Friday, November 12, 2004

New Mexico: A history lesson for practical fusion

This was forwarded from reader Bill from the Green Horizon Quarterly. He wrote, "Jack Uhrich goes deep into the actual history and experience of the Green Party in New Mexico and asks fundamental questions about Green Party political strategy. This is well worth a read and much pondering."

New Mexico: A history lesson for practical fusion
By Jack Uhrich

In 1994, the New Mexico Green Party made national headlines when its candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor, Roberto Mondragon and Steve Schmidt, received over 10% of the vote, and the favored Democrats in the race, Bruce King and Patsy Madrid, lost.
All of a sudden, seemingly coming from nowhere, the Greens were a power to be reckoned with in New Mexico politics. Over the next six years, they would become what David Cobb called a "flagship" state party of the national Green movement, looked to as a model by Green Parties all over the country.
Yet today, the New Mexico Green Party is a shell of its former self. Its website doesn't appear to have been updated in almost two years. They've only elected two candidates in the last three years, and one of their elected officials, Santa Fe City Council member Miguel Chavez, switched from Green to Democrat in 2002. Further, the Greens' candidate for Governor in 2002, who helped the party regain its ballot status, has also switched his registration to Democrat to help the Dennis Kucinich campaign, and many others in the Albuquerque area have done the same.
What happened to the momentum of the New Mexico Greens? Is their fate indicative of larger issues within the Green Party nationally? What lessons can we learn from their successes and shortcomings?
Even though many independent and Democratic progressives (incorrectly) blamed the Greens for the Democrats' loss in 1994, there were also many progressives - both inside and outside of the Democratic Party - who were glad to have an alternative. In late 1995, this writer helped to pull together Green Party leaders and leaders of New Mexico's Pro PAC (a Political Action Committee for progressive Democrats). An informal compromise was worked out, whereby the Greens agreed not to run candidates against incumbent Democrats that we considered progressive and supportive of our platform. Essentially, New Mexico Greens were practicing what Abe Gutmann called "Practical Fusion", whereby, even though they didn't formally endorse some of the non-Green progressive candidates, Greens were tacitly supporting them by not running someone against them and splitting the progressive vote. And that type of principled, positive cooperation was reciprocated by Progressive Democrats. Green Santa Fe City Councilmember Cris Moore was endorsed by a key local union in his successful bid to become the first elected Green in New Mexico, Abe Gutmann was endorsed by Pro-PAC and the Sierra Club, this writer by the National Association of Social Workers, and other Greens were endorsed by key People-of-Color, feminist, gay and lesbian leaders who were active progressive Democrats. So Greens were seen as exercising their "Green Clout" both ways, by helping progressive Democrats, as well as punishing conservative ones.
Unfortunately, a number of events in late 1996 and early 1997 changed the direction of the Green Party and its strategy. First, the New Mexico Democratic leadership undercut the efforts of progressives in their own party, and blocked the Greens' attempts to run Democratic progressives like state legislator Max Coll and Carol Miller (who was still a Democrat at that time), as fusion candidates on the Green Party ballot line. And in June 1997, the New Party lost its case for fusion before the US Supreme Court, by a daunting 6-3 vote.
Just before the Supreme Court decision, in the spring of 1997, the New Mexico Green Party again made national headlines, when Carol Miller (now a Green), got 17% of the vote in a three-way special election for U.S. Congress. This time there was no denying the "spoiler" impact of a Green in the race. Conservative Republican Bill Redmond defeated Democrat Eric Serna by just 3%. Miller's 17% of the vote was a clear factor in Serna's defeat.
Following the exercising of the spoiler part of the party's "Green clout" in the 1997 race, even more progressive and moderate Democrats made overtures to move towards fusion, whether practical or legal. According to John Nichols, in the August, 1997 issue of The Progressive magazine ("Spoiling for success: in New Mexico, the Green Party costs the Democrats a Congressional seat"), Bill Richardson, then the most prominent New Mexico Democrat, and a Latino, called for "early entreaties" to the Greens, and even talked about a Green-Democrat fusion ticket for Governor in 1998. Also, in early '98 Shirley Baca, a popular, progressive Chicana Democratic State Legislator, approached the Greens about running as a fusion candidate for Congress in New Mexico's southern district, which had a reactionary Republican incumbent. She was even willing to use her situation to put forth another test case on fusion to the New Mexico courts, which many Greens and legal experts believed they could have won.
