A Party of Their Own
The Greens found success in Portland. Can they keep it?
- By: Jeff Clark
Twenty-five years ago, when the Maine Green Party was founded as the first Green political organization in the country, its often-chaotic meetings earned it a reputation as “a prime example of creative dysfunction,” as one exasperated participant said at the time. Ben Chipman, of Portland, laughs out loud at the anecdote. In recent years he has worked on or managed the campaigns of sixteen Green Party candidates and won ten of them. Portland’s Green Independent Party (as it’s now known) currently has three members on the city council, two on the school committee, and two more on the Portland Water District Board. The first Green elected to state-level office in the United States was John Eder, who served two terms in the Maine Legislature from a Portland district.
Portland has been a Democratic stronghold for decades, the party’s grip on power so absolute that Republicans often don’t even bother to run candidates in local elections — which officially are nonpartisan but in practice are as political as any senate race. But these days the Greens are widely acknowledged as the city’s new second party, displacing the GOP in both votes and political offices and shaking the complacency out of the Democratic power structure. In terms of election results, the Forest City’s Greens are the most successful branch of their party in the country. Retaining and building on that success, though, will be a major challenge if the Greens want to be more than just
another footnote in Maine political history.
Portland’s Greens have found success appealing to a group of voters that until recently were routinely ignored in political races — young adults. Historically Maine Greens have their roots in the environmental movement of the early 1980s, with a strong dose of progressive politics adapted from the European Greens, the party’s original home. The party’s core values of social justice, ecological wisdom, grassroots democracy, nonviolence, and decentralization resonate particularly well among Portland’s large
Greens have been an officially recognized political party in Maine since gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Carter won 6.4 percent of the vote in 1994, with a two-year hiatus after presidential candidate Ralph Nader failed to break the required 5-percent benchmark in 1996. Pat LaMarche won back official status in 1998 when she won 6.8 percent of the vote running for governor as a Green Independent (a name chosen on the spur of the moment due to legal ambiguities surrounding the party’s official status and later formally adopted). Today Maine has the highest percentage of registered Greens in the country, about 3.2 percent of Maine’s 994,155 registered voters.
Even in the gubernatorial races in Maine, though, the party’s political organization can best be described as casual. Many old guard Greens still view the rough and tumble of electoral politics with distrust, making the success in Portland an even larger anomaly. “Greens are fiercely independent and antiestablishment,” points out Eder, “and running a political campaign is a very establishment act. Some Greens find that distasteful.”
“Over time we’ve kind of screened out the people who oppose electoral politics,” Chipman says of the Portland branch. The young people who make up the Portland organization — gray hair is a distinct rarity — have taken the Green slogan, “Think globally, act locally,” to its logical conclusion in politics. “We’ve evolved into an electoral force to be reckoned with in Portland,” Chipman maintains.
Chipman, Eder, and Ben Meiklejohn get much of the credit for laying the foundations for the party’s success. Chipman and Meiklejohn had been active in the Green Party while students at the University of Maine in Orono in the mid-1990s, where Meiklejohn was president of the student government for two years. They both moved to Portland in the late nineties and helped found the city’s Green Independent chapter, which Eder cochaired in 1998. In 2001 Meiklejohn defeated an incumbent Democrat to win an at-large seat on the Portland School Committee, the culmination of three years of campaigning.
By 2005 Greens held four of the committee’s nine seats. Despite occasionally frosty relations with the majority Democrats on the board, Greens managed to pass several initiatives, including limits on in-school military recruiting.
In 2002 Eder ran for a vacant seat in the Maine House representing a district in the city’s West End. “One of the first pieces of advice I got was to cut out all voters between eighteen and thirty-five years old, as well as anyone who hadn’t voted in the last presidential election,” Eder recalls. “I said no. Those young voters were my crowd. What I found was that it’s easy for any group of voters to become apathetic if they’re not invited to participate. Appealing to younger voters and going door to door were the keys to my success in Portland.”
Eder and other Greens admit that the demographics of the Portland peninsula have played an important role in the party’s success. “Portland has the largest percentage of eighteen to thirty-five-year-olds in the state,” notes Tina Smith, the Greens new county chair. “A majority of the people living on the peninsula are young, and they’re more interested in dramatic change than either of the two major parties.
“People our age have been called apathetic, and that’s not true,” she insists. “It’s just that no one was talking about our issues, the things that are important to us, like the creative economy and neighborhood improvements.”
Eder, and Meiklejohn before him, found that the personal trumped the ideological in Portland politics. “Portland has quite a few left-leaning voters,” Eder points out, “although that wasn’t really an issue going door to door. It was the face-to-face contact that counted. A lot of people told me they had lived in the neighborhood for thirty years and no one had come to see them before me. Voters felt they had been taken for granted as a Democratic stronghold. Over the years a complacency had set in with the Democrats that opened the door for a more activist type of representation.”
