I walk into the 11:00 a.m. press conference at the Green Party's National Annual Meeting - one of the political party's biggest events of the year - and I'm a little confused. I'm normally accustomed to big rooms for these kinds of events, with chairs lined with journalists, jostling to get the best look at the candidates. But what's in front of me is an entirely different picture.
As expected, Minnesota's six Green Party candidates line a wall at the front of the room, but in front of the podium, where I expect to see the media, I instead find about 15 chairs, most empty, with a few Green Party supporters strewn about. As for the press at this press conference? I'm one of only two members who've shown up.
It's a dark sight, but it shouldn't be a surprise. The Green Party hasn't been a political force in Minnesota for most of the past decade. The party looked to be on the rise in the early aughts, coming off of a 2000 election where presidential candidate Ralph Nader snagged more than 5 percent of the vote in Minnesota. Even local officials, like Minneapolis City councilman Cam Gordon and Park and Recreation board member Annie Young, ran on the Green platform back in 1990s, and both are still holding office today.
But that's basically been it. A Green Party candidate hasn't grabbed more than 5 percent in Minnesota since Nader in 2000. Because of that, the party hasn't qualified as a "major party" in the state for about a decade, meaning candidates haven't had access to perks like campaign subsidies or an automatic place on the ballot. Now, many voters upset about the two-party system have even shifted their preference to the libertarian-leaning Independence Party.
Maybe it's for that reason - to try to build itself back up in Minnesota - that the Green Party opted to hold its Annual National Meeting in the Twin Cities last weekend, at Macalester College in St. Paul.
I've arrived at the conference to talk with Andy Dawkins, the Green Party's candidate for Minnesota Attorney General. Dawkins was a longtime state rep, representing District 65A in St. Paul as a member of the DFL for 15 years. What makes him notable in this year's election, though, is that he's the only statewide candidate who's said no to sulfide mining, the controversial precious metal mining that could possibly damage the waters in the northern part of the state.
(Continue to page 2 to read more about Dawkins and the Green Party.)
Most Republicans have come out in favor of mining, and some DFLers too, pointing to the job gains for workers in the Iron Range. But on a statewide level, no one except Dawkins has openly said they're against it, including the incumbent attorney general, Lori Swanson.
I watch Dawkins give his three-minute speech at the podium, and it's immediately obvious that, even as a third-partier, he's got this campaign thing down, likely due to his past life as a DFL politician. Decked out in the typical campaigning garb of a button-down shirt and khakis, Dawkins throws his hands in the air as he lists off his campaign priorities, giving an emphatic "NO" to big issues like mining, guns, even expanding oil pipelines. It's all under the bigger idea of "whole-earth patriotism," he says.
"We're running for the people, not the corporations!" he yells out. The supporters in the audience applaud. "Votes count more than money!" they say in unison.
After the meeting, I pull Dawkins from his chair at the front of the room, and we sit down to talk policy. We start out talking about sulfide mining, and Dawkins again goes back to "whole-earth patriotism," saying that the water up there is too important to lease out to foreign corporations. I wonder if there's any sort of strict environmental review that might make the mining even a little bit palatable for the candidate. But Dawkins, using his hand to draw an invisible red line on the table in front of us, emphatically refuses, saying that he'd say no, no matter what.
"I don't think we need to do any sort of sulfide mining, period," Dawkins says. "The whole thing is about profit for foreign investors, and to then argue there's a few jobs in the mining industry, well, compare that to the amount of jobs we'd get if we keep doing renewables and sustainables! Until we have that debate, I'm totally against."
Dawkins, along with Independence Party candidate Brandan Borgos, also stands out for his support for recreational marijuana, a position placing him at odds with the two major party candidates. An attorney general can't really do much in the legislature to get something like that passed, but Dawkins has a plan. He thinks he can get law enforcement behind recreational pot. And if that happens, he says, he can get the legislature behind it, too.
Getting law enforcement on board could be nearly impossible, though. It was the police lobby, after all, that helped to weaken this year's medical cannabis bill, and full-on legalization is a whole different story. But Dawkins is convinced that a new bill passed this year making it more difficult for police to take cash from drug busts will change all that.
"So the money [law enforcement] has seen in the past, where they can just take money in case of arrest, that's gone," Dawkins says. "So it's not really a money issue for them anymore." And with the money out of the way, he says, law enforcement will come around to his side.
As of now, Dawkins is actually polling well for a Green Party candidate, pulling in about seven percent of the AG vote, according to a poll from early July. While that doesn't seem like much, getting such a high percentage could be huge for his party. That's above the 5 percent level that would lift the Green Party to that major party status that it hasn't seen in nearly a decade. Dawkins and his campaign insist that the 5 percent doesn't matter, that they just care about the issues. But there's no question that if they do pull it off, the next press conference I see Dawkins at may not be so sparse.