Calling All Progressives

: Can progressives, given the current political climate, ever expect to make significant changes? –>

The bottom line: beat Bush, then hold Kerry’s feet to the fire

By R. V. Scheide

Less than two weeks before the election, Peter Camejo, Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader’s running mate, is still fighting the good fight. It’s been a long battle for the Northern California businessman and political activist, and this political season, crisscrossing the country as part of Nader’s quixotic quest for a progressive presidency, he may be facing his toughest, and loneliest, battle yet.

That’s because the people normally considered to be Nader and Camejo’s constituency–Green Party members, progressives and liberal Democrats– have quite frankly been scared senseless by the administration of President George W. Bush. From the Patriot Act to preemptive attack to the war in Iraq, progressives are running scared. That’s as true here in Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties–perhaps the most progressive three-county region in the United States–as it is anywhere.

Interviews with a dozen leading North Bay progressives reveal that while they all agree wholeheartedly with the policies promoted by Nader and Camejo’s progressive campaign, most are supporting Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards, with few reservations. There’s plenty at stake for progressives in this election, they say, particularly on the state and local level. But when it comes to the presidency, it’s anybody but Bush, which is to say, Democrat John Kerry, the only other candidate with a legitimate shot at winning. Via telephone from Vermont, Camejo minces no words at this apparent abandonment of progressive principles.

“People say, ‘How do we stop Bush?'” he says. “It doesn’t matter what the reasons are–anybody but Bush. But by doing this, we are allowing people just like Bush to get in there. Nothing Bush has done could have been done without the cooperation of the Democrats.”

Nevertheless, with few exceptions, North Bay progressives are uniting behind John Kerry. Call it a sign of the times. The driving factor in what may go down as the meanest, nastiest presidential campaign in U.S. history is fear, and when it comes to the Bush administration, there’s plenty to be afraid of.

A Green Party member and former mayor, Sebastopol City Council member Larry Robinson sits on one of the few Green majority city councils in the United States. He has great respect for Nader and Camejo, as well as Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, but says, “My personal feeling is there is more at stake here. In every possible arena, the Bush administration is turning back the significant progress of the past 100 years. If the election is close, the Republicans will find a way to send it to the Supreme Court, which we know is for Republicans. I want to see as large a victory as possible.”

Fairfax mayor Frank Egger, long active in North Bay environmental issues, is equally frightened of the Bush administration and adamantly supports Kerry. “There’s no choice there,” he says. “Four more years of Bush, and we won’t recognize our country. We won’t recognize our state.”

Lowell Downey, co-chair of the Napa County Green Party, is also supporting Kerry, but reluctantly. “I feel like I have to, but I feel very disappointed,” he explains. “I was very disappointed that Kerry had nothing to say about the environment in the last debate. Having been a longtime Nader supporter, it’s been very disheartening to see the way the Democrats have gone after Nader.”

It’s no secret that the Democratic Party is actively attempting to undermine the Nader campaign, which is currently on the ballot in 34 states, along with write-in campaigns in eight other states, including California. Memories of the Bush-Gore 2000 debacle in Florida still linger, and Democrats are leaving nothing to chance. If that means playing a little dirty pool, so be it. Democratic National Committee chairperson Terry McAuliffe has repeatedly begged Nader not to run at all.

For Camejo, this is one of the things about the present campaign that hurts the most. He can comprehend voters taking thoughtful stands on the issues, including whom to vote for president. “We understand that. That’s a position. But to say not to run . . . The whole left is torn; they’re angry at each other,” he says. But those who choose Kerry should be aware of what they’re getting into, he insists. “Bush is not some weird thing that accidentally happened. This is what corporate America wants. The two parties are going to dominate us no matter who wins. When you accept the Democratic Party framework, you’re moving people who are dedicated to social change into an organization that’s against social change.”

