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Posted at 4:16 PM ET, 11/30/2010

Why the Statehood Green Party is 'withering into near-oblivion'

By Mike DeBonis

My Friday not-a-column considered what value, if any, partisan races add to city politics, and it included a shot at the District's stalwart, perpetually third party: "The Statehood Green Party," I wrote, "has withered into near-oblivion."

The swipe earned a lengthy retort in the comments and in themail newsletter from David Schwartzman, the Howard University biology professor who has run twice now for an at-large council seat and who has been by far the most prominent face for the Statehood Greens of late.

Schwartzman criticized me and the Post for our "continued marginalization" of the Statehood Greens, aka the only party to take on the "urban structural adjustment program put in place by the Control Board regime, so essential needs like affordable housing and child care continue to be woefully underfunded in our budget."

"The Washington Post might try earning its reputation as the newspaper of record and fulfilling its social responsibility by making even the political playing field with meaningful coverage of issues, including voices of dissent from its own big corporate-driven discourse," he wrote.

Well. The Post, so far as I understand it, doesn't consider its "social responsibility" to be "making even the playing field" so much as it is to report on our world as it happens to exist. But Schwartzman is right to think that the Statehood Greens deserve more than a one-sentence dismissal.

By my reportorial standard -- that is, empirical reality -- there are several ways to describe the Statehood Green party's descent into "near-oblivion."

Some newer District resident might be prompted to ask -- when were the Statehood Greens not on the brink of oblivion? The party has a distinguished history of activism in this city that deserves respect, but I will only recount this fact: From Home Rule until 1999, the Statehood Party (it affiliated with the national Green Party in 1999) earned its relevance by holding one of the two minority-party at-large seats on the D.C. Council, held first by its founder, firebrand activist Julius Hobson Sr., and then for 22 years by Hilda Mason.

By virtually any standard since then, the Statehood Greens have withered.

First off, there's party registration. According to readily available statistics from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics, which go back to 2003, Statehood Green registration peaked in 2004 with 5,215 registrees -- about 1.4 percent of the total. Since then, even as total voter registration has risen, the Statehood Greens have continued to shed followers. The current total stands at 4,333 registered voters, or 0.97 percent of the total.

Then there's actually holding public office. The Statehood Greens haven't held a seat since Mason was ousted from the council in 1998. A few party members hold nonpartisan advisory neighborhood commission seats, though two of them, Chris Otten and Nancy Shia, are leaving their seats this year. Schwartzman and others note that Statehood Green candidates have gotten more aggregate votes than Republican candidates in 2006 and 2010. True, but Republicans have not entered every city race in those years, while the Statehood Greens have been pretty good about finding people to run for office. (It helps that their ballot access is among the easiest in the city, currently needing only 44 registrant signatures for primary races.)

If you isolate the at-large council race -- in which the non-Democratic parties have a structural advantage due to the non-majority-party set-aside -- the Statehood Greens have shown no signs of being anything more than a receptacle for the ballots of voters who simply won't cast their second at-large vote for a Republican. In 2000, the year of Ralph Nader and the height of Green Party strength, the SG at-large candidate mustered 11 percent of the vote. That fell to 7.2 percent in 2002; 7.7 percent in 2004; 6.9 percent in 2006; 5.1 percent in 2008; and 6.8 percent this year (when there was no Republican in the race).

There's money. In the current election cycle, the Statehood Green party and its four local candidates who filed with campaign finance authorities raised about $18,000. Meanwhile, the D.C. Republican Committee and its candidates spent more than $115,000. Schwartzman bristles at politicians who take "corporate money" but fact of the matter is that, corporations or no corporations, Statehood Green candidates have been not able to get much fundraising traction outside of the party faithful. And when the party faithful amounts to less than 1 percent of the voting base, you've got a problem.

Finally, there's the conversation. The Statehood Greens simply aren't in it. Not so many years back, Statehood Green-affiliated activists managed to get attention to their message in creative ways -- crashing a ballpark press conference comes to mind. These days, you don't hear much of anything but whining like Schwartzman's about how the media doesn't want to cover them.

Political pros call newspaper and broadcast coverage "earned media" for a reason. The instructive example here is the city Republicans, who, post-Carol Schwartz, find themselves in a similar predicament as the post-Hilda Mason Statehooders. But the Republicans actually seem to have a strategy and the wherewithal to execute it. They have a message attuned to the city it inhabits -- libertarian on social issues, conservative on fiscal policy and bulldog-ish on honest government. It helps that the local GOP raises enough money to hire a full-time executive director whose job it is to keep pressure on the Democratic establishment -- and, through news releases, opposition research, publicity stunts and more, earns Republicans media coverage.

