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When it comes to being taken seriously as a politician, Dan Hamburg is looking at a very steep hill.

But Hamburg, the Green Party's candidate for governor, knew what he was signing on for. A disillusioned Democrat and one-term congressman from Mendocino County, turned off by big-money Democratic politics, backroom handshakes and slick party handlers, Hamburg switched parties in 1996, two years after he lost a bid for re-election in his Northern California district.

He found refuge in the Greens, a volunteer-driven political party still small enough in California to call itself grassroots. The party finished third in the state's June primary in the races for governor and lieutenant governor, trailing the Democratic and Republican candidates. Hamburg drew 1.54 percent of the vote in that election.

This year marks the first time the California Greens, who have been on the ballot since 1992, have actually run a gubernatorial candidate. Party officials acknowledge that Hamburg is unlikely to win next month's election, but they believe his candidacy serves a greater purpose.

By wooing liberal voters away from Gray Davis (and Democrats running in other races) and by drawing people to the polls who would stay home on Election Day, the Greens could spoil the gubernatorial race – splitting off enough Democrats that Dan Lungren could win. And this, to the Greens' way of thinking, would not be an entirely bad thing, as it would force the Democrats to take the party more seriously and more directly address its issues.

“I didn't go into this thinking I would do a traditional campaign – you know, raise a lot of money, spend a lot of money and do 30-second spots,” Hamburg said during an interview in May. “The message we have needs to be heard by Californians. They need to know there is an alternative and they don't have to hold their noses and vote for Democrats.”

But not all third-party progressives endorse the strategy – including the New Party, which does not run candidates against electable Democrats.

Despite his term in Congress and this year's bland gubernatorial election, Hamburg's day-to-day reality has been that of any third-party candidate – even getting his message heard has been difficult. “They're irrelevant,” says Bob Mulholland, of the California Democratic Party. “That's the way fringe parties are. They sit around in cafes in Berkeley, smoking something and not even realizing they're not relevant.”

Indeed, Hamburg is more often viewed as a ponytailed underdog or remembered as Roll Call magazine's Hunk on the Hill than seen as a serious candidate who sponsored the 1994 Headwaters Act to protect Northern California redwoods. Rarely does anyone mention that he was a consultant to Nelson Mandela's South African government or that he has lived and worked in China.

Most recently, Hamburg has been the executive director of VOTE (Voice of the Environment), spending much of his time fighting a proposal to build a low-level radioactive-waste site at Ward Valley.

“What's really criminal to me about Ward Valley is these five Indian tribes who see as their historical purpose the protection of the lower Colorado River – they believe they were put on the Earth in the location they were to protect it, and the [Clinton] administration is basically putting a gun to their heads,” Hamburg says. “The government is basically extorting them.”

Hamburg's gubernatorial challengers, Gray Davis and Dan Lungren, have given barely a nod to their Green Party rival. Meanwhile, Hamburg has been like the high school nerd on a Saturday night, knocking on the doors of debate sponsors and newspapers, pleading for invitations – and getting very few compared to his major-party rivals.

“Who?” quips Michael Bustamante, spokesperson for Davis, when asked to comment on Hamburg's campaign. “Oh, right. The congressman with the ponytail.”

It's not as if the Green Party is exactly an unknown on California's political landscape. The party has more elected officials holding public office than any other third party in the state. Most are on city councils; three are mayors. Hamburg was endorsed by six newspapers in the June primary election, including the L.A. Weekly, and he received an expected thumbs-up from Ralph Nader.

Yet the number of registered Greens still has hovered around 95,000 since the state party started in 1990 – a statistic that concerns some Greens, who say the party would be better off spending its resources attracting new voters than running statewide candidates.

“We registered 105,000 people in 1990- 1992, and we weren't out there running governors and presidents – we were on street corners registering people,” says Joe Hoffman, treasurer of the Green Party of California.

For all his grassroots struggles, Hamburg has had his high-profile moments in this campaign. One came in July, during a political forum sponsored by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project – the first and last time Hamburg shared the stage with Davis and Lungren.

