The Green Next Door
A Growing Party Goes for the Mainstream Look
By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 28, 2004; Page C01
MILWAUKEE, June 27
Other political fundraisers may have valets, champagne flutes, filet mignon. The Green Party makes do with somebody's messy hotel suite, one tray of unidentifiable meat, a cash bar and then one bit of true glamour. Offered at auction is not one, but two signed copies of the latest People magazine featuring the Green Party's very own Jason West, mayor of New Paltz in Upstate New York and, apparently, one of America's 50 Hottest Bachelors, up there with Tom Cruise.
Every large gathering has its celebrity, and at the Green Party convention this year West filled that role. Last year, at 26, he became one of the the first Green Party candidates elected in New York. In February he made himself famous as the mayor of the small village in Upstate New York that married gay couples.
About 1,000 gay couples have contacted his office. Anti-gay activist Fred Phelps showed up in town. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel filed a suit against him.
The reality show "The Bachelor" called, asking if he wanted to be the next hunk who gets to choose among a harem of women.
"No way. God, would you do that?" he says. He didn't return the call. He didn't take People's call either but then some friends explained to him that while getting into the New York Times is nice, People has a circulation of 30 million. That fact he could square with his politics.
"It's a golden opportunity to show people that Greens are not all hippies and tree huggers," he says. "It helps normalize the Green Party, show people that Greens can look like anyone else."
For young Greens, West makes it manly to be Green -- "our Green hunk," the Green ladies call him. For the party he is the future, part of a wave of young candidates who are getting sophisticated about how to win elections. They know how to make $1,000 and a group of their friends go a long way. They make a distinction between alternative culture and politics. As candidates in the mainstream world, they learn how to pass. They are what Ralph Nader calls "the normal person of tomorrow."
"When we go out there with our piercings and dreads, people are so distracted they can't hear what we say," he says. "I used to campaign in my shaggy beard and I didn't care. But now I try to dress like a young Republican and talk like an anarchist."
"Presentation is something we have to work on," he says. "We can say the most radical thing in a calm, reasoned voice and make it sound like the most common-sense thing ever heard."
The Green Party has more than 250 elected officials, and this year it is fielding 400 candidates, quadruple what it had when the party was founded 10 years ago. The Greens have a campaign school, where candidates learn the scrappy shoestring tactics of a typical Green race.
They have a national finance director, Kara Mullen, who dresses like a Hill staffer but talks more like a radical: "I don't think anyone wants to invite us to share their power, so we just have to take it," she said in her navy suit and kittenish voice at a rally this weekend. Then she passed around paper bags for donations.
One of the more miraculous races was Matt Gonzalez's for San Francisco mayor in 2003 against Gavin Newsom. Gonzalez, a public defender who was elected to the board of supervisors, opened his campaign at a cafe in the lower Haight. He entered the race only 10 weeks before the election.
Still, he raised $800,000 and won 47 percent of the vote while being outspent by a margin of 10 to 1. So nervous were Democrats that they recruited Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Al Gore and, the day before the election, Bill Clinton to speak for Newsom.
"It was our party's race of great possibility," says Ross Mirkarimi, who helped run it. "And we could have won."
Mirkarimi is part of the new wave; he's now running for Gonzalez's seat as supervisor. Brenda Konkel, on the Madison, Wis., city council, is part of the new wave, too. She admits that "after being a protester for so long, figuring out how to be in power is a real struggle." So is Adam Eidinger, running for shadow representative in the District of Columbia.
West's first two races were protest campaigns. He ran for state legislature and spoke about big issues -- universal health care, major environmental causes. After a while he got tired of running to protest and decided he wanted to win.
Both he and his friend and deputy mayor, Rebecca Rotzler, made the decision to run in the election after they realized Bush would invade Iraq on Rotzler's birthday. But they ran on local issues -- sewers and potholes.
They knocked on doors, recruited friends, spent about $2,000. Rotzler took West to buy his first suit. He shaved his beard, cut his hair. He studied the speeches of Ronald Reagan along with those of Martin Luther King. Four days before the election a local paper called West a footnote in the race. He handily beat an incumbent of 12 years. He still lives in a group house, wears plastic flip-flops on weekends and eats leftovers from Tupperware on the go. And the ultimate goal hasn't changed.
"The Green Party started out as a fringe project," he says, "but now we're going to make it mainstream."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company