“The environment, conservation, growth and immigration just aren’t dealt with by the Democratic Party,” agrees Chris Malan, a Napa County Green Party member who ran unsuccessfully for a supervisor seat in 2002. “It’s all talk and no action. It’s always about the public having to fight to protect precious resources and get conservation programs in.” Still, Malan says, “Go Kerry! Decades of work have been dismantled in just four years by one president.”

There are a few local progressives who are sticking to their guns. Tod Brilliant, a creative consultant who’s running a renegade campaign for a seat on the Healdsburg City Council, has been wearing his “Proudly Voting Nader” T-shirt a lot lately. “It’s amazing how much heat you get for being pro-Nader these days,” he says, “especially from those who voted for Nader last time. To me, right now, it’s not really very empowering to be a true progressive. Bush has everyone’s sphincter wound up so tight.”

Sept. 11, 2001, may have been the day that everything changed–except Tod Brilliant. “My personal ethics haven’t changed that much in four years,” he says. “I’ll always vote my conscience. Without idealism, there’s no reason to get up in the morning. There’s nothing to live for. That said, I totally understand why people are voting for Kerry.”

And then, of course, there are your crusty Greens.

Napa County Green Party member Glen Baker voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 before meeting Ralph Nader in 1966. He’s written in Nader for president in every election since, and plans on doing the same thing this election.

“I’m sick of it. I’ve been staying away,” he says, referring to the current state of politics. “If Bush gets reelected, I’m leaving the country.”

Longtime Sonoma County political activist Daniel Solnit would like to see Bush defeated but thinks that local progressives will do little harm if they vote their conscience. “We’re a safe state,” he assures. “Enough people are going to vote for Kerry so that it won’t make that much of a difference. This election is really about damage control. Kerry is by no means a progressive, and I’m amazed that some Democrats are trying to convince themselves otherwise.”

State of Decline

If Peter Camejo had somehow won last year’s recall election, chances are that this year’s state ballot, with its 16 propositions, would look considerably different. Among other things, Camejo proposed raising taxes on the top 5 percent of the state’s wage earners. If that had happened, he says, “Today, there’d be a surplus in the budget, and that’s after we lowered college tuition to preexisting levels.”

Instead, voters chose Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Arnold said he wouldn’t raise taxes and he wouldn’t cut education,” Camejo says drily. “He’s done both.”

Indeed, Schwarzenegger was forced to float a $15 billion bond to balance the state budget, which taxpayers will be forced to pay back, with interest. Camejo points out that the top 1 percent of income earners in California pay a lower tax rate than the poorest 20 percent. But legislators have repeatedly declined to inject fairness into state and local tax codes or solvency into the budget process. “Every attempt to go around this is what’s stopping us in California,” Camejo says.

Instead, voters must face a myriad of initiatives, many of which are designed to shore up the sinking ship of state, particularly in the area of vital social services. For North Bay progressives, the 16 propositions offer much to support, but also offer much to oppose. Sometimes, conditions blur.

“For the cities and the counties, Proposition 1A is the most important,” says Larry Robinson, who’s surprised to find himself in the position of fiscal conservative, thanks to the state’s continued raids on city and county coffers. Proposition 1A still permits the state to borrow from cities and counties, but forces it to pay the money back in a set period of time, with interest. The initiative enjoys unanimous support from the progressives interviewed for this story.

Likewise, so does Proposition 59, which would increase the public’s access to government information, especially at the local level. “As a former city councilman, I can tell you at this point, access is drastically limited,” says Petaluma’s David Keller. A longtime activist on local water issues, Keller once had to file a state public records act request to receive information on the Sonoma County Water Agency’s hush-hush plans for a multihundred-million dollar water-treatment plant, even though local ratepayers, including Keller’s constituents, would be footing the bill for the plant.

All of the progressives interviewed support Proposition 60, which keeps the present primary and general election system, and vehemently oppose Proposition 62, which would permit open voting in the primaries but allow only the top two vote getters, even if both are from the same party, to face off in November.

