Green Votes & Observing Moderation

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Recycling Nader’s Green Votes

I’ll tell you why a lot of people are going to vote for Nader,” said David Cobb. “They know that if they vote for Gore, they throw away their votes.”

Cobb is a disaffected progressive Democrat who practices law in Houston. He is also the treasurer for the Texas Green Party, and he leans into an interview with an intensity that suggests he himself will deliver 5 percent of the popular vote the Greens are aiming for in November.

Cobb argues that a vote for Gore in the general election in Texas is a wasted vote. He believes that a substantial number of progressive Democrats will split off at the top of the ticket and vote for Ralph Nader, who is running as a Green candidate for the presidency. There is a certain logic to the argument. Gore has little chance of carrying Texas. The national Democratic Party, as John Sharp has observed in the past (“The Mauro Effect,” March 17), quit spending money in Texas twenty years ago, when George Bush the Elder was Ronald Reagan’s running mate.

As Cobb sees it, progressive Democrats are better off voting for Nader, for several reasons. It will send a message to the Democratic Party that there are voters who want universal health care, public financing of election campaigns, and an end to corporate “personhood.” (Corporate personhood is based on a Supreme Court decision and subsequent case law that gives corporations the legal rights of individuals.) And it will help the Greens secure for the next election cycle the matching funds that make Pat Buchanan a player as a potential Reform Party candidate.

In order for the Green Party to qualify for matching federal funding, the party’s presidential candidate has to attract 5 percent of the national popular vote, a goal Cobb argues is attainable this year. “In 1996, Ralph Nader stood for election,” Cobb said. “This year he is running for election.” In 1996 Nader was on the ballot in twenty-one states, in what was a largely symbolic candidacy. He drew 1 percent of the national vote. This year Nader says he intends to run an aggressive campaign.

Interviewed at an Austin fundraiser, Cobb was not entirely pragmatic, going so far as to suggest that the Greens might someday supersede the Democrats. “The party has won seventy-three elections across the country,” Cobb said. In Texas, the Greens have filed for four statewide offices. Doug Sandage is running for the U.S. Senate seat held by Kay Bailey Hutchison, Gary Dugger and Charles Mauch are running for two seats on the Railroad Commission, and Ben Levy is running for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court.

But the argument of the moment was the pragmatic one, which has Nader picking up enough votes to get matching funds while the Green voters “force the hand of the Democratic Party” — as the Raza Unida Party did to the Texas Democratic Party in the seventies and early eighties.

Before the Greens even get that far in Texas, they will have to navigate what Nader described as one of the harshest ballot-access laws in the nation. Getting onto the ballot requires collecting a certain number of signatures (based on previous voter turnout) on a petition. Other provisions make the gathering of signatures a challenge. Only the signatures of registered voters who have not voted in this year’s Republican or Democratic Primary will be counted. And there is a seventy-five day period in which to gather the signatures. “The boys in Austin knew exactly what they were doing,” Nader said at the Green’s Austin fundraiser. The law, he argued, is intended to keep third parties off the ballot.

Nader, who has been a consumer advocate since the sixties, made a sober argument on behalf of a third party. He noted that 20 percent of the nation’s children live in poverty, and that in Washington, D.C., the rate is 30 percent. Child poverty, he argued, is aggravated by an astounding concentration of wealth at the top. He also pointed to a scarcity of affordable housing (and a secondary mortgage market that is getting rich off working people), and to the “silent form of violence that we call pollution.”

Nader argued that these crises affecting the nation’s working and poor people are not addressed by the majority parties. “The only difference between George Bush and Al Gore,” Nader said, “is the level of acceleration with which their knees hit the floor when the corporations knock on the door.”

The clock is running on ballot access, as 38,780 signatures must be gathered between March 15 (the day after the Texas primary) and May 28. Petitions can be downloaded at the Green’s website at www.texgreen.org or www. greens.org/texas/travis.

Observing Moderation

Austin

” Moderate Republican” might sound like an oxymoron in a state whose party machinery is owned by the Christian right. But it also describes the winners of this year’s sleeper of a Republican primary. That was the only real trend story in the Republican primary — and maybe the only real news.

The presidential election was over before it started; even if John McCain had remained in the race there would have been little dramatic suspense at the top of the ticket. As it was, the only scare for Bush was the fleeting fear that Supreme Court Justice Al Gonzales was going into the tank, when early returns showed him losing to Houston lawyer Rod Gorman. Gonzales is Bush’s ethnic-minority appointment to the Supreme Court, and in the end he prevailed. But there was enough doubt early on to leave his slatemate Nathan Hecht worrying aloud in the lobby of the main building at the Dell Jewish Community Campus.

Beyond the symbolism of Bush’s election-night party at Dell’s new campus — making electoral amends for Bush’s former doctrinal position that “only Christians could get into Heaven” — the Republican Party’s minority outreach program seemed way over the top. Bush was introduced by El Paso Mayor Carlos Ram?rez, backed on stage by Al Gonzales and Michael Williams (Bush’s African-American appointee to the Railroad Commission), and prefaced by a Mark McKinnon video clip of the Governor and a Catholic priest. The video provided a sweet moment of visual ecumenicism that might help Catholics forget Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University. And the crowd on stage was so diverse it seemed it might spontaneously break into an a capella version of “We are the World.”

