Reflections on running for office
A great campaign despite accusations of spoiler
By Ursula Rozum, Green Party of New York State
One night in Syracuse New York during my campaign as a Green Party candidate for Congress, activists of the women’s movement confronted me. A local chapter of the National Organization for Women invited me to their potluck meeting to tell me it was “not the time or place” to challenge the two-party system for fear of re-electing the anti-choice Republican Ann Marie Buerkle to another term. They saw my campaign as a threat to their hard-earned gains and wanted me to drop out so they could elect a candidate supporting hydrofracking, nuclear power, Obama’s dirty drones wars, and for-profit healthcare. These activists didn’t understand that I, and others, would rather stay home on Election Day than vote for the “the lesser evil.”
Running a Green Party campaign can feel like the front lines of a political battle for the future of the planet. No pressure, right? I decided to run for House of Representatives after just two years of organizing with the Green Party. Our campaign motto was “Real Solutions Can’t Wait.” Fueled by urgency, optimism and support from my friends, I ran alongside Green presidential candidate Jill Stein’s Green New Deal platform of jobs for all and a transition to a renewable energy economy. On Election night, I won approximately 22,000 votes, 8 percent. The Democrat won the race and the Tea Party Republican lost big time. As much as Greens refute spoiler accusations, on Election night, our campaign breathed a sigh of relief. We achieved the Green Party’s greatest local electoral success, had lots of fun along the way and the Tea Party incumbent was defeated.
This 2012 congressional race in New York’s 24th District was designated by the Democratic National Committee as one of the top Red-to-Blue races in the country. With 240,000 voters expected out on Election Day, there was no way Greens could have reached the diverse and geographically-dispersed electorate by door-knocking.
Early on, my campaign team decided to focus our scarce resources on earning as much positive media attention as possible. This may sound like an obvious goal, but choosing what not to do in a campaign is as important as what you actually do with limited resources. A constant media presence was crucial to reach voters with our unique message and have an impact in a four-countywide congressional race.
Despite hours of policy cramming and practicing stump speeches, the headlines read “What if the collective-living, nose-ring-wearing candidate who’s talking issues decides the Buerkle-Maffei race.” My presence in the race gave the local media the hottest campaign story they could have asked for. Early on, one local columnist accused me of being a “handmaiden for the GOP.” Much of the narrative reflected similar journalistic bias favoring the two-party system, yet a significant portion of the coverage from some of our areas most respected journalists revealed a disdain for the undemocratic, spoiled nature of our electoral system.
Close to Election Day, our campaign received the greatest media boost we could have imagined short of a sex scandal. As a result we received thousands of dollars in contributions from Republicans in Florida. Instead of just returning this money, we chose to have a press conference and announce that I was re-directing the money to grassroots community groups—groups working to expose voter suppression, abolish corporate personhood, empower seniors, and organize low-wage workers. Despite mixed reactions towards using “dirty money,” we were able to highlight the undemocratic incentives within the winner-take all electoral system and also impress many voters.
The hyper-negative nature of the Democrat vs. Republican campaigns created a space for our campaign to articulate the kinds of positive solutions voters are hungry for: jobs for all, healthcare that puts human needs before corporate profits, a Zero Carbon America 2025 Climate Action Plan, student debt forgiveness, cutting the bloated military budget and ending wars meant for empire building. While my opponents abused one another and the voters with constant attack ads, our Green Party campaign seized each opportunity to highlight the stark differences between the corporate candidates and myself.
According to polls in the lead up to Election Day, I was receiving 7 percent of the vote. It caused the liberal establishment to take the offensive. The hardest part of my campaign was responding to the self-identified progressive movement. Their concern about me “taking votes” from the Democrat candidate ranged from hysterical to mean. While the local liberal groups literally lied to their members, pretending I didn’t exist, I received many an impassioned email asking me to drop out. A week before E-Day, a few activists I work with closely in our local peace movement actually requested a sort-of intervention, trying to appeal to my ego. Their arguments? I’d already won, doing so much better than expected. Dropping out could help the Green Party. Hmph.
After four televised debates, countless press conferences and months spent pushing our vision for social change, I couldn’t and wouldn’t drop out. What these interveners didn’t realize was that the campaign wasn’t just about me. The success of our campaign was based on the team of volunteers, donors and newly-inspired voters choosing to reject the political status quo and embrace a new kind of politics, based in values of peace, justice, ecology and grassroots Democracy. To drop out would be telling them we think it’s ok to vote for corporate politicians whose positions we don’t support. To make light of the push back, one supporter pledged $10 for each time someone contacted me about dropping out of the race.
Perhaps the hardest thing about running a race you have no chance of winning is projecting a winning attitude without sounding delusional. But it was the most exhilarating experience of my life. As a young activist, I am used to having passionate opinions. But as a candidate, people actually wanted to hear them. Being a candidate forced me to develop new skills —such as speaking in public without “ums”, and defining policy that pinpoints real challenges in my community rather than promoting just my pet issues. There were also lots of fun parts: being on TV; seeing my opinions in the paper; the gastronomical adventures with my campaign manager; shopping for funky yet professional clothes with my mom; the four-county bike trip with my sweetheart.
The stakes are too high to entrust our future to agents of corporate capitalism whose decisions reflect a complete lack of conviction. We are seeing a surge of young Green candidates and movement-builders because the political elites have failed our generation. I was an accidental candidate but once I was in the race, I relished every opportunity to articulate the aspiration of my generation for a better world. Young Green campaigners and candidates aren’t just in this struggle for the existential satisfaction. We want to win. It’s time for the Green Party to get past our growing pains, get professional and make each campaign for office an effort that builds the party we need to fight for the just, peaceful and sustainable future we deserve.
More info at www.ursulaforcongress.com