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With the charisma of a revivalist minister, giving a fire-in-his-belly speech about bilingual education, globalization of capital and abolishing the death penalty, Hamburg inspired the audience of 1,000 mostly Latino organizers and elected officials to give him several standing ovations. Davis, who expected to steal the show before a crowd that is typically Democratic, fumbled in explaining Hamburg's appeal at a press conference after the event while Lungren played it up, grinning and chanting, “Go, Green, go.”

The explanation is simple, says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. Hamburg came across as a strong populist candidate on issues such as living wage, poverty, health care, public education, crime, and the drug war in the neighborhoods – messages that ring true with Latino voters.

“There are a lot of ways to talk about the issues, but you have to have a working-class twist to it,” says Gonzalez. “Hamburg was hitting those issues out of the ballpark. Gray Davis spoke to the middle class.”

Latino voters, many of them recent immigrants with ties to neither the Democratic nor Republican party, are fertile ground for Greens to organize – the problem, Gonzalez says, is that California's Latino political leaders are Democrats. And the Green Party does not have the money to appeal to Latino voters the way the Democrats can.

“Right now, Latinos want to be players, and the leadership is strongly with Davis, and that signal is going to go to the electorate,” he says. “We have a leadership that is closely tied to the Latino community, and the leaders are held in great respect by the electorate. So I would expect Davis to do quite well with Latinos.”

Hamburg's low-budget campaign (the party has raised approximately $50,000 to run Hamburg's and his running mate Sara Amir's campaigns) and mostly volunteer staff were hampered early on by the candidate himself. Stung by his experience as a Democrat, which he characterizes as a wake-up call about the reality of major-party politics, Hamburg resisted any attempt to be “handled” by the Greens.

When Green Party leaders insisted Hamburg cut his hair, he refused. (“It's my hair,” he said when asked about it during an interview.) And when they pleaded with him to finish writing campaign literature and to approve ballot statements, he instead remained with demonstrators in Ward Valley.

Some in the party began to wonder whether Hamburg was serious about running. But he sees it differently.

“Candidates can never fulfill all the expectations of their followers,” he says. “People put onto the candidate all their hopes and dreams, all their expectations of how they would do it.”

But most in the party agree that, since the June primary, Hamburg has defined his campaign and sharpened his message. Instead of focusing only on the environment, Hamburg has taken up many other issues that also are part of the party's platform – from providing universal single-payer health care to abolishing the death penalty, from stopping prison construction and putting resources into public education to decriminalizing marijuana, from reining in the power of corporations to narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

To Hamburg, social issues are linked to the environment, which remains fundamental to the Green platform. “There are so many environmental issues in California that need to be dealt with,” Hamburg says. “I would maintain that cutting 97 percent of the redwood-forest ecosystem has not been a good thing for the environment. The almost total decimation of coastal salmon is testimony to what we've done in terms of overharvesting our forests. We've got to look at water usage and the enormous amount of waste of water by the agricultural industry in the state. Eighty percent of the water is used by agriculture.”

But while Hamburg's message resonates with environmentalists, few see the point of voting for him – environmentalist or not – when he has no chance of winning. Davis, they say, is a much more pragmatic choice and has a good environmental record.

“My impression is that environmentalists find [Davis] a very appealing candidate on the environment,” says Gail Ruderman Feuer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The only reservation is whether he can sweep the state. Few in the environmental movement have placed their money on the Green Party making a change in California. When I go to environmental fund-raisers and meetings, the question is which candidate to support among the Democrats.”

Hamburg talks issues, not political strategy. But some Green Party organizers are eyeing the polls and figuring out what they will do if Hamburg splits votes in next month's election.

