PHILADELPHIA — The Dow crashes another 390 points, another one of the world’s largest corporations files for bankruptcy, and half the country prepares to delay retirements or send the kids to community college. A new phrase, ”corporate crime,“ replaces ”white-collar crime“ in the mainstream lexicon. And worried Democrats and Republicans hastily promise a switch to a pro-consumer cookbook, after having fed America a strict menu of deregulatory dishes at the behest of their big-money sponsors for the last 20 years. If this isn‘t the moment for a third-party challenge, I don’t know what is.

Enter the Greens. Or rather, wake them up first so they can stumble through the wide-open door. How else to explain the remarks of Peter Miguel Camejo, a savvy investor who is the Green Party candidate for governor of California? At the party‘s first midterm convention in Philadelphia, Camejo ratcheted up the rhetoric on behalf of solar energy and the World Court. Excuse me? Handed the juiciest hunk of red meat they’ve ever seen in their activist lives, Greens are showing that, despite their recent growth, they remain political vegans.

Camejo of all people should know better. He is, after all, a successful independent money manager and a trustee of the Contra Costa County Employee Retirement Association. With California‘s pensioners hit hard by the market’s decline, and new revelations that directors of the CALPERS pension plan own stock and have raised campaign contributions from the same companies the huge fund invests in, you‘d think that Camejo would be raising the alarm, casting himself as defender of the little guy.

But no. He leads his press conference with politically correct pablum. ”The Democrats and Republicans are running 14 white men and no women for the seven statewide offices,“ he noted, whereas the Greens have a Latino and an African-American woman at the top of the ticket, and a much more diverse slate overall. ”We are for a living wage, affordable housing, against racial profiling, for renewable energy, and want to save the last 4 percent of ancient forests,“ he continued. ”We favor a World Court and the rule of international law. We’re against the death penalty and for universal health care.“

It‘s a worthy progressive catechism, and may draw a handful of liberal voters disgusted by Governor Gray Davis’ relentless moneygrubbing. But it‘s hardly the sort of message to reach millions of political independents nervously fingering their thinning wallets. Most Greens, it seems, are too anti-materialist to own mutual funds (or admit that they do), and their anti-corporate fervor is still mainly rooted in environmental concerns rather than more populist lunch-pail worries.

Camejo, who says he’s at 5 percent in the polls and rising, kicked off a short interview by asking me if I knew what ”net metering“ was. He then proceeded to rail against the utility companies‘ success in getting the D’s and R‘s in the state Legislature to put an absurdly low cap on how much solar power individuals can pump into the electricity grid. He’s right, but how many Californians are worrying right now about being denied the full benefit of rooftop solar panels?

At least Camejo didn‘t begin like David Bacon, the Greens’ gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico, who told the assembled press, ”I drive a Volkswagen that runs on pure vegetable oil.“

To be fair, the Greens, who have a record 146 officeholders, still are primarily a force in local and municipal politics, and the tools for challenging corporate power are mainly held (or dropped) by state legislators and members of Congress. When I asked Michael Feinstein, the Green mayor of Santa Monica, and Kevin McKeown, another Green member of that City Council, what they could do on the anti-corporate front, they talked of modest consumer-protection measures, like suing banks for double-charging ATM users and suing oil companies for polluting the city‘s water. ”Probably the best we can do now,“ Feinstein said, ”is ensure that the local cost of living is lower so the weakest among us don’t fall.“

Even Ralph Nader, the party‘s 2000 presidential candidate and longtime corporate critic, seems slow on the uptake, now that so many of his warnings about the dangers of unfettered corporate greed are coming true. He told reporters that he wanted to start an organization knitting together millions of small investors, and also talked vaguely about drafting an ”omnibus a corporate-reform package.“ Glaringly missing was any sign that Nader and the Greens plan a coordinated national campaign to take their newly relevant concerns to voters.

Still, Nader is in his moment. At an evening rally at the nearby University of Pennsylvania campus, he told the thousand people in attendance that the public would not be satisfied until the government prosecuted CEOs, made them give back their ill-gotten gains, and sent them to jail. ”Haven’t people gone to jail for forging $500 checks?“ The crowd roared its approval.

Greens are running 362 candidates in 39 states this year, including 16 for governor and nearly 70 for Congress. There‘s still plenty of time for some of them to capitalize on rising economic anxieties. But if this weekend’s convention is any indication, they‘ve got a long way to go.

Sifry wrote Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America (Routledge press, 2002).

LA Weekly