An Interview with Tony Affigne, Green Party of Rhode Island
Why have you joined the Green Party?
When I left the Democratic Party in 1982, it was because Rhode Island Democrats had abandoned progressive principles, and I became convinced that the two-party system was the problem, not a solution. In 1984, my friend Richard Walton was Citizens Party candidate for vice president, and I decided to run for Governor of Rhode Island in 1986 as the Citizens Party candidate. The Citizens Party was on the decline, however, so by 1990 when Betty Zisk and John Ren≠sen≠brink invited me to a Boston meeting of the Green Party Organizing Commit≠tee, I was ready to get involved with the Greens. My political values and those of the Greens have always been close.
What do you think are the pressing issues of the country?
Well, according to the scientists who wrote last year’s IPCC report, and who’ve updated its findings recently, the world has about ten years to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we’re to avoid a “tipping point” and catastrophic climate change. I’d say that’s a pretty important issue! Ending war and fostering social and political justice are pretty important challenges as well.
What do you think the Green Party should focus on?
At this point in history, Greens don’t have the luxury of focusing on any one thing, because ultimately we’ll be judged by how well we’ve brought large numbers of people together to fight the good fight for ecology, equality, democracy, and peace. That means we need to work on all the issues we can, as no single issue will mobilize enough people. Practically speaking, this means encouraging local and state Green parties as they mobilize on the issues they find most meaningful to their members and potential supporters.
The national Party’s role, as ever, is to provide a network for inter-Party cooperation and communication, a mechanism for making authoritative statements, and a vehicle for national campaign coordination. Strategically speaking, I still be≠lieve races for the U.S. House and Senate could be our most important arenas for influencing both public opinion and public policy. We often pick up large numbers of votes for our congressional candidates; many Representatives run without serious opposition and in the end Congress controls the country’s policy agenda. If we’re serious about redirecting public policy, we need to get more serious about recruiting and supporting effective congressional candidates.
What can Greens do to enhance diversity within the party and in general?
Greens should work harder to enable genuine empowerment and decentralization within the party, and devote less time and energy to “control” and “accountability” and “rules.” While most people wouldn’t see things this way, for me an authoritarian culture within the Greens is a diversity issue, because in our racially-stratified culture, in which whites are privileged and empowered under the “rules of the game” óoften without recognizing those advantagesópeople of color and other “outsiders” often find themselves victimized by Euro≠centrism masquerading as “procedure.” People of color were usually nowhere in sight when those “procedures” were established, and have no reason to be≠lieve their interests were even considered.
The Green Party is probably the most progressive of all third parties regarding questions of diversity, social equality, and inclusion. But we’ve learned the hard way that even people who “believe in” equality, aren’t really prepared to practice equality in their political lives. Folks still haven’t learned to walk the walk. Some Greens still just think they’re better than other people, and can’t understand how that might be off-putting to anyone who’s not just like them.
Is there anything you would like to comment on?
Look, I think the Green Party is facing world-critical challenges “out there,” which will take all of our energy and creativity to solve, so it’s ironic that just when so many non-Greens are moving our way, recognizing the wisdom of the Green political program as well as a green lifestyle, as a national organization we don’t seem to be able to get out of our own way. We need to overgrow the madness, with a genuine commitment to diversity. Sometimes I think this is happening, and we’re making progress; at other times I just want to cry and give up. Guess that makes me just like everyone else!
Could you please give a brief bio of yourself?
I am 54 years old, with three grown children and two grandsons. I am a Latino and my family background is mixed Hispanic and Anglo, and if you go back a couple of generations, African-descent and Indigen≠ous as well. I like to cook, but don’t put enough time into it! Don’t get enough “real” exercise, but like to bike and walk along rivers, in any city I visit which is lucky enough to have a river. I once rescued a white-tailed deer, when still a spotted fawn, whose mother was killed on the highway. Raised “Flame” to adulthood, last time we saw him he was a 12-point buck, with his own family. I left the countryside and have lived in a small city for nearly four decades. Buses, trains, lots of people!
In terms of work, I’m a professor of political science at Providence College, and visiting professor of ethnic studies at Brown University. I love what I do, teaching college courses on environmental politics, urban politics, elections, Latino politics, and ethnic and racial politics more broadly definedóincluding Black, Indigenous, and Asian American politics. I’ve also taught immigrant adults in an inner-city tutoring and resource center and, before that, worked as a unionized construction laborer, community organizer, and journalist.
Over the years I’ve founded or co-founded numerous organizations, the most significant being the Latin American Stu≠dents Organization (1974), Student Coali≠tion (1975), Fox Point Coalition (1978), Mount Hope Neighborhood Housing Corp≠oration (1988), Green Politics Network (1992), Green Party of Rhode Island (1992), the political science subfield on Race, Eth≠nicity, and Politics (1995), and the Latino Caucus in Political Science (1998). In 2001 it was a great honor for me to share facilitation duties (with Lynne Serpe), and pre≠side over the roll call vote in Santa Bar≠bara, where the GPUS was formally established. What a great memory!
My responsibilities in the na≠tional Green Party have included four years or so as chair of the Accred≠itation Committee, during the time when the national party expanded from its original 12 state Green party members, to the 33, which came together in Santa Barbara. Since 2000 I’ve been a member of the International Com≠mittee, served for nearly three years as IC co-chair, and since 2002 have been a Dele≠gate to the Feder≠a≠tion of Green Parties of the Americas. In 2001 I was a U.S. delegate to the founding gathering of the Global Greens in Canberra, Australia, and cast a U.S. vote to approve the Global Green Charter. At the Federa≠tion’s 2008 annual meeting in Quebec, I was invited to serve as presiding officer/ facilitator, for a ten hour meeting, conducted in four languages, involving representatives from 14 national Green parties. That was a most excellent adventure!
In my local community, I’ve been active in Latino organizations, serving my community as padrino (godfather) of the Puerto Rican Parade of Rhode Island, vice president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee (RILPAC), and board member of the RI Latino Civic Fund. In 1982 I was Rhode Island’s first-ever Latino candidate for elective office, with an independent campaign for Providence City Council.
In 1986 I was then the state’s first-ever Latino candidate for statewide office, when I ran for Governor with the Citi≠zens Party. Both of my campaigns in the 1980s were about housing affordability, labor rights, environment, and social justice. At the 1986 AFL-CIO COPE convention, my speech to the delegates from across the labor movement received a standing ovation, and I actually won the voice vote on the union endorsement for governor; of course when it went to a paper ballot it was a different storyóbut I did have enough votes to deny the endorsement to both the incumbent Republican governor and the Democratic challenger. Great fun!
Beyond the Green Party, I’m currently serving a term as president of the Latino Caucus in Political Science, organizing a national research conference on Latino politics, and writing a book about race and politics in the Americas.
If weíre serious about redirecting public policy, we need to get more serious about recruiting and supporting effective congressional candidates.