Calif. Democrats Feeling a Little Green
By William Booth
In a long-shot campaign in which she was outspent by as much as 20 to 1 and handed out photocopied campaign literature, Audie Bock defeated former two-term Oakland mayor Elihu Harris by about 300 votes in a special runoff election Tuesday for the Oakland-area seat in the California State Assembly.
Though there are 31 Green Party members in local offices around California, the victory for Bock puts the Greens into their first state office in the nation. Greens have tried to win state offices in New Mexico, Maine, New Hampshire and Alaska, and though they have failed, they are increasingly garnering enough votes to affect the election's outcome.
The upset in Oakland was a shocker and an embarrassment for establishment Democrats, who had poured money and endorsements into the race, and had largely written off the Green challenge as the flitting of a small fringe group.
That was a big mistake.
Bock, 53, a single mother who teaches ethnic studies at a local community college and runs a foreign language film distribution business from her lace-curtained Victorian home, ran a competitive grass-roots campaign.
She walked the neighborhoods, distributing photocopies of her single flier, vowing to do something to improve Oakland's crumbling inner city, bad schools and clogged public transportation. Her sound bite? "Our living standard has declined because we are not educating our kids, caring for our sick and maintaining our urban environment."
On Thursday, Bock was comparing her win to the upset by wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura, newly elected as governor of Minnesota, saying that voters are searching for "outsider" candidates who are not part of the traditional two-party system. "Everywhere you go, people are sick of what's going or not going on," Bock said. "That's why they're looking at third parties. They're tired of the entrenched interests."
Indeed, part of Bock's campaign was the slogan, "Vote Green, Not Machine." Bock was a Democrat until she joined the Greens in 1996, supporting consumer advocate Ralph Nader's bid for president.
"I think you're going to see a lot more Greens running for office in 2000," predicted Nancy Marmol of the Green Party of California.
In many ways, the victory here for the Greens was a local phenomenon. Oakland is a city that seems to be getting tired of failure and looking for change. That was one message in the recent election of Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown as Oakland mayor. Brown himself quit the Democratic Party several years ago and is now an independent.
Bock's opponent in the Assembly race, Harris, was Oakland mayor twice and in the California Assembly for 12 years. He was a right-hand man for the powerful Willie Brown when he ruled over the California Assembly. Brown, now mayor of San Francisco, is a Harris supporter.
The voters were not crazy about Harris, who failed to win a majority in February's primary election.
And that was before "chickengate."
Right before the February primary, in an attempt to boost turnout, the Democratic Party mailed letters to targeted voters, many of them poor and black, telling them they could present the letter and a ballot stub (proving they had voted) at local churches in exchange for $5 coupon redeemable for a chicken and potato salad dinner at any Pak N' Save Grocery store.
Compensating citizens for voting is illegal in federal elections, and in many states. But not in California, where Democratic-controlled legislatures have protected the process. The coupons were legal and did not endorse any one candidate. But there were other letters, the Greens charge, before and after the "chicken letters" doing just that.
Bock and the Greens seized on the chicken incident during their runoff campaign, citing it as an example of a corrupt system run by political hacks.
"The chicken stuff was appalling and seemed to a lot of people like vote buying," said Greg Jan, Bock's campaign manager.
Political operatives say Harris spent as much as $700,000 on his campaigns in the primary and runoff. He had pollsters and paid consultants. Bock spent $1,400 in the primary campaign, in which she got only 9 percent of the vote. She eventually spent another $35,000 on the runoff, but did it all with volunteers.
Before her election to the California Assembly this week, the last race she ran was for treasurer at Berkeley High School.
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