The last time the Green Party mattered in Minnesota politics, Facebook had just launched out of Mark Zuckerberg’s college dorm room.
Consumer firebrand Ralph Nader, in a high-profile presidential run in 2000, secured major party status for the Greens that year, casting them into the limelight and bringing them legitimacy, tax subsidies and automatic ballot inclusion.
Their zenith was short-lived however. In 2004, presidential candidate David Cobb garnered only 4,403 votes, falling 137,000 short and casting the party back into the minority. Without those perks, the Green Party has been largely relegated to the political fringes for the past decade.
That may change this fall, in Minnesota at least.
On the ballot is Andy Dawkins, a former DFL state representative, who is running for attorney general against three other candidates, including DFL incumbent Lori Swanson. He is the only Green Party candidate for statewide office — and the Greens’ best chance to claw itself back to relevancy.
Green Party leaders tapped Dawkins to run because as a longtime member of the Minnesota House representing St. Paul, he may be able to get enough votes to win back major party status.
“All too often I get: ‘It’s about time they run somebody who’s credible or is a serious candidate,’ ” Dawkins said. “If the Green Party runs credible candidates, we have a chance to be as major as any major party.”
The Greens also have four other candidates on the ballot. Ray “Skip” Sandman is running for Congress in Minnesota’s Eighth District. Lena Buggs and Kristine Osbakken are running for state representative in districts 65A and 7A, respectively. And Doug Mann is hoping to be elected to the Minneapolis school board. Nationally, the party is fielding dozens of candidates, including gubernatorial candidates in California, New York, Illinois and Tennessee.
The five Minnesota candidates will be formally presented at the Green Party’s annual national convention, which kicked off Thursday at Macalester College in St. Paul. The convention is something of a homecoming: The national Green Party was birthed at Macalester 30 years ago, when 62 people met to found the organization. This time, about 150 Greens from various states are expected to attend.
It ain’t easy being Green
Party leaders hope the convention and workshops will energize the Greens as they seek to regain a foothold in state politics — a tall order for a party that has only one paid staff person in Minnesota.
“It’s been a struggle,” said Amber Garlan, the state’s party chair. “It always has been. It goes without saying.”
A grass-roots organization, the Minnesota Greens rely largely on a small network of volunteers to fuel its mission of protecting the environment, defeating corporate spending in politics and advocating for liberal stances on social issues. Participation has fluctuated over the years. Fund-raising is tough because the party does not accept corporate donations.
Despite the uphill battle to be taken seriously, the Greens historically have found Minnesota to be more receptive to third parties, said Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor. The third-party movement in Minnesota stretches back to 1920, when the progressive Minnesota Farmer Labor Party formed, ultimately electing three governors, four U.S. senators and eight members of the U.S. House before merging with the Democratic Party in the mid-1940s.
“This is a state that elected Jesse Ventura,” Jacobs said. “This is a state where you saw the populist movement. There’s a kind of resistance to the establishment that sometime erupts, but you need the right candidate, the right platform and terrific organization.”
But this is a tough year for the Greens to reclaim a stake in state politics, Jacobs said. It no longer has the national name recognition it had with Nader a decade ago. Liberal voters are likely to mobilize behind the DFL candidates in other key races, including the governor’s race and Sen. Al Franken’s re-election campaign, he said.
The attorney general’s race, Jacobs said, “I don’t think is going to stir a lot of passion or intensity.”
The Greens’ fervor, however, has not diminished with time.
Gathering at Macalester’s student center on Thursday, longtime Greens traveled from as far away as Hawaii and Maine to strategize, learn media outreach tactics, public speaking and campaigning skills.
As students on campus milled around for summer classes and programming, the Greens carried on with convention duties, posting old campaign signs for Nader and Cobb outside a meeting room.
Fulton Hanson traveled nearly 100 miles from Pine County to attend this year’s meeting. That’s a long trek for the 71-year-old, an ardent environmentalist and antiwar activist who lives in a log house in the rural county.
“A big trip for me is 5 miles,” he said with a chuckle.
Traveling to St. Paul was important, though. Hanson wanted to make sure the Greens were crafting positions on the international conflicts that have erupted in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip. Also on his agenda of important issues is the corporatization of politics and his fierce opposition to genetically modified foods.
“I want to see if I can light a fire under the Greens,” he said.
Kristine Osbakken, who is running for a seat in the Minnesota House representing Duluth, is keenly aware that getting elected to office is difficult without a large political machinery or major party status.
Osbakken, a former schoolteacher, canvassed her district over two weeks to get 600 signatures to qualify for the ballot. People were eager to support her candidacy because they are disillusioned with the current two-party system, she said.
Victory this fall would come if Dawkins secures enough votes for major party designation, Osbakken said. That would do away with the time-consuming task of gathering signatures to make a state’s ballot. Around the country, local Green Party affiliates have focused largely on securing ballot access and crafting political messages that will resonate with more voters.
“Andy Dawkins is doing such a good service,” she said. “If we can regain major party status again, or even minor party status, it allows us again to tap into the state funding. Now we have no status. … That put us at quite a disadvantage.”