Will this be the year when the California Green Party finally makes a significant showing in a statewide election? The Greens are banking on their gubernatorial nominee, millionaire and socially-responsible-investing guru Peter Camejo, drawing substantial support. And given widespread liberal dissatisfaction with Democratic Governor Gray Davis — a dissatisfaction so deep that leaders of nine prominent organizations of people of color are considering bailing on Davis and supporting Camejo — it might just happen.

What’s wrong with Davis? “The governor thinks that he is the lesser of two evils and can ignore our concerns,” said John Gamboa, head of the San Francisco–based Greenlining Institute, which advocates for minority business and housing interests. Earlier this month, Gamboa sent Camejo an intriguing letter signed by leaders of the National Black Business Council, the National Council of Asian-American Business Associations, the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Latino Business Association, the National Federation of Filipino American Associations, the Latino Issues Forum and the Southeast Asian Community Resource Center, as well as a prominent Oakland minister.

In the letter, the leaders declare that “neither major party is effectively addressing issues” of concern to their communities and that “a strong showing by a third party” could advance their agendas. Saying that “20 to 30 percent of the minority vote” could be secured by the Green campaign, they suggest a dialogue with Camejo, which is now under way. Gamboa said another round of meetings is scheduled for Friday.

All this talk is still a long way from actually slicing off a big chunk of the expected Davis vote, but it is a fascinating development that should have the governor worried. “Everywhere I go I‘m struck by how much Davis has alienated Democrats and progressives,” notes Camejo.

The Greenlining Institute has felt alienated for some time. Earlier this year its leaders played a serious game of footsie with the then–front-runner for governor, Republican Richard Riordan, featuring him at their big dinner in January. Perhaps their flirtation with Camejo will work out better.

Founded a little more than a decade ago, the Greens want to become an alternative political force to be reckoned with, as the German Greens have been for more than 20 years. But progress has been slow. Indeed, the principal organizer of the successful drive to place the Greens on the ballot, Mendocino County labor organizer Joe Wildman — who complains that Greens would rather talk than organize effectively — is now a member of the State Democratic Committee. Even the presidential standard-bearer Ralph Nader, with all his fame and publicity, could garner only 4 percent of the California vote in 2000. Green candidates have won several dozen local offices, mostly in left-liberal enclaves, but their non-celebrity candidates for statewide office have been mostly ignored.

This year will be different, Greens say. Santa Monica Mayor Michael Feinstein is the Greens’ most prominent California elected official. In a conversation earlier this year — at the state Democratic Party convention of Governor Davis at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, which Feinstein crashed — the best-known L.A.-area Green predicted that Camejo‘s ethnicity would help the party gain many new adherents in communities previously ceded to the Democrats, most notably the Latino community. Camejo is a Venezuelan-American.

Who is Peter Camejo? In addition to being a Bay Area maven of socially responsible investing, he is a Berkeley activist of the 1960s who was the Socialist Worker Party candidate for president in 1976. Is Camejo a socialist now? Was he then? “There are many different definitions of socialist,” he says. When asked to use his own definition, Camejo declines to answer whether he is a socialist either now or when he was a socialist candidate for president.

Despite those very politicianlike responses, Camejo has had limited exposure to mainstream California politics. For example, he has never met the target of almost all his invective, Gray Davis. (Camejo offers little criticism of Republicans.) Though Davis is not easy to get to these days, he was almost impossible to avoid during his quarter-century climb to the governorship. But Camejo does know one Democrat he likes, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, whom he praises for directing public investment into low-income areas.

Camejo says his campaign is about energy policy (he is a sharp critic of Davis’ $44 billion portfolio of long-term power contracts), political corruption (“the Davis administration is pay-for-play”), social justice (he calls for a statewide “living wage” and a crash program for affordable housing) and peace (he is a staunch opponent of the Terror War and believes the American people would support the establishment of a World Court that might indict American soldiers “for terrorist acts” if only they understood the issues).

He is also concerned about education, and has entered into a dialogue with another Davis critic, California Teachers Association chief Wayne Johnson, who recently embarrassed the governor by revealing that Davis had asked the teachers union for a million-dollar contribution. (CTA gave Davis $1.3 million in 1998.)

Like the teachers-union chief, Camejo is against Davis‘ rather popular education-reform measures, notably new testing requirements. “Testing is often discriminatory,” says Camejo. He does not say how students’ progress can be measured before their joining adult society, but does call for more education spending.

In a lengthy conversation, Camejo seemed quite engaged intellectually, less so politically. He acknowledged that he was essentially unaware of two historic environmental bills winding their way through the Capitol, Palo Alto Senator Byron Sher‘s bill to require that 20 percent of California’s electric power be generated by renewable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, biomass) by 2010, and L.A. Assemblywoman Fran Pavley‘s bill to fight global warming through cutting tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases.

After asking the Weekly to describe the bills and where they are in the Legislature, Camejo said, “A requirement of 20 percent renewables by 2010 would be a great achievement.” Davis, by the way, is pushing the bill.

I’ve followed the Greens fairly closely over the years and knew the late Petra Kelly — victim of a murder-suicide committed by her live-in lover, a retired general — who once led the Green factions in the German and European parliaments. The Greens‘ success in Germany, where they have had members of parliament for decades and are now junior partners in a governing coalition with the Social Democrats, has been a beacon for American Greens.

But unlike Germany, America doesn’t have a system of proportional representation, which encourages smaller parties. So without a major change in the voting system, it is difficult to see the Greens winning offices outside cities like San Francisco (the most liberal Democratic city in America), Santa Monica (where a coalition powered into office by Tom Hayden‘s late Campaign for Economic Democracy, a left-liberal Democratic organization, now includes Greens), and small college towns like the far North Coast’s Arcata, where Greens briefly held a majority on the City Council until one key council member stepped away from politics.

The danger, as has been pointed out by many liberals and progressives since Ralph Nader‘s last-minute stumping in key battleground states like Florida helped hand the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, is that a sizable Green vote will have a spoiling effect, electing candidates even more antithetical to Green goals than centrist Democrats. Greens alternate between reveling in this potential power to punish Democrats and denying the effect. Indeed, in a speech given in Redondo Beach last year, shortly before Bush unveiled his massively anti-environmental energy plan, Nader declared himself pleasantly surprised by Bush, who he claimed had “discovered that global warming is real.”

Camejo acknowledges that other Green leaders want to defeat Davis as a prod to the Democrats to institute a new system of instant runoff voting (IR), in which second- and third-choice votes would be added to a candidate’s total, but says that is not his goal. “Davis and the Democrats should simply call an emergency legislative session and pass IR if they want to avoid that,” he says.

Of course, like Camejo now, 1998 Green gubernatorial nominee Dan Hamburg was touted by his party as a breakthrough candidate. Hamburg was a former Democratic member of Congress, a staunch environmentalist with an air of celebrity, having been named one of People magazine‘s 50 most beautiful people. But Hamburg pursued a quirky course, spending much of his time in the vicinity of the proposed Ward Valley nuclear-waste site, organizing against it, rather than stumping the state. He ended with 1.2 percent of the vote even as Davis smashed his right-wing Republican opponent of that year, Dan Lungren, 58 percent to 38 percent.

Camejo seems much more focused and disciplined than that. And if his gambit with the Greenlining Institute pays off, he could create a problem or two for Gray Davis.

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