At the same time, Greens continued to win on the local level. Fran Sena Gallegos was elected as a Santa Fe Judge in March of 1996, Gary Claus was elected to the Silver City Council in May of 1997, and Cris Moore was reelected to the Santa Fe City Council in March of 1998.
But the accumulation of high-profile "spoiler" races had begun to dampen the tenuous coalition the Greens had built with Roberto Mondragon and his progressive allies in the Chicano community.
Mondragon, a life-long friend of Eric Serna's, left the Greens and returned to Serna and the Democrats when the Greens endorsed Carol's run in 1997.
At this point the New Mexico Greens were at a crossroads. Legal fusion, at least as a national strategy, was dead. However, it was still legally possible in New Mexico; there was support for it among even some mainstream Democrats like Richardson, and, even without it, there were practical things that Greens and progressive Democrats had cooperated on up until then, and could continue to cooperate on.
However, at the Green Party's State Convention in 1998, Carol Miller refused the urgings of a number of the elders in the party that she run for another, less volatile office, like Secretary of State, where many felt she had a real chance of winning. Instead, she choose to run again for Congress, this time against popular NM Attorney General Tom Udall. As Attorney General, Udall had protected the Greens' ballot status with a ruling, and he was supportive of many parts of the Green Party Platform.
At that same convention, the Greens voted formally not to continue to seek fusion, but to instead push for IRV as its major electoral reform. They did stay out of the Governor's race, but they refused to support Shirley Baca for Congress, or moderate Republican Lorenzo Garcia in his race for Treasurer (even though he had gained the Greens their highest vote total ever in a statewide race, 33%, running as a Green in 1994).
Besides Miller's race, 1998 also brought two more spoiler races where the Democrats lost. Green Bob Anderson gained more than 15% of the vote in a Congressional special election in Albuquerque in the spring of 1998, and then more than 10% in the General Election in the fall.
In both races, Anderson's percentages prevented the Democrat from winning and helped elect conservative Heather Wilson, who is now a national force in Republican politics.
In the meantime, Carol Miller received less than 4% in her race against Tom Udall, avoiding another Democratic loss. However, her decision to run caused a major split amongst Greens over practical fusion vs. the more purist spoiler/IRV strategy. Many Greens in Miller's district and around the state had openly expressed concern about the spoiler effect of her run in the Udall race, and Abe Gutmann, even went so far as to organize a "Greens for Udall"
campaign. He was ultimately censured by the party for taking financial support from Udall for this effort, but his censure led to an ongoing internal struggle that ultimately split the party in two, and that continues to this day.
Along with that, Miller's insistence on running against Udall, coupled with the outcome of the 1998 Congressional races in Albuquerque, angered many in organized labor, the People-of-Color communities, and other former allies of the Greens in the gay and lesbian, environmentalist, and women's movements. Most people agreed that the Democratic candidate in Albuquerque was particularly weak, but they also felt that the Republican, Heather Wilson, was infinitely worse.
Consequently, in 1999, a coalition of progressive People-of-Color groups attacked the New Mexico Greens with a public campaign that reached the national media, accusing them of being racist and not caring about working-class people.
The Greens eventually met with and worked-out an uneasy truce with these groups, but the die was cast. From then on, for all intents and purposes, active alliances between the Greens and People-of-Color organizations - as well as most of organized labor and other progressive groups - were essentially over.
In 2000, there was yet another high-level spoiler race in the Albuquerque Congressional race, coupled with the impact of Ralph Nader's national race. So, in a period of six years, the Green Party of New Mexico found themselves involved in 6 high-profile "spoiler"
races, in addition to the Nader 2000 race. In each race, there were good reasons not to like the choices the Democrats offered. But in each case, the Republican who was elected was measurably worse than the Democrat. And in the case of Udall's election, the state Green Party officially opposed him, and then punished the most prominent Green who supported him, alienating many of Udall's supporters, most of whom would have supported Greens in other races.
All of this set the stage for what has taken place since. Despite the Greens continued arguments that IRV is ultimately in the Democrats'
interest to support, the Democratic establishment appears to have chosen instead to wait out the Greens. They apparently believe that the Greens will eventually wear out their welcome with the people, who they think will ultimately decide that it's better to elect a bad Democrat than vote for a Green and see an even worse Republican elected.
