico Green Carol Miller received 17% in a special election for the U.S. House of Representatives. This was a record for a U.S. Green in a federal race (surpassing Hawai’i Green Party U.S. Senate candidate Linda Martin’s 14% in 1992), and contributed to favored Democrat Eric Serna (40%) losing the election to conservative Republican Bill Redmond (42%).

According to Tammy Davis, co-chair of the New Mexico Green Party (NMGP), “by determining the outcome of the race in this manner, our campaign served notice that the Greens are an independent force that will not go away and cannot be ignored. We are more than a swing vote—we have an increasing impact at all levels of government because of the strength of our vote. We are ignored only at the peril of the old parties.”

A thirty-year community health care advocate who began her activism in the `60s as a paid organizer for the Berkeley (CA) Tenants Union, Carol Miller has long been involved in rural health care in northern New Mexico.

She represented the Frontier Constituency Group on the Board of the National Rural Health Association, is immediate Past President of the New Mexico Public Health Association, and is a three term Governing Councilor to the American Public Health Association.

On the federal level, Miller has experience with legislation (and the bureaucracy) in Washington D.C., including service as a single-payer advocate on the 1993 Presidential Health Care Reform Task Force.

This record of commitment and service gave the Miller campaign enormous credibility. Combined with the strength of the New Mexico Green Party (one of the best organized and most successful Green parties in the country) and pointing out the weakness of both the Democrat and Republican, Miller ran one of the strongest races a U.S. Green has yet run, arguably the strongest above the county level.

Miller actually came in second in Taos and Santa Fe counties, ahead of Redmond and close to Serna, in what are traditionally highly-Democratic districts. Both Democrats and Republicans spent large amounts of money on absentee votes. Subtract those and Miller won Santa Fe County outright.

In the City of Santa Fe, Miller won most of the precincts in two of four city council districts, receiving over 50% in most of them. Among those were many traditional, Hispanic Democratic neighborhoods.

In Taos, Miller won nine precincts outright. She also won in Corrales, considered by many to be a conservative town. Across the district, Miller won in twenty-two precincts—including the Taos and Tesuque Indian Pueblos—and ran second in fifty-five more.

Miller also did better in Santa Fe County than had 1994 Green gubernatorial candidate Roberto Mondragon (34% compared to 21%).

The Democrats’ post-election reaction was significant and included new talk of cooperation with the Greens, including offers being floated by Democratic leadership of changes in the NM election law to allow Democrat/Green fusion candidates. (Fusion is a law, widespread 100 years ago, where a candidate can be endorsed by two parties, and can collect votes on the ballot lines of both).

This offering was remarkable given that only last January the New Mexico Democratic Party blocked an effort by the Greens, Libertarians, and Reform Party to make fusion legal.

Back in 1994, the NMGP had attempted to place Representative Max Coll, perhaps the second most powerful member of the NM House of Representatives as Chair of the Legislative Finance Committee, on the ballot as a Democrat/Green. This was stopped by Democratic Party leadership, who pressured Coll to withdraw his Green nomination.

The NMGP had been working with a team of attorneys to take the ban on fusion to the Supreme Court; but when Coll withdrew, the attorneys took another test case from Minnesota to the Court, recently losing their fusion challenge.

PR Yes, Fusion No

Miller and most New Mexico Greens have now rejected fusion in favor of proportional representation. Fusion has become seen as a way of coopting the Greens by taking their candidates out of the race. “It could turn us into junior Democrats. We have a lot more potential than that,” said Miller.

Electoral reforms like proportional representation (including preference voting and instant runoff) are seen by the Greens as giving them a chance to assume their rightful place at the table—“something,” according to Davis, “Miller’s remarkable 17% (in a winner-take-all system) suggests we deserve.”

In mid-October, the Greens hosted a forum on proportional representation with 1980 independent presidential candidate John Anderson and Steve Hill, a San Francisco Green and West Coast Director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

According to many New Mexico Greens, Miller’s race served to prove that voting Green is a powerful strategy for political change. Not only did it identify the Greens as a clear alternative, but it puts enormous pressure on the Democrats to support proportional representation, lest the Greens knock them out again.

As Santa Fe Green Party City Councilor Cris Moore said in the August edition of The Progressive, “building a progressive third-party movement right now is a lot more important than sending one more Democrat to Congress. Even people who want to move the Democratic Party to the left ought to recognize that it’s just not going to happen inside their party.”

