Lessons from the success of the Illinois Green Party
It takes focus and hard work to build a party
by Phil Huckelberry, Chair of the Illinois Green Party and Co-Chair of the Green Party of the United States.
In 2008 the Illinois Green Party (ILGP) was able to place 56 candidates on the ballot ñ all in partisan races ñ with several candidates topping 30 percent of the vote. In light of the struggles many other state parties are experiencing, Green Pages inquired what has allowed ILGP to achieve such success. Phil Huckelberry reports on key aspects of running such a widespread campaign
In even years in Illinois, all races are for partisan seats ñ Congress, General Assembly, county offices ñ while in odd years, most races are non-partisan ñ city council, school board, library board. In even years, ILGP has consistently increased its number of candidates on the ballot: from five in 2002, seven in 2004, 17 in 2006, to 56 in 2008. Prior to last year, ILGP had only one candidate for Congress in its history; in 2008 alone, there were 11.†
This dramatic increase was made possible by achieving “established party” status in Illinois, thanks to the 10.3 percent of the vote that Rich Whitney received as candidate for Governor in 2006. Established party status is critical, not only in what it can provide, but also in giving ILGP focus in how it organizes itself.
Established party status as an electoral framework by itself, however, does not explain ILGP’s relative success. Within the context of that framework, three key factors deserve particular attention: understanding the election code; creating comfortable spaces for people to get involved; and focusing on the detail work.
There is no magic bullet to success in party building.
1. Understanding the Election Code
It is vitally important every state party have at least one person, ideally many more, who can study the state election code in order to understand the bizarre paperwork and other rules that prospective candidates have to follow. To play the game, one must know the rules.
A major obstacle to recruiting Green candidates is many Greens simply don’t know the mechanics of how to run for office: petitioning, notarization, deadlines, filling out paperwork, etc. ILGP has made a point of helping candidates overcome these obstacles, empowering them through written guides and by walking them through the legal processes. Our focus on learning the rules and understanding how to use them has proven critical.
I ran for State Representative in 2004 and 2006. I also tried to run for County Board in 2002, but the local Democrats concocted a bogus challenge. The Republican County Clerk went along with it, and removed me from the ballot. Getting taken off the ballot was in many respects the best thing that could have happened for ILGP because it led me to immerse myself in the nuances and outright absurdities of the infamous Illinois Election Code.
In Illinois, when an “established” party doesn’t have a candidate in the primary for a particular office, the party can still field someone by having a meeting of committeepersons to select someone, and by completing the formal paperwork. This process, called “slating,” was used by most Green candidates in Illinois in 2008 and allowed them to bypass the petition-gathering process. Slating, however, is legally complicated, and requires a lot of coordination and understanding of poorly written statutes. Familiarity with the Election Code was an essential component of being able to slate candidates and protect them from being thrown off the ballot.
2. Creating comfortable spaces for people to get involved
Greens at the National Convention in Chicago frequently commented on the diversity of ILGP’s candidates and wanted to know how that was achieved. Of the 56 candidates, eight were under the age of 30, twelve were women, and six were people of color. (In the future, ILGP hopes to improve on these numbers.) †Technical knowledge of how to get candidates on the ballot is essential to this success. The other side of the coin is making that information available to a wide cross-section of people and working with them on implementation.
In Illinois, younger Greens have been trusted in party leadership positions for years. This has been a critical component of ILGP’s growth. Kevin O’Connor, who got 33 percent in his race for state representative, is only 24 years old. Half of ILGP’s Executive Committee and Green National Committee delegation have for years been under the age of 35. But younger Greens in other states have frequently expressed frustration at feeling uncomfortable at Green meetings. Bickering and lack of respect from older Greens are commonly mentioned as turnoffs. State parties need to confront obstacles that keep campus-aged and other younger Greens from feeling comfortable at meetings or participating fully in the decision-making of their state parties.
People of color often face obstacles that whites do not face when running for office. An excellent example is that it takes 500 signatures to get on the primary ballot for State Representative in Illinois, whether it’s an affluent white area with a high voter turnout, or a poor minority area with many more residents either ineligible or unregistered to vote. Slating, however, allows the Green Party to reach out to and help minority candidates.
Greens often lament that candidates who should run Green don’t. Often good candidates consider the Green Party, but determine the party simply doesn’t have an organizational base to support them. When volunteer and financial resources are hard to come by, being able to provide technical and legal resources can be essential, especially in minority areas where Greens have been less active. When I learned that Omar LÛpez was looking to run for Congress, I was able to reach out to his camp and emphasize the help we could provide with the mechanics of getting on the ballot. Omar, one of the leaders of the immigrant rights movement in Chicago, received eight percent of the vote, the highest of any Green congressional candidate in Illinois.
ILGP has worked to create comfortable spaces for people to get involved. When women, people of color, youth, persons with disabilities, non-heterosexuals, and others have an environment where they don’t feel frustrated at not knowing what to do, where there are people who can help guide them through difficult situations, where there are people who will seek them out and ask them to keep showing up, then they are at ease and feel empowered to act.
3. Focusing on the detail work
ILGP is a dues-based membership organization. The membership list is the cornerstone of both its activist base and donor base. It provides a structure to the state party and its local chapters. ILGP has focused a lot of energy on making the list and related information as up-to-date and useful as possible. Building membership numbers, tracking addresses, preparing mailings, and updating email lists can all be tedious work, and it can be hard to see the fruits of such labors.†
The work to build the activist core came to fruition in 2006 when people came together to collect the 39,300 signatures to put Rich Whitney and others on the ballot. In turn, that work paid further dividends as ILGP began adapting to the structural requirements of established party status.
While it is difficult for an all-volunteer party, members need to be regularly receiving email and mail from the party. Mass mailing can be expensive and time-consuming, but it is essential work to keep the broader base of the party involved. Itís also important to have updated web content and to regularly send out press releases. Tech-savvy people must be able to easily post material. Creating a comfortable space is not just about a space for minority demographics, but also a space for workers, for people with disparate skills, for people who live in areas without a lot of Green presence and who need to feel like there is something larger to which they belong.
In 2008 ILGP ran so many candidates who were county chairs or state Coordinating Committee members, that there was not enough energy to do much of the core infrastructural work. As a result, ILGP had fallen behind on things like renewal mailings to members, and these shortfalls noticeably hurt efforts in 2008. One of the things ILGP is now trying to deal with is how to make sure the core organizational work gets done even while the bulk of active members are focused on campaigns. One solution is to be diligent about establishing good practices during campaign down time so there is regularity to those processes when campaigns get rolling. ILGP will have to do better at keeping focused on detail work in 2009 and 2010 if it expects to expand its success.
There are apparent connections between understanding state election laws, creating comfortable spaces, and focusing on detail work. Understanding the Election Code is itself a form of detail work, and having well-functioning structures goes a long way to making people feel comfortable. It should be understood, then, there is no magic bullet to success in party building, but rather a set of interrelated components, with commonalities of focus and hard work. These lessons should serve other state parties well as they undergo their own party building efforts.
To play the game one must know the rules.