A history of Green mayors in the United States
By Mike Feinstein
Green Party of California
With Gayle McLaughlin’s election as Mayor of Richmond, CA, there are now three new Green mayors in the United States. The other two are Larry Bragman (Fairfax, CA) and Sam Pierce (Sebastopol, CA). They join Matthew Ash (Boswell, PA) and Jason West (New Paltz, NY) to make five current Green Mayors across the country.
Resident voters all directly elected McLaughlin (article on page 3), Ash and West, whereas city council members appointed Bragman and Pierce. This reflects the two primary ways mayors are chosen across the nation, and shows the country’s two most common forms of municipal government: council-manager and mayor-council.
Since 1991, thirty-five Greens have served as mayors, with eleven directly elected and twenty-four appointed.
Almost all U.S. cities that have appointed mayors, utilize the council-manager forms of government, where the elected city council provides political leadership and makes policy, while a full-time professional manager directs city departments in carrying out policies.
Of cities that have directly elected mayors, in most cases the mayor still has equal or similar power as other council members. These are usually called weak-mayor systems.
A number of large cities however, like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, or even more moderate sized ones like Baltimore, Minneapolis and Seattle, have directly elected ‘strong mayors’ who serve as chief executives of their cities. The closest a Green came to winning one of these races was Matt Gonzalez’s historic San Francisco November 2003 run, when he came in a close second with 47.2 percent of the votes.
The first U.S. Green mayor – elected or appointed – was Kelly Weaverling in Cordova, Alaska (1991-1993). Weaverling was directly elected in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He had been an important activist there, heavily involved in the post-spill cleanup. Weaverling, with an extensive knowledge of the oiled areas, led the Wildlife Rescue Fleet. The fleet was a group of 40 vessels and more than 200 people who acted as the search and rescue unit for all oiled animals. The reputation he gained as part of this effort got him elected as mayor in his first run for public office.
Since Weaverling’s election, all directly elected mayors have been from small towns. Before McLaughlin, the only city over 7,000 was Websters Grove, MO (2000 pop. 23,000) where Terry Williams was mayor between 1994-1997.
Perhaps the most well known Green mayor has been West. Elected in 2003 when he was only 26 years old, he made national news in February 2004 for performing same-sex civil marriages. He was ultimately prevented from doing so by the courts.
The city with the most years with a Green mayor has been Sebastopol, CA (five), with Larry Robinson (2000-2001 & 2004-2005), Sam Spooner (2001-2002), Craig Litwin (2002) and now Pierce. The Sebastopol Greens have had a city council majority during these same years.
After McLaughlin’s election, Richmond is now the largest city to have a Green mayor. Before that it was Santa Monica, CA (pop. 90,000) where Mike Feinstein was appointed between 2000 and 2002. During that time the Green Party of the United States held its major national press conference in Santa Monica to announce it was filing for national committee status with the Federal Election Commission (taking advantage of Feinstein’s status as mayor, as well as, the presence of a second Green on the Council and a third on the city’s Rent Control Board.)
In Minnesota, Elaine Fleming concluded her second and final term as mayor this November. In 2002, Fleming became the first Native American to be elected as mayor of tiny Cass Lake, a city located within the reservation boundaries of the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe tribe of northern Minnesota. During her time in office, she took on issues of pollution and neglect in a town that had been a Superfund toxic waste site for almost two decades. Referring to environmental racism as “terrorism in our communities”, Fleming got results. State and federal officials are now testing soil and developing remediation plans, with Fleming pressing them every step of the way.