“It’s like Frederick Douglass said: `Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ No one is going to change the system until Democrats lose some elections because they’ve moved too far to the right. That’s the lesson from here: Until they lost a race that they actually cared about, they didn’t pay attention.”

The Decision to Run

It was almost immediately after the November, 1996 election (in which incumbent Bill Richardson beat Redmond 67%-30%) when rumors began spreading that Richardson would be vacating his seat to become Ambassador to the United Nations.

As early as December, Greens were discussing the Special Election to come. The NMGP had gotten a decent, but not exceptional November `96 election result: It maintained major party status (running Peggy Helgeson against Serna for State Corporation Commissioner, receiving 11%).

The party’s efforts at a coordinated statewide campaign, however, were only partly successful, particularly after a contested primary left considerable internal division in the party. Energy was low and splintered as a result.

At the same time discussion of the special election was taking place, the 60-day legislative session was about to begin. With a strong local in the capital city of Santa Fe, the NMGP prepared an aggressive legislative agenda. This was basically ignored by the `97 NM Legislature which, according to NMGP state co-chair Rick Lass, was preoccupied by Indian gaming compacts and prison privatization.

Most of Green lobbying went into the fusion bill, which was not even introduced, despite Green calls for consideration and debate. This negative experience was echoed by the legislature’s lack of action on other Green priorities, from failure years before to pass a returnable bottle law to the current lack of support for meaningful Property Tax relief for low-income families.

Cumulatively, this became a part of the legislature’s “report card,” which was put on the table at the NMGP state convention, and led in part to the NMGP’s decision to run Carol Miller.

When the Governor made the call for the special election, the Greens called their own state nomination convention (including new elections of delegates at the county level). This contrasted greatly with the Democrats and Republicans, who chose their candidates at closed door sessions of central committee meetings.

The Green convention came after the Democrats and Republicans had made their nominations. The extra time turned out to be fateful.

At first, it was not clear the party would nominate Miller. The Bernalillo County (Albuquerque area) Green local had invited the Democratic and Republican nominees to speak at their county convention.

In Santa Fe, several Greens advocated “None of the Above,” arguing the energy required to run a candidate in the entire northern third of NM would be better spent on internal organizing and local projects. They also warned of the marginalizing effect on the party of getting only 3-5%, which people were worried about because of the NMGP’s poor showing in the just-concluded U.S. Senate race.

Since Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties would comprise 70% of the state convention, not running a candidate was certainly a possibility.

But once the Democrats and Republicans chose their candidates, it was clear that neither represented a positive choice. Redmond was extremely conservative and would be touting his NRA endorsement. Serna had a past riddled with charges of corruption, from misuse of his office to taking contributions from corporations he was supposed to regulate.

When Serna was nominated nevertheless by a closed convention, many progressive Democrats who felt “locked out” began looking for another candidate. Carol Miller, in comparison, would be endorsed as the best candidate by both of Albuquerque major dailies.

Miller also offered the NMGP a chance to expand by tapping into her existing circle of contacts and health service networks. In so doing, she committed to run a strictly Green platform-based campaign, and to focus on party building as a central core of her strategy.

After a couple of hours of discussion, the vote was Miller 55, None of the Above 7, and Richard Haley 1.

The Campaign

Between the nomination convention and the election, the campaign was only eight weeks long. Within days after the convention, most key positions in Carol’s campaign staff had been filled. A local printing press had offered to print 30,000 trifold, tricolor brochures at no cost, with additional copies very inexpensive.

All but one of the “None of the Above” supporters came on board, hard at work, suggesting the party’s internal process was healthy (Roberto Mondragon returned to the Democrats).

One of Miller’s first events was a call for a voluntary spending cap of $100,000. Not surprisingly, neither other major party candidate agreed. In the end, Miller spent $35,000, Redmond $500,000, and Serna close to a million.

Much of the Republican and Democratic money came from national PACs. The national party organizations put a lot into this race as little else was happening around the country at the time.

The Greens publicized a New Mexico state legislature resolution calling for an end to negative campaigning. This was ignored by Serna and Redmond.

Miller stayed on message throughout the campaign. Along with campaign finance reform, she focused on universal health care, eliminating corporate welfare, and promoting education and women’s rights.

On controversial questions around sustainable use of public lands, Miller pledged protection plans developed in consultation with local communities. She opposes old growth logging, but at the same time believes there is a responsibility to help local villages find a way to be ecologically sustainable.