There is a place in the city political universe for a left flank to the Democratic establishment, but the Statehood Greens aren't providing it. Is it on environmental issues? If so, they've been pretty well co-opted by the Democrats, with council members Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) leading the council's progressive wing. Is it budget equity for the poor? The leadership tends to come from ad hoc alliances such as the Fair Budget Coalition and Save Our Safety Net, with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute providing analytical backbone. Is it on statehood? Maybe, but the Statehood Greens simply haven't been able to organize a coherent alternative to the establishment voting-rights effort embodied by D.C. Vote and Eleanor Holmes Norton.

An even better indication that the Statehood Greens need to get their act together: Since the column ran Friday, only Schwartzman has bothered to dispute my assessment. None of the remaining 4,332 registered Statehood Green voters bothered to write or call.

By Mike DeBonis  | November 30, 2010; 4:16 PM ET
Categories:  The District  
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DeBonis- you are tough- but this is a great analysis of what is happening to the Greens.

Posted by: peterdc | December 1, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Makes mental note...don't annoy DeBonis. Owwww.

Posted by: janowicki | December 1, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Excellent excellent analysis. Thank you.

Posted by: rmutt92 | December 1, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Mr. DeBonis,

Thank you for writing about the Greens in D.C. Enjoyed the read. Some Green Party members say similar things.

Know David Schwartzman about 12 years. Admire his dedication to the Green Party.

I just returned from the Green Party convention in Freiburg, Germany. pictures

Greens are on the verge of electing 3 or 4 Governors in 2011.

For the Green Party in the U.S. to grow to the extent necessary it must be inclusive, exciting, creative. It's about increasing membership with more candidates. Candidates. Candidates.

Keep reporting on and covering the Greens.

Carey Campbell
State Chair
Independent Greens of Virginia

Posted by: CareyCampbell | December 1, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Debonis's comments reveal the shallowness of his political analysis, with a perspective arising comfortably out of the Post's near-monopoly newspaper status. His elitist perspective is no doubt shared by the Post's editorialists, who simply cannot understand why the Statehood Green party cannot get the same "wherewithal" like Republicans can to get their message out. Of course, "wherewithal" means courting corporate dollars, and doing the bidding of those corporate donors.

The Statehood Green Party operates in a city that is probably 90 percent Democratic, despite the failures of that Party to do little more than act as front men and women for the forces of gentrification and mass incarceration. We attempt to organize the most vulnerable and downtrodden in DC, a group that is generally alienated from politics. Yes, organizations like the Fair Budget Coalition and the Economic Policy Institute do extremely important work, but they do not and cannot run political candidates. Are they to wait for a corporate-funded candidate to take up their causes? That will be a long wait.

In the recent Council At-Large race, David Catania (Mr. Schwartzman's main opponent) raised nearly $500,000 in campaign bribery, overwhelmingly from developers, law firms, parking garage owners, and hospitals, virtually all of this corporate money. This "fundraising traction" enabled him to pay his campaign workers $200 a day to put signs all over this city and pester residents about his failed policies. Mr. Schwartzman's campaign was a volunteer effort, with less than $20,000 to spend, mostly on signs and palm cards. Yet Mr. Schwartzman covered every Ward, and his candidacy was extremely well-received at every public forum and every street corner where we campaigned. We carried the message of groups like the Fair Budget Coalition, calling for tax reform rather than budgets balanced on the backs of the poor. We did not win the election, but we engaged people, we brought in new voters, and we put up a good fight on behalf of the poor of this city. This is certainly more than can be said for any of the Democratic or "independent" candidates.

For Mr. Debonis to sneer that Mr. Schwartzman's loss to a candidate who outspent him more than 20 to 1 somehow reflects poorly on Mr. Schwartzman's politics is insipid. He lost to an extremely well-funded empty suit whose seat was literally purchased by corporate interests. Now Mr. Catania is free to oppose raising taxes on the wealthy and instead rail against the poor and their unwillingness to sacrifice, as he has been doing for the last few weeks.

The Statehood Green Party is the last, best hope for the poor and disenfranchised in DC. If there is to be an electoral solution to the problems we are facing, it will not come through the Democrats or the Republicans, and it will likely not be reported in the Washington Post.

Posted by: Shaw936 | December 7, 2010 6:26 PM | Report abuse

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