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A spoiler strategy sparked an upset in New Mexico's elections last year, when the Green Party's candidate, Carol Miller, captured 17 percent of the vote in a special election to fill a congressional seat vacated by Bill Richardson after he was appointed ambassador to the United Nations. Miller is credited by Greens with (and criticized by others for) attracting so many votes that she essentially ushered her Republican challenger into office and left the Democratic candidate with his mouth hanging open in surprise.

Greens take credit for the fact that Democrats are running a more liberal Democrat this time around in hopes of bringing back lost voters – a candidate that several New Mexico Greens have publicly endorsed.

But not all progressives endorse the strategy. “The costs of spoiling have to be weighed against the gains,” says Daniel Cantor of the New Party. “If this is just more of an outburst, then it's not a worthy effort. In California, the stakes are too high.”

Nor is the spoiler strategy making the Greens any friends among labor Democrats in Los Angeles, who argue that they support political alternatives – but only credible ones. They say the Green Party should build more local support in California before running statewide candidates in races where the party could end up getting a Republican – in this case, Lungren – elected.

Local races are where labor organizers and Greens, frequent foes on development issues, have found common ground on things like NAFTA, the living wage and workers' rights. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, for example, has endorsed Kevin McKeown, a Green Party candidate who is running for the Santa Monica City Council. And the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Workers, Local 814, helped elect Green Santa Monica City Council Member Michael Feinstein in 1996.

“We believe that if people want to get the support of organized labor, they have to prove themselves,” says Fabian Nunez, political director of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor. “You can't start big. If you want to move an agenda forward, you have to get the support behind you. If you can't amass that support, you're not viable.”

Yet Greens point to signs that show they already are making waves among the state's high-ranking Democrats. Assemblywoman Debra Bowen (D-Torrance), for one, concedes that she has talked to Santa Monica's Feinstein in hopes of discouraging the Green Party from running candidates in her district to make sure it remains Democratic.

“I was concerned about having a Green on the ballot that would ultimately work against our shared interest,” says Bowen. “I think the Greens have the potential to play the role of a spoiler in some districts.”

Ask Hamburg about being politically powerless, and he'll probably talk about media access and how he has not been invited to publicly debate his rivals. Hamburg has had his greatest television exposure on Week in Review, a show hosted by Bill Rosendahl and aired by Century Communications, but when it comes to the five televised debates that Davis and Lungren have agreed to participate in – Hamburg has not been invited to the table.

Davis and Lungren are intentionally excluding Hamburg from the debates, argues Ross Mirkarimi, a Green Party member who has run a number of races, including that of San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan. Mirkarimi said he has requested debate invitations from a number of debate sponsors – to no avail. Vic Biondi, who is coordinating the events throughout the state, acknowledges that Lungren and Davis have controlled the organization and scheduling of these gubernatorial debates more than any other candidates in the past. But it would not matter anyway, he says. Hamburg simply does not have enough voter support to be included.

“The first consideration is a practical one – when you do a broadcast, you have to figure out the number of people you can fit, and when you do that, you have to consider the candidates that represent the most voters,” Biondi says. “So you choose the parties that represent the most voters.”

The Greens' last – and possibly best – hope was a debate tentatively planned by La Opinion, which ran a story after the Southwest Voter Conference highlighting Hamburg's popularity among the Latinos who attended. Monica Lozano, the newspaper's executive editor, says the newspaper's debate will likely be canceled, because neither Davis nor Lungren has accepted several invitations.

Asked whether La Opinion would include Hamburg if the debate got off the ground at the last minute, however, Lozano would not say. Those are the kinds of brushoffs you get when you're a third-party candidate, and Hamburg is willing to live with them. Still, there's a hint of bitterness in his voice when he talks about the Democrats.

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“It's not like every day I say, 'Wow, things are great, the campaign's going great,'” he says. “But if I felt like Davis was adequate, I wouldn't be running. He looks to me pretty much like a Democratic Party politician who will leave things status quo, and the same disturbing trends that are occurring in California right now will continue – the growing inequity between the rich and poor, an education system that is increasingly being abandoned by people, no universal health care, and no living wages for people. These are the things I'm talking about.”

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