On a brisk Sunday afternoon in October, about 15 volunteers gathered in Baltimore to canvass for the Nov. 6 election. It had rained earlier that day and the sky was still overcast, yet the volunteers were cheerful and optimistic. The party they were advocating for — the Greens — has never won an election in Baltimore, where, as of September, about 80 percent of registered voters are Democrats. But supporters have a new strategy for this year's contests: a blitz of candidates.
A record 24 Greens are on the ballot in Maryland this cycle. (There are also two running as write-ins.) To put that in perspective: One in eight Green Party candidates running at all levels of government across the country this year are running in Maryland. Thirteen are running for the Maryland General Assembly, three for the U.S. House of Representatives, six for local municipal offices, and two on a gubernatorial ticket. They include an occupational therapist, a retired archivist and an environmental activist who started a “Toxic Tour” of brownfield sites in Baltimore.
Over the past three years, discontent among progressives has helped the Greens in Maryland grow from three county chapters to 11, explains Owen Silverman Andrews, a co-chair of the Baltimore City Green Party. Now the Greens are attempting to seize a particularly favorable political moment: Across the country, emboldened progressives have been mounting a series of successful challenges to longtime Democratic incumbents. In the Maryland primary in June, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, a first-time candidate, won 22 out of 24 counties over the party establishment’s pick for governor, and progressive challengers also defeated longtime Democratic leaders down ballot. (The major caveat to this situation is the popularity of the state’s moderate Republican governor, Larry Hogan, who is favored to win reelection.)
But can the Greens actually capitalize on all the energy within the Democratic Party’s left flank? After all, many liberals are still furious with Ralph Nader, the Green presidential candidate in 2000, who they say “stole” votes from Al Gore. And in August, some Democrats were apoplectic when it appeared the Greens could make the difference in an Ohio election for a House seat. In the end, the Republican won by 1,680 votes, while the Green candidate won 1,165 — not enough to tip the election, but close.
Perhaps this is why Greens in Maryland are avoiding more competitive races in purple districts — this cycle anyway. Instead, they’re competing in solidly blue and red districts, places that don’t usually have general election contests at all. “People don’t like having just one option, you know?” says Andy Ellis, a Green candidate for House of Delegates in Maryland’s 45th district.
The Green candidate who probably has the most name recognition is Joshua Harris, a 32-year-old communications strategist for abortion rights advocacy group NARAL. In 2016, he was the party’s first candidate for mayor in Baltimore. While just 1,200 voters in the city were registered with the Green Party, Harris racked up nearly 21,000 votes, or 13 percent of the total. There was a similar pattern statewide that year. About 9,000 Greens were registered, but the party’s U.S. Senate candidate, Margaret Flowers, earned 90,000 votes. “We’re the only party where the vote total is always bigger than the number registered,” says Ellis.
Now Harris is running for House of Delegates in Maryland’s 40th, where the Green Party volunteers I followed on a recent Sunday were talking to voters. The 40th is a diverse district that includes impoverished neighborhoods in West Baltimore, as well as some of the most quickly gentrifying parts of the city. Every four years, voters choose three people to represent the district, and Harris is competing this cycle against three Democrats. He needs to beat only one of them, as the canvassers kept reminding potential voters: “Harris doesn’t have to be your favorite.”
This year, Greens are also challenging six GOP incumbents in Western Maryland, although odds of victory are remote: Washington County, for instance, has just 250 registered Greens as of September. Brian Griffiths, editor in chief of RedMaryland.com, says he doubts whether Republicans “think very much about Green Party candidates anywhere.” If anything, he went on, “any legitimate challenges by Green Party candidates in Western Maryland speaks more to the fact that Maryland Democrats ignore the fact that people live beyond the Baltimore-Washington corridor.”
Mark McLaurin, political director of Service Employees International Union Local 500, one of the state’s largest unions, thinks voters who turn out for Greens could help elect more progressive Democrats elsewhere on the ballot. “I think they can reach some low-propensity voters who are so disillusioned with some of the corporate excesses of the Democratic Party that they otherwise might not vote at all,” he says. SEIU Local 500 endorsed Harris this cycle.
Corey Gaber, a registered Democrat and a public school teacher in Baltimore, is among the disillusioned who says he plans to vote for Harris, because “it’s just machine politics around here, and the policy solutions proposed in Annapolis rarely match what I would like to see.”
Whatever happens Nov. 6, Maryland Green Party officials are thinking about 2020 and beyond. State party co-chair Virginia Rodino says after November they will turn their attention to building up county chapters, launching a candidate training program and increasing fundraising. Ellis says they’d like to elect 10 Greens to the General Assembly by 2026. “It could work like it does in British Columbia, where the Greens often hold the tie-breaking vote in parliament, and therefore have lots of leverage,” he says. “That’s a good model of what we’re trying to do.”
Gaber, the schoolteacher, says others in Baltimore are watching these contests closely, curious to see if a third-party candidate can actually win: “I know people saying, ‘Well, if this works, then I’m running next cycle as a Green.’ ”
Rachel Cohen is a writer in Washington.