New Mexico Greens here to stay

  • Cartoon: Stupid tree!

    John Trever/Albuquerque Journal
 

When New Mexico held a special election to replace the late Republican Rep. Steve Schiff this June, people compared the race to a mud-wrestling match, only less dignified.

The Republican was Rhodes Scholar Heather Wilson; the Democrat, millionaire Phil Maloof. He mailed videotapes in black boxes questioning Wilson's ethics, and she countered with a flier dubbed "MalOOPS!" detailing his missteps. Wilson said Maloof's late father would be "ashamed" of his son's negative television ads, while Maloof was quoted in The Denver Post as calling the New Hampshire native a "carpetbagger."

Together, they spent over $4 million and annoyed many voters. Robert Magirl told the Albuquerque Journal that this would be the first time since Franklin Roosevelt that he would not vote Democratic. "Regardless of the outcome, I will not waste my vote when I cast it for Bob Anderson, the Green Party candidate for Congress."

Magirl was not the only voter turned Green by campaign tactics. In the central New Mexico district that envelops Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico, Wilson prevailed with 45 percent of the vote, just six points ahead of Maloof, and Green candidate Bob Anderson pulled in more than 18,000 votes for a surprising 15 percent of the total. To do that, he spent less than $5,000 in a district with only 3,700 registered Green Party members.

Democrats were quick to blame the Green Party for their loss. "The Greens are the number-one thing that hurt us Democrats," former New Mexico Gov. Bruce King told the Albuquerque Journal.

But critics say the Democrats keep failing to appeal to the changing population of this traditionally Democratic state. Greens add that it's not just disgruntled voters who vote Green. They say their progressive platform has earned them a permanent place on the New Mexico ballot.

Democrats slide

Maloof's loss marks the third time in four years that a Green has been accused of siphoning votes from a Democrat and handing a race to a Republican. After former Gov. Bruce King was unseated by conservative Republican Gary Johnson four years ago, King blamed his defeat on Green Party candidate Roberto Mondragon, who captured 11 percent of the vote.

Last year, in another special election, a historically Democratic northern New Mexico House district seat went to conservative Republican Bill Redmond. Green Party candidate Carol Miller, a rural health care worker, walked away with 17 percent of the vote. Miller's showing was the most successful third-party candidacy ever in a congressional race in New Mexico.

"It is clear that the Greens are hurting the Democrats more than the Republicans," says Brian Sanderoff of Research & Polling in Albuquerque. He says Democrats still enjoy solid support from loyal Hispanic voters, but the party has strayed too far to the right on some issues to attract left-leaning newcomers moving into the state.

In fact, it has become difficult to tell the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, says Sandy Freeman, Bob Anderson's campaign manager. Both parties favor building a six-lane highway through the Petroglyph National Monument, a move Indian tribes and the Green Party oppose. In this summer's congressional race, both Maloof and Wilson favored investing Social Security in the stock market to keep funds liquid, a classic conservative move that Greens say is a step toward cutting social programs.

"Right now we have a right-wing agenda and a nothing agenda," says Freeman.

Until recently, New Mexico Democrats could afford to look like Republicans, since liberals and environmentalists were a minority even in Democratic circles. But as that minority has grown, particularly in urban areas around Albuquerque and Santa Fe, voters have gone searching for alternatives.

"For a long time, the Democrats have looked at their majority in New Mexico like an entitlement," says Freeman. "The Democrats moved closer to the Republican ideology to get some of their (Republicans') votes," she says. Democrats told liberals, "You have to vote for us or you only have the extreme Republican conservative choice."

Enter the Green Party, espousing a diverse, but generally more liberal, pro-labor, and pro-environment platform. "The Greens' highest level of support is coming from the newcomer: the Anglo-liberal Democrat who tends to be highly educated," says Sanderoff.

If Democrats were offered more attractive candidates, Sanderoff's research shows, most Green voters would revert: "We find that only when people don't feel the Democratic candidate is superior do they vote Green."

A Green wave?

But Bob Anderson believes Greens are winning votes based on their populist, liberal message, and not simply on displeasure with the other parties. "The Democrats are holding on, thinking their party will revive itself, but I don't think that's going to happen."

The "progressive" platform, says Anderson, is one that works for the common good and not just the bottom line. It supports working people by supporting programs like social security, welfare and universal health care.

"The progressive Green platform is the traditional liberal democratic platform," says Freeman.

But New Mexico's Greens are hardly a cohesive bunch. A disjointed collection of individuals, they generally run their campaigns from basements and living rooms on shoestring budgets. Greens also vary widely on issues. Anderson, for instance, says traditional land-use lifestyles like cattle ranching "are gonna have to change." Carol Miller, however, supports the logging industry. She is running again for the House seat in northern New Mexico, where Hispanic residents burned environmentalists in effigy in 1995 when the Forest Service cut back on firewood collecting (HCN, 12/25/95).

"Everybody has their own bent," says Jack Bateman, a member of the Bernalillo County Green Party. Trying to sum up a typical Green Party candidate is difficult, he says, "but someone who is a tree-hugger doesn't come to mind."

"There is so much diversity that I'm not convinced that it can be a national organization," says Sandy Freeman. "It's different from state to state, county to county."

A force to be reckoned with

The Greens may be unpredictable, but Democrats and Republicans alike have begun taking them seriously. Ten Green candidates are running for office this November in New Mexico, from county commissioner to Congress. And Democrats are gearing up. The new state chairman is Fred Harris, former U.S. senator from Oklahoma, who once worked closely with Robert Kennedy.

The test of Green Party staying power may be seen this November in northern New Mexico's race for the 3rd Congressional District seat. Carol Miller, the Green candidate called spoiler in 1997, faces incumbent Republican Bill Redmond and State Attorney General Tom Udall, the son of former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall.

Udall has been called the Democrat who can finally lure the Green vote. Fred Harris calls him an "attractive and appealing candidate" whose positions on education, health care and environment are "very distinct from Republicans."

"Tom Udall is better on the environment and seen as more honest than a lot of the other candidates," says Freeman. "Udall is an example of the kind of candidate Democrats should be running."

But Carol Miller, says Freeman, is staying in the race. "For a long time the Green people said, if you run a decent Democratic candidate, we'll stop running Greens," says Freeman. "But now we're running to win and turn seats into progressive seats."

* Jennifer Chergo, HCN intern

You can contact ...

* Bernalillo County Green Party, 505/232-9898;

* New Mexico Democratic Party Headquarters, 505/830-3650.

* New Mexico Republican Party Headquarters, 505/982-6136.