Democracy 101

The Greens discuss issues--from immigration to whether to accept money--at their annual convention

The Greens weren't so blue this year, much to the relief of attendees at the party's annual national meeting in Tucson.

Several people said the 2005 meeting in Tulsa, Okla., was overshadowed by fallout from the party's gloomy showing in the previous year's elections. Fingers were pointed, and tensions boiled over. This year, things were more cordial.

About 200 gung-ho delegates from across the country showed up for the four-day event at the Historic YWCA Building, 738 N. Fifth Ave., where they elected new officers, hashed out political strategies and attended workshops.

The convention, which started July 27, was called "El Futuro es Verde," which, if you don't already know, is Spanish for "The Future is Green."

The Pima County party put in a bid to host the meeting because it wanted to highlight immigration issues, said Claudia Ellquist, chairwoman of the Green Party of Pima County. The current debate in political circles lacks substance and is being used to distract from other issues, such as the war in Iraq, she added.

"We have a unique experience of it (immigration) here in Tucson," Ellquist said. "And we wanted to talk a little bit about that." She said the party's discussion of immigration at the meeting had many parts: humanizing the immigrants by recognizing the names of the dead, dispelling myths and educating people about policies that motivate immigrants to gamble their lives.

"Most of them (Greens) are already familiar with the impact of NAFTA on border crossings," she said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the Greens oppose. "But few of them realized before they came here (that there are) walls across urban corridors that force people out into the wilderness and the harsh environment."

There are about 1,600 registered Greens in Pima County, which is the only county in the state in which the party has ballot status. Without ballot status, there's no requirement to accurately report the number of party members in a county, but Ellquist estimated that about 4,000 Greens live in Arizona.

She said there are currently no Green elected officials in this state. However, 226 hold elected office in 28 other states and the District of Columbia as of June, according to information compiled by Mike Feinstein, a co-founder of the Green Party of California, who attended the meeting.

Overall, Greens seemed pleased by how the convention proceeded.

Brent McMillan is the Green Party national media and fundraising director. He said many differences in opinion carried over from the previous year, but that there was also more give and take.

"It's not always easy," he said. "We have a lot of people with strong opinions, and I think the convention was actually a little tougher than I thought it was going to be in terms of issues that were brought forward and communicating with each other."

There were still "clashes," McMillan said. Some tried to protect their states' interest in apportioning delegates to select a presidential candidate in 2008, for example. On the national level, Ellquist said, the Greens have moved from a system where each state has an equal number of delegates to one where they're awarded based on how many representatives a state has in Congress, which favors the more populous states.

Now, some are proposing that states with greater numbers of registered Greens should get more delegates. A committee has been set up to study this proposal, Ellquist said.

Money issues also vexed some, according to McMillan. As a rule, the Green Party shuns corporate donations, citing what they view as their corrosive influence on politics.

But he said there's an ideological thread in the party that sees all money as corrosive; McMillan, who views cold, hard cash as the tangible representation of "life energy" expended on work, said he's trying to change that perception.

"There are times when it can get taken to an extreme--like money's bad," McMillan said. "And when I come to people, I say, 'No, money is neutral. It's what you do with it.' So it's like there's this constant kind of cultural struggle going on: Yes, we need money, but we're also nervous about the influence that money's had on politics.

"Not to kind of get into religious connotations, but you understand that tithing is a very important part of your activism," he continued. "In fact, I believe that when you make it a part of your life, you'd be surprised at the results you get."

One of the most common themes articulated by Greens was the perennial question of how to break into an electoral system that's stacked against third parties. "It's hard to run people when you don't have ballot status," Ellquist said. "And then the rules for ballot status are quite onerous."

Phil Huckelberry, a delegate from Illinois, complained that Democrats in his home state are trying to knock the Greens off the ballot by unfairly challenging about 23,000 of the more than 39,000 signatures they used to get on in the first place.

"It's obvious that they did a lot of this arbitrarily," he said, noting that they objected to the signature of the Green candidate for governor. "But the way the system works in Illinois, we still have to go through this extremely long, tedious process of appearing before the state Board of Elections. We have to have 12 people at a time, for eight hours a day--for what looks like it's going to be two and a half weeks--where we're just sitting down and defending our signatures line by line. The burden of proof is essentially on us that we got a good signature, not on them that they think that we got a bad signature."

California's Mike Feinstein thought the Greens from Illinois made a persuasive case for diverting resources to help fight battles like theirs. "The opposition is so strong from the parties who don't want us on the ballot," he said.

McMillan worried that elections themselves were being stacked like a deck of cards, giving Greens a unique opportunity to talk about reforms that would make government more representative of the people. All anyone has to do is look at Congress--full of rich, white, male millionaires--to see that our government doesn't represent all of us, he said.

"Clearly, Americans are very concerned about the integrity of their election system," he said. "We are in trouble. A lot of people no longer believe that their elected officials are actually elected. If we don't do something about it, this country is really headed down a dark path.

"In many ways, we have in America what I call 'Democracy 101.' We were one of the earliest democracies, and we haven't upgraded."