Why the Statehood Green Party is 'withering into near-oblivion'
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.
| November 30, 2010; 4:16 PM ET
Categories: The District
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