Miller also supported a weatherization program to reduce the need for firewood and a Claims Commission to deal with Land Grant issues.

The campaign moved quickly, with Miller and her constant companion Sheila Sullivan traveling around the district. The Rio Grande Valley is the area of strongest Green concentration, but Miller also got a strong reception in the more remote areas where the party was not yet organized.

She did radio and newspaper spots in most of the small towns and had great public support in many of them. In Santa Fe and Taos, house parties were held to raise money and enlist volunteers. The numbers of new faces grew rapidly, as did the crossover support from Democrats and Republicans.

At the same time, there was a strong base from the successful prior campaigns electing Cris Moore and Fran Gallegos. Soon after the Green convention, six members of Democratic Party central committees from Los Alamos and Santa Fe endorsed Miller. The Democrats forced most of them to resign, except Marilyn Rohn of Los Alamos, who boasted that if forced to resign she would take half the Central Committee members with her.

In Taos, a group called “Republicans and Democrats for Carol Miller” campaigned actively.

As Miller was severely outspent by the other major party candidates, she was probably less visible in the mass media by 20-1.The Greens organized a presence at major intersections in the dstrict during the last week of the campaign, holding “Carol Miller” signs everyone could see. This got the word out and energized everyone who helped with last minute tasks.

Miller is the first U.S. Green candidate in the country to be endorsed by both major dailies of a major city. She was also endorsed by the Santa Fe Reporter and the Taos News, which wrote:

How can anyone vote, not for what he or she really believes in, but rather for what he or she thinks is going to happen, anyway? It makes a mockery of the entire political process . . . A vote for Miller is not a wasted vote. It’s a vote for all of the things that matter to northern New Mexicans. It’s a vote for changes towards universal health care. It’s a vote for the environment. It’s a vote for people, not politicians; for change, not the status quo. A vote for Miller is a vote for your conscience and your convictions.

Miller was also endorsed by Ralph Nader, who campaigned in New Mexico for her; Sierra Club president David Brower, Arthur Silvers, president of the Santa Fe NAACP, as well as several prominent gay and lesbian activists.

The Picuris Pueblo tribe endorsed Miller, the NMGP’s first endorsement from a Pueblo or tribe. In her visit to the Navajo Nation, Miller met people who have offered to translate the NM Green Platform into Navajo. On the other hand, several organizations endorsed Serna over Miller based upon “winnability.”

They included the Sierra Club, Conservation Voters Alliance, and AFSCME.

The Future

After only moderately successful statewide campaigns (by NMGP standards) in `96, Miller’s strong showing vitalized the party. It also provided great strategic information, demonstrated by precinct returns, showing where the party is strongest.

According to Cris Moore, “this may influence where future candidacies will come. In fact, several state legislative and County Commission seats in Santa Fe and Taos County are now very winnable for us.”

The positive results and contacts of the campaign also inspired the party to do intensive outreach into new communities. The newly reformed Organizing Committee is leading road trips out of the Rio Grande Valley, holding local organizing meetings and organizer training workshops.

Turnout has been good thus far. So far 40 Greens have attended workshops on organizing skills like “Choosing an Issue,” “Talking About the Greens,” and `Meeting Facilitation.’

As to whether Miller will/should run again, right now Miller is saying “yes.” With a longer lead time (compared to the eight weeks of the special election), Miller feels she can double her 17% and be competitive in a three-way election.

She plans outreach to those who don’t register (or vote) because they don’t believe their vote matters, independents (approximately 30% of registered voters) and the many “pragmatic” voters who need stronger indications that their vote won’t be wasted before stepping outside the two-party system.

There are many NMGP members who support a Miller candidacy in `98. Others prefer to know who the Democrat will be before deciding whether to contest the race. But unlike with the special election, in `98 all parties will choose their candidates the same day of the primary election.

The Greens will not be able to wait to see if a progressive Democrat will win the nomination. Indeed, they must file for the race a couple of months beforehand. One thing is sure, the threat of a Miller candidacy will loom large going into New Mexico’s `98 elections.

How will the Democrats respond? What will Miller and the NMGP decide to do? The final result will be interesting. “But perhaps even more significant,” observes co-chair Lass, “is that after only a few short years, the Greens are actually in a position where these kind of alternatives are real ones. The New Mexico Green Party and its candidates are `for real.’”

ATC 72, January-February 1998