California Grows Green with Camejo-Warren

Against the Current, No. 102, January/February 2003

Michael Rubin

THE NOVEMBER 2002 election marked a qualitative advance for the California Green Party. This advance is characterized by some improvement in vote totals, but more importantly by improvements in the Party program and party composition.

Let’s start with some numbers. Green Party voter registration statewide is now over 150,000, breaking the 1% milestone for the first time. Peter Miguel Camejo and Donna Warren, Green Party candidates for Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, received over 345,000 votes (5.3%).

In ten of California’s fifty-eight counties, their vote was in double digits, highlighted by more than 15% in San Francisco, which was more than Bill Simon, the Republican, received.

In contrast, Medea Benjamin, Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in 2000, received more than 326,000 votes statewide (3.1%), demonstrating the lower voter turnout in 2002. The turnout in this election was 30.5% of those potentially eligible to vote, “Worst Turnout Ever for a California General Election,” as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The advances in composition are a result of the interplay between the individual candidates and the political situation in California (and, to some extent, nationally). The Democrat incumbent, Gray Davis, has infuriated several key Democratic constituencies with his zig-zags on many issues important to labor, environmentalists, Latinos, and others.

In addition, Davis is popularly perceived as the “pay to play” Governor; his constant fundraising is legendary. Bill Simon, the Republican candidate, was a right-wing ideologue who was incompetent, as well. Camejo often joked that two people traveled the State tirelessly campaigning for him: Davis and Simon.

Breaking New Ground

Two constituencies stand out for the Green Party in this election. The Party gained support among Muslims, especially in the Pakistani community. This is not hard to understand, among people already ill at ease after 9/11, and with a new, larger war against Iraq in the offing.

Even more significant were the breakthroughs in the Latino community. Latinos had become very loyal to the Democratic Party in the 1990s because the Republicans had been using immigration as a wedge issue.

But this year, Latinos were angry at Gray Davis. He had forced a watering-down of a Democratic bill designed to assist the United Farmworkers. The union would win elections and then find agribusiness unwilling to negotiate a contract. The Democrats wanted to force growers into binding arbitration.

Davis threatened a veto, and the bill had to be watered down to only requiring mediation. Another issue is undocumented workers’ need for drivers’ licenses. The Democrats thought they had agreement on provisions of a bill, but Davis vetoed it.

As a result, fourteen of the eighteen members of the Latino Legislative caucus — all Democrats — refused to endorse Davis. Gil Cedillo, the author of the bill, openly asked his constituents not to vote for Davis or Simon.

Camejo was a good candidate to take advantage of these opportunities. Well-known to many readers of this magazine for his years of leadership in the socialist movement, he ran for President as an open socialist in 1976. Even today he publicly calls himself a watermelon — Green on the outside, red on the inside.

Camejo’s a good speaker, with something well thought out to say in response to any question. Born into a Venezuelan family, he was interviewed many times by the Spanish-language press and appeared on many Spanish-language radio shows.

The big organizational break came when Centro Azteca, a Mexican community organization (aligned with the PRD of Mexico), decided to publicly break with the Democratic Party and endorse the Green Party.

Donna Warren, Green candidate for Lieutenant Governor, also helped broaden public perception of the Green Party. An African-American woman, born and raised in South-Central Los Angeles, she has been a community activist for many years. Currently she is working to change the Draconian “Three-Strikes” law, to apply only to violent crimes; and more generally, she fights the prison-industrial complex.

Opposing the War

The combination of the candidates and the new opportunities has given the Green Party more of a “social justice” public face. Another positive change is that the Green Party is taking up the struggle against the planned war in Iraq.

The California Green Party started the 2002 campaign with a focus on statewide issues and said little about U.S. foreign policy. But by the time of the large antiwar march and rally in San Francisco on October 26, hundreds of Greens from nearby counties were a visible presence, and Camejo spoke at the rally. In short, the California Green Party is becoming more clearly a “left” party.

What’s next for the California Greens? A key task — and a test for the Party — will be integrating new people, especially people of color, as active Party members. The Democratic Party can be expected to continue to alien<->ate its traditional base, which will continue to provide the Greens with an opportunity to grow.

However, even though the Democrats won all the statewide offices in California this time, the charge of “spoiler” will continue to be raised (by Democrats) and some Greens are affected by this.

Many Greens are determined to fight for “instant runoff voting,” which allows voters to vote Green and Democrat both. Thus the Greens would not be accused of being “spoilers.”

As I see it, there is a problem that too many Greens are not fully convinced of the need for truly independent political action — some see the Greens as a pressure group on the Democrats.

Currently the Green Party is the most successful example of independent political action in this country. It is also evolving. People who believe in the importance of independent political action should take a fresh look at the Green Party and consider getting involved.

ATC 102, January-February 2003