Greens gain, but statewide wins elusive

Posted July 14, 2009, at 9:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s been said that “green is the new black” when it comes to more ecofriendly business and consumer buying trends.

But in the political realm, could the small but growing number of Greens ever overcome the Blues and Reds to win a major elective office — even in an environmentally progressive and independent-friendly state like Maine?

Several outside political observers credited the Maine Green Independent Party for making significant progress in local elections, especially in southern Maine. But could there be a Green governor-elect when polls close on Election Day 2010?

Not likely, they said.

“They are not movers and shakers or power brokers, but they are certainly not irrelevant either,” said Mark Brewer, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono. “Can they contribute to the public dialogue? Absolutely. Can they affect the outcome? Potentially.”

Maine Green Independent Party faithful hope that the 2010 governor’s race will be a chance to both expand their political base statewide and show that a Green candidate has a viable shot at the Blaine House.

“The bottom line is, I am in it to win,” said Lynne Williams, a Bar Harbor lawyer who will formally announce her candidacy on the Green Independent ticket today. “But even if I don’t win, I am sure it will build our party to a tremendous degree.”

Another Green party member, Patrick Quinlan of Gorham, also has registered to run for governor.

Registrations in what is now known as the Maine Green Independent Party have grown steadily since the party gained official recognition by the state in the mid-1990s. But the 31,676 Greens in Maine in December 2008 represented just 3.2 percent of registered voters, according to statistics from the Secretary of State’s Office.

By contrast, unaffiliated or unenrolled voters consistently make up the largest bloc of the Maine electorate, at 37 percent to 38 percent, followed by Democrats and Republicans.

Although the Green numbers are relatively small, they have grown steadily since the party’s start in Maine.

The first gathering of Maine’s would-be Green Party occurred in January 1984, more than six months before the first meeting of what would become the national Green Party.

John Rensenbrink was there at the Augusta church in January 1984 when 18 people began talking about a Maine Green Party. He called the subsequent work to launch a third party in Maine “the most difficult thing I have ever done,” but is nonetheless impressed with its achievements in the 25 years since.

“I’ve seen some real progress, and I’m very proud of that,” said Rensenbrink, a retired political science professor at Bowdoin College who would also help start the national party.

Longtime party activist Jonathan Carter has seen dramatic changes since his first bid for public office as a Green in 1992.

Back then, Carter typically received puzzled looks and questions about whether he was affiliated with the environmental organization Greenpeace when he said he was running as a Green.

“Today, I think if you knock on anybody’s door and say you are running as a Green they would know what you are talking about, so I think we have made great strides,” said Carter, who ran for the 2nd Congressional District seat in 1992 and for governor in 1994 and 2002.

The Maine Green Party’s biggest victory came in 2002 when John Eder from Portland won election to the Maine House of Representatives. Eder’s election marked only the second win anywhere in the nation for a Green candidate for state office. In 1999, California voters elected Audie Bock to serve in the state assembly, but in the next election Bock left the party to run as an independent.

Green candidates have also had some success on the local level, winning multiple seats on city councils, boards of selectmen and planning boards. Greens now hold three of the nine seats on the Portland City Council.

Bowdoin College political science professor Christian Potholm said the party has clearly had a greater impact on local politics than on the statewide level.

Potholm argued that the Greens have been less effective at affecting statewide elections, however, “in part because the major parties have co-opted some of their message” on environmental policies.

Carter received 4.3 percent and 9.3 percent of the votes in his two runs for governor. Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth received 9.6 percent of the vote in her gubernatorial bid as a Green in 2006 and 6.8 percent in 1998, when she was forced to run as an independent after the party lost state recognition.

Carter, who is also known for helping lead the effort to ban clear-cutting, said he never expected to win the Blaine House but, instead, used the campaigns to raise important issues, suggest ideas and educate the public. In that sense, Carter argued, the Greens have been the “vanguards” of major policy shifts, including the in-creased focus on forestry practices and forest health stemming from the unsuccessful clear-cutting ban.

And Rensenbrink said the party is organizing to run additional candidates for legislative races.

Brewer, the UM professor, said that is traditionally the role that Green and other third-party candidates have played in major races. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot reshaped the debate — and the outcome — of the 1992 presidential election by focusing on the federal budget deficit, for instance.

“Independents can and have won elections in Maine, much more so than in other states, so it’s not out of the question that someone other than a Democrat or Republican can win,” he said.

But if a Green candidate did capture the Blaine House, Brewer believes it will likely be because they were already widely recognized or had won the support of Maine’s independent-minded electorate through means other than their Green party label.

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