I think everybody underestimated us,” says Kevin Donoghue, who defeated an incumbent to win a seat on the Portland City Council in 2006. “It’s the new reality.” Donoghue registered as a Green the day after the 2004 Democratic caucuses. “The caucus was such a frustrating[experience] for a variety of reasons,” he recalls. “Plus it was located at Deering High School off the Portland peninsula on a Sunday when there was no public transportation available. John Eder got me a ride.”
Donoghue quickly progressed from frustrated Democrat to Green activist to political candidate, running on a platform of affordable housing, better public transportation, and citizen involvement. “Every polity needs at least two parties to have a public dialogue,” he reasons. “It wasn’t until now that voters were given a meaningful choice in an election rather than automatically voting for the anointed Democrat.”
Not that the Democrats have welcomed the competition. Donoghue admits that “it was tough getting respect” when he first joined the council.
Nonetheless, the Greens were successful in passing policy changes to increase housing availability on the crowded Portland peninsula, as well as pushing for a public transit study to improve bus service and create bike lanes on city streets. The Greens also played a key role in choosing a development plan for the Maine State Pier last year. (Legal issues have since stalled the project.)
Susan Hopkins, an attorney who became one of four Greens on the school committee when she won an at-large election in 2005, chose not to seek reelection last year after what she describes as a “brutal” three years on the board. Hopkins came to the Greens as a long-time Democrat who had worked on George Mitchell’s Senate campaign and served in the Clinton White House.
“The Democrats do not like the Greens,” she says today. “They were absolutely vicious. On the very first night, I was accused of engaging in illegal meetings. It was downhill from there. I truly felt driven off.”
Former school committee chair Democrat John Coyne — now a member of the city council — was elected the same year as Hopkins, and he recalls a “pretty fractious” first year. “There were a lot of 5-4 votes along party lines,” he says. Coyne says the Greens in general on the panel showed a lack of political sophistication that hurt them. “Their delivery and their approach needed some polishing before they rolled out ideas,” he notes. “They wanted quick fixes, done now. And in politics, nothing is now.”
Coyne speaks highly of Hopkins, calling her work with Portland’s immigrant community a valuable contribution to the committee. “I think her vision of what she wanted [on the committee] wasn’t realized,” he offers. “The politics bogged her down.”
The Greens can have a future in Portland, Coyne adds, if they take the time to establish themselves and make sure the people they support can be accepted in the larger political culture. “In my last year on the school committee, two of the Green members were arrested for various things,” he points out. “I think the public saw that as not mature.”
Veteran political observer and DownEast.com media columnist Al Diamon says the Portland Greens still have to overcome a certain political naiveté if they expect to have a future in the city. “They elected a few people to public office, but once they got in there I think there was a real shock that nothing happened,” he explains. “They discovered that 90 percent of what they were dealing with was not ideological; it’s practical — how many streets get paved this year, which textbooks to buy.”
Portland Greens have also attracted criticism for their lack of action in anticipating and dealing with the ongoing financial crisis that has enveloped the city council and school committee. Meiklejohn lost his school committee seat in a hotly contested four-way race in 2007 in large part due to the perception that, as the board’s senior member, he should have done more to head off the calamity.
Diamon says the budget crisis might prove to be a turning point for the Greens, and not a good one. He predicts the party may get a shock in the next election. “The Democrats got blindsided by the Greens,” he observes. “Now they’re saying, ‘Enough is enough, this is our turf.’ I think you’ll see a real Sunday punch in November. There’ll be a grassroots campaign on Munjoy Hill [a Green power base] like you’ve never seen before.”
A single city — or, for that matter, a handful of neighborhoods in a city — do not a political party make, and Green activists are aware of that. State Green chair Lynne Williams, of Bar Harbor, became the first Maine gubernatorial candidate of 2010 in December when she announced her plans to run.
“Building our base is the top focus for this year,” Tina Smith says. Greens now count 2,354 members in Portland and more than 7,600 in Cumberland County, according to a tally by the Maine Secretary of State in December. “We have to push ourselves out there so people know who we are,” Smith says. “We’re a new option for people.”
She emphasizes that Maine’s Greens have largely moved past the disgruntled Democrats who were the majority of early members. “There’s a generational change going on,” she says. “People are feeling they are Greens because of what we stand for, not because they’re sick of the Democrats.”
Chipman, 33, says the generational shift has become far more obvious in recent years. “I remember being one of the youngest people in the room at the [state] Green conventions, and no one would listen to me,” he explains. “Now there are a lot more people my age or younger.” One result has been a simplified, more structured state organization that is more focused on electoral success. “Last year eighty towns in Maine had Green caucuses,” Chipman points out.
Eder turned forty in January and is as close as the Portland Greens get to being the party’s elder statesman and mentor. He says the Greens will have to work hard to avoid winding up in history’s dustbin. “Everything we’ve done could disappear tomorrow,” he observes. “It’s a matter of bringing more people into the process, spreading it to other parts of the state. If the party can duplicate [at the state level] what we’re doing here, it could mean a lot of success.”
- By: Jeff Clark