At 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, when the Green Party's first-ever statewide convention is slated to get under way at the St. Cloud Civic Center, I'm waiting at Burger King for my sausage, egg, and cheese Croissan'wich. There is a perfectly good reason that I have shunned the Greens in favor of the drive-thru line. As I skimmed through the convention guidelines, one fact stood out: No food would be served. Those attending were advised to bring a bag lunch. Green gubernatorial candidate Nick Raleigh presciently suggested that a bag dinner might be needed as well.
As it turns out, the lack of food ends up being the convention's saving grace. If not for the dearth of victuals, Green Party delegates might still be debating the existence of NOTA or the meaning of "majority," as they were doing when I finally arrived at close to 11:00 a.m. (smelling suspiciously, no doubt, of processed pork).
NOTA is "none of the above." And this non-gender-specific person/thing is the main topic of conversation at the convention this morning. "I'm not sure who NOTA is, but I think he might have been my neighbor," cracks one delegate. "Are we actually talking about giving NOTA personage?" asks another bewildered Green. Pacing the back of the convention floor, Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmermann grows exasperated. "Are we still working on rules?" he wonders. "Jesus Christ."
While the NOTA debate is, on the face of it, patently absurd, the semantic hair-splitting presages the central drama of the day: whether or not the Greens should endorse a candidate to run against liberal icon U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. If NOTA wins out over the three Green candidates seeking their party's endorsement, that leaves Minnesota's senior senator free to woo lefty voters at his leisure. Winona LaDuke, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2000, has sent a letter imploring delegates to follow this course. Other party faithfuls aren't interested in helping the DFLer. "If this is so fucking important to Senator Wellstone, then where is his ass?" asks delegate Tom Taylor.
As the NOTA debate lingers on I seek out one of the candidates hoping to take on Wellstone. Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa is an Oglala Sioux author, lawyer, Vietnam veteran, and former ironworker. He's also a virtual unknown--a significant number of delegates had never heard of him prior to today's convention. "I'm not running against Wellstone," maintains McGaa, wearing a baggy, mustard-colored blazer and elaborate, beaded-string tie. "Wellstone has nothing to do with it."
McGaa says his motivation for running is to spread the ideas that he's written about in books such as Native Wisdom: Perceptions of the Natural Way. "They need an Indian in Washington, with totally different values," he declares. McGaa says the first bill he'd introduce would mandate that Congress be composed equally of men and women. There's been some grumbling among delegates about his military background and lack of previous involvement with the Greens, but McGaa dismisses such concerns. "I've been a Green all my life," he asserts.
Despite the glacial pace of the morning's activities, everything kicks into gear after a lunch break at 2:00 p.m. The Greens quickly endorse two enthusiastic candidates, Dave Berger and Andrew Koebrick, for state auditor and secretary of state, respectively. These races could prove crucial for the Greens. To maintain its status as a major party in Minnesota (earned when Ralph Nader took five percent of the presidential vote in 2000), the party must receive more than five percent in at least one statewide race.
Berger points out that in the last election the virtually unknown Constitution Party garnered more than five percent of the vote. An avid marathoner, he intends to literally run in all 87 Minnesota counties. "We could actually win this office with 34 or 35 percent," argues Berger, who teaches sociology at Inver Hills Community College. "We can show people that we're not spoilers, that we're a real party."
As Berger speaks, the party's gubernatorial hopefuls are taking turns at the sunflower-draped podium. This is the first contested endorsement of the day, and it proves to be a lopsided battle. Ken Pentel, a veteran environmental activist who ran for governor in 1998, easily clears the two-thirds hurdle for endorsement on the convention's first ballot.
Although Pentel ran closer to Fancy Ray McCloney than Jesse Ventura in 1998 (he won less than one percent of the popular vote), this year could prove different. He's a seasoned, passionate speaker with a nose for political marketing, as evidenced by the bright-orange Pentel T-shirts--adorned with the slogan "refreshingly clean politics"--being worn by dozens of delegates. What's more, in 1998 Pentel spent just $17,000 on the campaign; this election cycle he is eligible for up to $250,000 in public dollars. "Where the Green Party was four years ago, when I ran, compared to where it is now is amazing," he beams.
That said, nobody will confuse this convention with a Republican Party soiree. The next office on the agenda is attorney general, and there are no declared candidates. So when the floor is opened for nominations, Aaron Petty's name is put forward. A self-described handyman, Petty professes ignorance about exactly what duties are performed by the attorney general. "I'd have to find out more about the position and make sure that I was qualified to serve the party," he tells the delegates. When the floor is opened for questions, Petty faces blunt queries about his competence. "Wouldn't 'none of the above' be a less embarrassing choice for us?" asks one delegate. In the end Petty loses out to NOTA, 309 to 151.
This clears the way for the main event: U.S. Senate. Three candidates (excluding NOTA) are expected to vie for the endorsement: Ed McGaa, Tim Davis, and Brian Slowinski. When the time comes to nominate candidates, however, no one raises Slowinski's name. The Reform Party refugee, whose slogan is "common man, common sense, common ground," stands dejectedly at the back of the room. When I ask him what happened, Slowinski claims that one of his opponents, Davis, had promised to have someone nominate him. Soon after, he slinks out of the civic center.
A passionate debate ensues about whether the Greens should challenge Wellstone. Tom Taylor, a Minneapolis delegate, expresses the sentiments of many party faithfuls. "Is Wellstone so high and mighty that we can't run anybody against him? This is extortion, emotional extortion." Taylor allows that in the end he'll probably vote for Wellstone, but he believes it's important for the Greens to pressure the incumbent senator. "We're probably the best thing that's happened to him, because he's gonna have to run to the left," he argues. "That's where his strength lies."
NOTA gets 64 votes, Davis earns 190, and McGaa comes in first with 221 delegates. Since no one received the required 66 percent, a runoff must be held between Davis and McGaa.
Until now, most everyone on the floor has adhered to the Greens' credo of nonviolence. But now it's past 10:00 p.m., three hours after the convention was scheduled to end, and the knives quickly come out. A female delegate suggests that McGaa is a phantom candidate, and that he will eventually drop out of the race, clearing the way for Wellstone. McGaa adamantly denies this. Davis then questions his opponent's commitment to population control, noting that he has seven children. Party chairman Cam Gordon reminds everyone that there's a cash bar at the back of the room.
On the second ballot McGaa emerges victorious, ensuring that the diversity-conscious Greens will have a candidate on the ballots who's not a white male. It's now 11:30 p.m., 13 hours after the convention commenced.
Luckily, Burger King stays open late.
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