If Bush had been in English class the day Shakespeare was discussed at Yale, he might have launched into Hamlet’s advice to the players: “In all observe moderation.” Because on the night of Super Tuesday II, Bush’s visit to B.J.U. seemed to be forgotten, and the Texas Republican Party was awash in moderation. The most extreme Republican candidate to go down was Bob Offutt, the San Antonio dentist who has done much of the thinking for the Christian-right block on the fifteen-member State Board of Education. Offutt had made the mistake of traveling to New Hampshire to criticize the Governor’s education record and endorse Steve Forbes. Then a funny thing happened on the way back from New England. Big money from Bush backers started flowing in the direction of Offutt’s opponent — reportedly at the suggestion of Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove. Offutt raised $26,000, while Dan Montgomery rode $70,000 in Bushbucks to a 60-40 romp. Dr. Offutt will now have more time to devote to his pediatric dentistry practice in San Antonio — and Montgomery is his all-but-official replacement. No Democrat filed for the seat.

Among Montgomery’s big funders was Republican state Senator Bill Ratliff. The chair of the Senate Finance Committee is an economic conservative who usually gets along with the Christian right. But like most Republicans in the Legislature, Ratliff has lost patience with the often bizarre behavior of the board. And he was willing to spend some of his own money to do something about it. “It seems to me that some of those other board members ought to be able to read the tea leaves and understand that if [Offutt's defeat] doesn’t send a message, there may be other messages,” Ratliff told Alberta Phillips Brooks of the Austin American-Statesman.

Offutt wasn’t the only Christian casualty to receive a message. Radical right homeschooler Bob Schoolfield, awash in his own money, was forced into a runoff by retired Round Rock schoolteacher Cynthia Thornton. Schoolfield is the Christian right’s anointed candidate, so Thornton can now be expected to find friends and financial supporters she never knew she had until she forced Schoolfield into a runoff for the open seat on the state Board of Ed.

The moderate wave also washed over legislative races, where three candidates backed by the far-right FreePAC, funded by Dallas millionaire Robert Ford, also lost. FreePAC contributed more than $15,000 each to candidates who went after Republican incumbents Kim Brimer of Arlington, Brian McCall of Plano, and Dennis Bonnen of Pearland. (And calling these three “moderate” says a great deal about how far to the right the political center has shifted in the past decade.) Ford has been a player in Republican Party politics for twenty years, first as founder of the Free Market Foundation, which grew out of a Christian business group, then as the director of FreePAC, which he founded in 1985. (The Austin American-Statesman lists Land Commissioner David Dewhurst and State Board candidate Bob Schoolfield as big contributors to FreePAC.)

Ford went after Brimer for a 1993 vote to equalize school funding. McCall made Ford’s hit list when he voted against a political amendment by Tom Craddick concerning a sales taxes. And Bonnen angered Ford with a “moderate” vote on the parental notification bill that passed last session, and currently requires minors seeking abortions to either advise their parents of the abortion or to get a “judicial bypass.” A judicial bypass allows a woman under eighteen years of age to request a judge to waive the parental notification, if the judge can be convinced that notifying parents represents a threat to the minor’s wellbeing. Bonnen voted for a failed amendment that would have allowed a minor seeking an abortion to consult with a member of the clergy instead of a judge.

That “soft-on-abortion” vote got Ford’s attention, and he went after Bonnen and his fellow travelers in the House. But Republican voters weren’t buying it, and the “FreePAC Three” were easily defeated. McCall won 70 percent of the vote; Brimer won 55 percent of the vote; and Bonnen prevailed with 54 percent over a candidate he defeated to win the seat in 1997.

After a ten-year slump, Ford might have to rethink his overall strategy. In 1992, he supported Houston Republican Representative Talmadge Heflin for Speaker of the House — despite the fact that then as now, there was a Democratic majority in the House, that Talmadge wasn’t then and isn’t now the brightest member of the Republican delegation, and that the Republican House Caucus has never been too turned on by the idea of Talmadge Heflin as its leader.

Eight years later, all Ford’s candidates lost. And Republicans who used to suffer in silence their challenges from the religious right are suddenly angry and outspoken. “I have refused to be a lap dog of the lobbyist for the Eagle Forum and the Free Enterprise PAC,” McCall said after the election. “This has nothing to do with issues. It has to do with them wanting a candidate they can control.” Bonnen described the FreePACkers as a “far-right movement” whose funders refuse to work with anyone who does not agree with them.

So the far right is on the run and Republican electoral politics have become so moderate that Arlene Wohlgemuth — who along with Suzanna Gratia Hupp defines the loopy right of the Republican House caucus — has renounced her delusional designs on the Speaker’s chair. “There’s a lot of talk about who is going to be the next speaker, but I certainly am not in the running,” Wohlgemuth said. (In fact, she never was.)

Call it a win for the Republican Party. Call it a moment of moderation. Call it a setback for the religious right. But it’s a loss for journalists, who would in a heartbeat cast their votes for the quotable excess of an Arlene Wohlgemuth to the prudent political posturing of Tom Craddick — the Chair Apparent should the Democrats lose the House.

It’s almost enough to make you want to mail a check to FreePAC — or to vote Democratic in the general election.