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A full Saturday of populist workshops and political head-scratching is winding down at St. Louis Park High School, and roughly 100 Green Party stalwarts are gathered in the cafeteria, taking stock. A white-haired man in a fedora rises to make a final point about the party's immediate future.
"How many people here have been involved in an anti-war demonstration the last two weeks?" he asks. Nearly everyone in the room, including party chair Cam Gordon, former gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel, and Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmermann, raises a hand. "That is the crucial issue," the man concludes emphatically. "I want the Greens to lead on this, because nobody else is."
The Greens' seeming epiphany at this weekend meeting of activists and officials is that they are still a major party in Minnesota--and the peace movement is theirs alone, politically speaking. Is it an opening large enough to invigorate the party?
But inevitably someone starts riffing on what ultimately remains the biggest obstacle for the Greens, both locally and nationally: the widespread perception that the party is exclusively made up of aging hippie loonies. Or there's the other misconception, that the party is merely a vehicle for the evil Ralph Nader, who corrupted the democratic process more than two years ago by daring to run for president and dooming us all to the horrors of another Bush administration.
Image is everything, sure. But there are other more tangible, pressing concerns today, especially for the Minnesota Greens. The party flourished in Minnesota during the Nader years, making great strides in grassroots organizing, scoring two seats on the Minneapolis City Council, and gaining major-party status in 2000 as more than 5 percent of voting Minnesotans cast a ballot for cranky old Ralph.
But that was before the economy bottomed out, before the terrorist attacks, before the backlash against the Wellstone memorial, before the nation's political climate veered hard to the right. The Greens, fielding several candidates for state offices (including Pentel's high-profile bid), barely showed up in the 2002 election returns--despite major-party perks like ballot access and state money.
"We learned a little lesson in that last election," Gordon says. "Despite the history of populism, Minnesota is perhaps a more conservative state than we thought. Suddenly Green voters did not want to be spoilers, and in general, people were living in fear. People go conservative when fearful."
But now Gordon senses resentment toward the new Republican regime, especially Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Sen. Norm Coleman. Gordon notes Green opportunities on a local level, citing a handful of house seats that are opening up as Pawlenty appoints his administration. More importantly, Gordon and other Greens see a growing number of voters who feel they have nothing left to lose.
And that's where the peace strategy comes in. "Our goals for nonviolence can translate into votes," claims Pentel, adding that the Green Party is the only political apparatus where "people can express those values." Though he was disappointed in the Green showing in last election, where he only managed to get 2 percent of the vote, Pentel adds: "I see it now as a huge surge in our organizing. The outcome was not as important as the participation."
Maybe. But in reality none of the Green candidates fared well enough to ensure major-party status. After reviewing a vague Minnesota law, state officials finally decided that Nader's tally in 2000 was good enough for the Greens to remain a major party until 2004. But to keep it, the Greens will have to field a Presidential candidate that can again garner five percent of the vote across the state-an unlikely scenario, as there are no legitimate candidates in view.
"It's a lot of pressure, because many of us feel this is an appropriate time to stay out of the presidential race," Gordon admits, saying a local focus is crucial for survival. "The benefits might not outweigh the cost. Our agenda will remain the same even if we become a minor party again. But my fear is that it will be a blow to morale, that it will look like a setback."
But there's still a muted optimism at the winter retreat. For starters, it's the biggest turnout the party's ever had for the annual event. And it's a diverse group, wide-ranging in age and socioeconomic background (though the group is overwhelmingly white; Minneapolis city council member Natalie Johnson Lee and her husband are the only African Americans present). Finally, there's applause for the news that Johnson Lee is flying to Washington to give the national Green Party's response to President Bush's State of the Union address.
After wrapping up some more party business, Gordon leads the group through a song that starts with the line "May all beings be well." He calls it "The Peace Song."
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