A tale of party oppression at the local level
Breaking free of the two-party system
by Deyva Arthur, New York State Green Party
Despite enormous challenges for third parties in this country due to limited ballot access, petition challenges, and denied media coverage, Green Party candidates are starting to win local elections. Even with a confused conservatism among progressives these days, our party is growing. But there are times when one is tempted to leave the path less taken of third parties and go an easier way.
I helped on a fabulous campaign for Green member Russell Ziemba, running for a district seat on the Troy, New York, City Council. All indications showed he would win, but instead he came in third in a three-way race. My only conclusion was that he ran smack into the glass ceiling of the two-party system. It was political bigotry and ignorance at its most subtle. Having overcome the other obstacles: gaining enough petition signatures, getting ballot access, debating with the other candidates, and receiving endorsements by local media, he couldnít overcome voters not knowing how to vote for anybody other than a Republican or Democrat ñ yet.
Undaunted, Ziemba is planning to run for the same seat in two years. As with his last campaign he is faced with a difficult dilemma and this time his resolve is wavering. If you havenít already guessed, the question is: should Ziemba run as a Democrat?
To backtrack, Ziemba first ran for office a few years earlier as a citywide candidate for county legislature. Not getting the required signatures to run as a Green, he was put on the Democratic slate. He did not win a seat, but he garnered 3,500 votes as a newcomer.
Ziemba is a newcomer as a candidate, but he is not new to politics. As chair of the Rensselaer County Greens, Ziemba has gone to every city council, planning, and zoning board meeting for nearly 20 years. He is outspoken on many environmental issues and instrumental in rescuing several historical buildings in the area. As a result he has been in the news quite often.
For the 2009 city council campaign, Ziemba ran in a relatively small district where only some 3,000 voted previously. This time he ran on the Green Party and Working Families Party (WFP) lines. While Greens and WFP members slung jabs and innuendos at each other at the initial meeting, both were soon working well together, united by the candidate. The only difference between us was the WFP members thought Ziemba should seek out the Democratic line. The Democrats, however, werenít interested in Ziemba, preferring another candidate whom no one had really heard of before. When Ziemba asked if he could run in the Democratic primary, they agreed only if he dropped out of the race completely if he lost. From the Green corner, I was yelling, ìNo deal! Russell, you donít need them anyway, run on your own merits and that will prevail!î The WFP volunteers werenít so sure.
Despite being exiled from the Democrat line, Ziemba ran a strong campaign. The need for signatures to get ballot status got him and his team knocking on doors in the early summer. Being a retired postal carrier, Ziemba was walking the streets every night for months. And he was able to get the postal union to do massive literature drops with their endorsement. By the time of the election many of the voters had been visited two or three times already. The two other opponents had done almost nothing, with constituents knowing little of either of them. Ziemba held some protests and press conferences that got media attention on issues that struck a chord with local residents. As a result, the local paper The Record gave only one political endorsementóto Ziemba. They recognized his diligence and grasp of the issues while noting the other candidates hardly did anything at all. It was looking positive for the election, but by the end of an Election Day that had below-average voter turnout, Dean Bodner (Republican) received 513 votes at 42 percent, Rick Hoffmeister (Democrat) 392 votes at 32 percent and Russell Ziemba 326 votes at 26 percent (not including absentee ballots).
What happened? Ziemba should have won. I can only think voters voted for the party and not the person.
Now the campaign team is looking ahead. Ziemba wants to win in two years; he wants a seat on the city council and the ability to vote, effectuating his 30 years of hard work and knowledge. He wants to put Green Party values into practice. But can he do that if he runs as a Green, or will he be able to be a green officeholder only if he runs as a Democrat?
Putting aside the possibility the local Dems will want nothing to do with Ziemba considering him at fault for their candidate (lackluster though he was all on his own) losing the election, he would most likely garner more votes with the Democratic line. He would, in fact, have a better chance of winning on the Democratic line.
Ziemba has not made up his mind yet what he should doóbut I have. In my opinion, he must run as a Green and not as a Democrat. There is too high a price to pay for that party line. Once he gets in office he would not be beholden to the Democrats, but for the election he is theirs. He is not free to criticize the current Dems in office, and if he loses in the primary he doesnít get to run at all.
As an active member who is trying to build the Green Party and knows of the struggle for third parties across the country, to me there is a greater price. For Ziemba to run as a Dem is to add another reinforcement to the two-party system. The choices for candidates will always be slim unless candidates are willing to stand on their own. Voters have a bland political diet and are not used to multiple candidates. Green Party and other candidates can provide the desperately needed exercise, getting voters exposed to variety. Down the road, voters will break out of the two boxes they are stuck in. They will be comfortable in voting on the sixth, seventh or twelfth ballot line. It just takes practice.
I believe next election if Ziemba puts as much into his campaign as he did previously, he will win and on the Green Party line. People will know him and not need to rely on the party vote. Ralph Nader once said, ìyou have to lose, and lose, and lose, and then you win.î
With patience, bravery and diligence, eventually Ziemba will win on his own terms, just as the Green Party will win and is winning each election.
What do you think Russell Ziemba should do for the next campaign? Help him out and let him know what you think. Join in on the discussion on the Green Pages blog.