The Democrats' strategy seems to be working. At present there are only two elected Greens in office, down from a high of five in 2000.
New Mexico's experience with their own six Spoiler races, combined with the impact of the 2000 Presidential race, has left every state Green Party with a spoiler "albatross" that it must begin to address realistically. In order to implement practical reforms like Instant Runoff Voting, Greens need to have at least a working relationship with Democrats, especially those closest to the beliefs and values of the Green Party Platform. But the effects of continuous spoiler races, without counter-balancing cooperative efforts with the broader progressive community, have been to drive a wedge between the two camps.
A different strategy is needed. I advocate that we return to the original New Mexico strategy of fusion, both legal fusion, where possible, and practical fusion where it isn't. That does not mean we should abandon the quest for IRV, or that we would never use the threat of "spoiling" a race. The "spoiler" races in 1994 and 1997 obviously had some major positive outcomes towards building the party (though there were also a major downside to the 1997 race – the loss of Mondragon and our coalition with many in the people-of-color communities).
Our initial judicious use of a combination of practical fusion and spoiling in the mid-90s enabled us to come very close (one vote, in the last legislative committee) to getting IRV on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.
However, after 1997 the party became too rigid in its approach, too unwilling to accept certain political realities that they were not in a position to change at that time, and too lacking in collective knowledge about how to negotiate with the Green Clout they had built.
Instead, the political purism of the New Mexico Greens of the late 90s (and this author embarrassingly includes himself as all-too-often a part of that purist camp), led to too few wins on the local level to counter-balance the effect of the high-profile spoiler races, and a growing unwillingness on the part of new candidates to step forward and run on the Green Party line. This left the public with the perception that the Greens may have admirable values and good ideas, but don't have the knowledge to make them reality.
Looking back, one cannot help but wonder, what if, after the 1997 race, Carol Miller had instead run for Secretary of State and the Greens had instead supported Udall openly, as well as Shirley Baca in her southern New Mexico Congressional race (a race she could also have run with our support)? Both Democrats were basically supportive of most of the Green Party Platform. What if both of them had won, with open Green support? What if, instead of running in the second election in '98, Bob Anderson had declared the first race as essentially the first outcome of an IRV-style selection process, with him being the candidate disqualified in the first round of voting, and thrown his support to the Democratic candidate in the second race.
It's possible that New Mexico would now have possibly three Democrats in Congress instead of just one, and two of them more progressive than most Democrats in Congress.
Would not the Green Party in New Mexico also have looked different today? When progressives saw that the Green Party used their Green Clout in more than just negative ways, the Green Party wouldn't have been yoked with the "spoiler" albatross. Green Clout would be seen as a force that could help Democrats as well as hurt them. In turn, the New Mexico Green Party today would be enjoying increased support from labor, progressive organizations, People of Color organizations and progressive Democrats, all grateful for the critical support of the Greens - support that had been the key to victory in these elections.
Perhaps then, Abe Gutmann's 45% vote for City Council in 1997, and Melissa McDonald's 46% in her 2000 race for County Commissioner, would have instead been stretched to a winning 51%, and Greens would have representation in the governments of two of the most influential counties in the state. Perhaps Tom Udall and other progressive Democrats would have been so grateful for our support that they would have continued their qualified support for the party, and we would be growing in numbers, candidates, and newly elected Greens, instead of scratching our heads as to what went wrong.
Unfortunately, the history of New Mexico's Green Party cannot be rewritten. Greens can only learn from it, apply it to their own times, develop new strategies, and try to do better in their future work. But the history lesson of New Mexico is that it's time for a change in strategy, if the Green Party is to grow and thrive.
As we go to press, there is some indication that the climate in New Mexico is starting to change. Popular Green leader Rick Lass has decided to drop out of his race for the New Mexico State Legislature, so as not to split the vote with a progressive Democrat, who has a better chance of winning, and who supports much of the Green Party Platform. Perhaps once again, the New Mexico Green Party will provide a model for Green Parties all over the country to look up to.

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