Wither the Greens: A Once-Formidable Party Hopes for a Small Win This November

A week before the June primary, Barry Hermanson and John-Marc Chandonia, two prominent members of the San Francisco Green Party, decided to conduct an ad hoc experiment. They chose two precincts within the Haight-Ashbury District and saturated just one of them with fliers — a task that required about two hours of climbing stairs, opening mail boxes, lifting doormats, and slipping papers between metal grates.

After election day, Chandonia analyzed the results. Fliering didn't really affect voter turnout for the Green Party, he says, noting that it was about the same for the untouched precinct as for the targeted one. That said, overall turnout increased by 10 percent.

Hermanson, who was running a subdued campaign for Congress, found the results heartening. “It's a small sample size, and I'd wait until we have the resources to do six, or eight, or 10 precincts,” he says. “But it would be extraordinary if we could increase turnout by 10 percent, just by dropping literature.”

That's enough to move the needle, even for a political party that's become more of a splinter group. The question, of course, is where the resources to distribute fliers will come from.

Hermanson and Chandonia presented their findings at last week's member meeting, held in a stuffy third-floor chamber of the Redstone building on 16th and Capp streets. Nine people attended, not including two endorsement seekers, a newspaper reporter, and Chandonia's two young daughters, who busied themselves drawing “Gren Parte” signs in crayon. Other nonprofits held livelier meetings across the hall, while a black-box theater company rehearsed downstairs.

The Green Party had suffered an emphatic defeat on June 3, with gubernatorial candidate Luis Rodriguez earning 2 or 3 percent in San Francisco of the state vote, and Secretary of State candidate David Curtis garnering 6.6 percent. The mood was one of somber resignation.

It wasn't always this way.

The Green Party was founded in Europe during the 1970s by do-gooders who embraced environmentalism, social justice, and labor equality. (Hermanson interpreted those values rather broadly in his recent congressional campaign, in which he stumped for a free Palestine, tuition-free colleges, and the elimination of homelessness, among other things.) At one point, Greens were considered a viable third party to Democrats and Republicans — and in progressive cities like San Francisco, they actually were.

Eleven years ago, in fact, the Green Party was enjoying a renaissance in this city. Then-Supervisor Matt Gonzalez was running a formidable mayoral campaign against Gavin Newsom, and looked as if he might actually have a shot. Gonzalez had switched allegiances from Democratic to Green in 2000, surprising everyone and roiling the political scene in San Francisco. Suddenly, the hard-luck Greens had an icon, and the Democrats had a threat. National politics had also swung in the Green Party's favor, with left-wing voters disenchanted by the Clinton and Bush regimes. Without an opening at the state or federal level, progressives shifted their attention locally. Upstart Greens like Gonzalez earned a newfound cachet.

“When Matt ran for mayor as a Green, it was just this stunning development,” retired San Francisco State professor Richard DeLeon recalls. “The Democratic Party was running scared.”

The mood was more upbeat at that time, too. Chandonia's wife, Erika McDonald, remembers marching with a Green contingent in the 2003 Pride Parade, amid armies of bikes, roller skaters, and pedal-powered carriages. (Greens wouldn't use floats, she explains, because they're motor-powered and therefore carbon-emitting.)

“I remember hearing that Edwin Starr song from the '70s: 'War — What Is It Good For?'” she says now. “It was about the aftermath of Vietnam, but it seemed so relevant then.”

Gonzalez lost to Newsom, but the Green Party stayed aloft for several years. It had seen a few successes, with Mark Sanchez's successful school board bid in 2000, and Gonzalez renouncing his Democratic ties, and newbie politician Jane Kim joining the party after helping with Gonzalez's campaign. In 2005, Gonzalez was replaced as supervisor by an even bigger star, Ross Mirkarimi, who'd helped found the California Green Party in 1990. Though they were still classed as a splinter group, the Greens didn't feel that all elections were insurmountable. They won endorsements from labor unions and neighborhood coalitions, and even some of the liberal Democratic clubs downtown — which would later be reprimanded by Democratic party superiors.

But it was hard to build a political machine with individuals who are inspired, but not aspirational — and who, moreover, are fundamentally opposed to machines.

“Why do I stay Green?” Hermanson asks. “Because I can't stomach being part of an organization that is absolutely controlled by money.”

Yet he and many other Greens also can't stomach organizations that are controlled, period. They recoil at top-down structures, and make all of their own party decisions by consensus, a tradition that's made them uncannily similar to the ill-fated Occupy movement. (In San Francisco, the Green Party still faithfully lists Occupy events on its calendar.)

That sense of ideological purity has also seriously hampered the party's progress. In June, San Francisco broke ranks with the state Green Party on such issues as Proposition 42, a law requiring local agencies to comply with state public records laws. Local Greens supported it, while state Greens did not, which gave the appearance of fissures within the party. And, according to one insider, those conflicts deepened when it came to mundane issues.

“The left loves 'process,' but it can really stunt things,” the insider says, remembering an internal dispute over whether a particular candidate could store campaign materials at the Greens' former office on Howard Street. “Here's someone who's willing to stick his neck out, and they have to vote on it.”

Hermanson concedes that in 12 years of running for office, he's “never come close” to winning, and he's one of the few San Francisco progressives to get beaten by a Republican. Over the last 12 years, Jane Kim, Ross Mirkarimi, and Matt Gonzalez have all defected from the Green Party, and the number of registered Greens has plummeted from a high point of 15,000 in 2003 to 6,869 now. In 2009, party members decided they could no longer afford the $1,200-a-month rent on their Howard Street office space. They spent several years meeting in cafes before moving to the Redstone a few months ago.

That said, the Greens still prevail on some issues. They have a shot at winning a contentious battle over the Beach Chalet soccer fields in Golden Gate Park this November. Just about every deep-pocketed local player supports a measure to pave the fields with artificial turf and install 60-foot light fixtures. Greens want to maintain those seven acres of unkempt meadow in their “natural” state — a weed-choked field overtaken by illegal campers and cruisers.

A win on one ballot measure won't change the fate of a party, especially one that won't court big money or curry favor with bigwigs. Nonetheless, Hermanson thinks he might run again in 2016. The son of two Presbyterian ministers, he grew up in a staunchly Democratic household outside of Detroit, entered politics by way of the Castro Merchants association, and threw $100,000 of his own business' money into the 2000 campaign for a living-wage ordinance in San Francisco, which was his first political victory. Still, he's one of a very few politicians who are driven purely by principles.

And he's convinced that absent a political leader, the Green Party won't survive.

“We're not a huge organization,” Hermanson says, “and it takes a lot to get people to come out on a regular basis.” That, he continues, is reason enough to have a persistent, losing candidate. It at least keeps the Greens visible.

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