“Proposition 62 is going to kill the chance for any third party and lock in a system of less diversity and less choice for voters,” says Solnit. “It sounds good–but we’re a nation of electoral idiots. Americans understand their election process less than any other country.”

“What’s the point of having parties if it’s a free-for-all only during the primary season?” asks Keller. “What’s the point of having an election at all?”

Former two-time Petaluma City Council member Matt McGuire calls Proposition 64, which would limit the right to sue the government and corporations for damages to only the specific individuals who have been harmed, “the right to pollute” proposition; progressives are unanimous in their opposition.

“I do believe there are frivolous lawsuits,” says Camejo. “I’ve had frivolous lawsuits filed against me. But obviously where Proposition 64 is coming from is to deny the public the right to due process through the courts.”

Progressives also more or less unanimously support Proposition 61, the children’s hospital bond; Proposition 63, a tax on those who earn more than $1 million annually to pay for a drastically needed expansion in state and county mental-health services; and Proposition 72, which would require medium- and large-sized companies (can you say WalMart?) to pay 80 percent of their employees’ healthcare premiums.

“In Fairfax, we provide healthcare benefits to our employees,” says Mayor Egger, who in addition to his municipal duties has driven a bakery truck for most of his life. “I’ve been a union person the whole time, bought a home, raised a family and made a decent living, and one of the reasons why is the healthcare benefits we get from the union.”

Ain’t that America: fresh, hot sweet rolls delivered right to your doorstep. But then there’s all those big-box stores, like the Carnegie Hall-sized Lowe’s which incensed Cotati citizens have been opposing for all the wrong reasons. They could care less that Yardbirds, which funded Measure P, the anti-big-box measure, doesn’t pay its employees anything close to a living wage. Proposition 72 will force the big boxes to take care of their employees medically, and that’s a good thing.

“Any working person who has healthcare benefits should support Proposition 72, because it protects those benefits,” says Egger.

Most progressives also support Proposition 66, which would require that the last offense committed by a felon sentenced under the “three strikes” law be violent. Larry Robinson believes that the “three strikes” law, as it stands now, is “punitive, fear-based, not rational and not helpful.”

Somewhat surprisingly, most progressives are against both propositions 68 and 70, which seek to tax the earnings on the Native American casinos mushrooming across the state. While gaming remains one of the few successes Native Americans have enjoyed since being nearly exterminated by whites, such increasingly larger casino projects as the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria’s proposed complex in Rohnert Park are drawing fire from environmentalists and those who believe that gambling destroys the social fabric.

Marge Piaggio, a coordinator for Marin County Peace and Justice Coalition, a collection of numerous progressive groups with a mailing list of 1,500 members, says the coalition opposes both casino measures, but admits that, “With the level that we disenfranchised Native Americans, we sort of have it coming.”

Camejo opposes Proposition 68, but hasn’t yet made his mind up yet about Proposition 70, which would tax all Native American casinos at the same rate as any other business operating in the state.

“I’m definitely voting no on Proposition 68,” he says. “On the other one, I’m not so certain. This is the one thing Native Americans have had some success at.”

But even though he admits to buying an occasional lottery ticket, Camejo says, “Gambling is a fundamentally negative thing. It’s regressive taxation and it’s also highly dangerous. When you put a casino on a block, you’re drawing people in, you’re destroying families. I’m not opposed to gambling, but I would regulate it to death.”

Interestingly, the one initiative progressives seem to be disagreeing about the most is Proposition 71, which if passed would establish a $3 billion general obligation bond to fund stem-cell research.

“I’m going to vote no,” says Egger. “We’ve got a governor who’s cut the car tax and balanced the budget on the backs of the cities.” He would have preferred a revenue bond instead of a general obligation bond. “It’s really questionable whether this is going to benefit the public.”

David Keller disagrees, first addressing those who might be opposed to stem-cell research on religious grounds. “I once heard an interview with the Dalai Lama,” he says. “He was asked what happens if science conflicts with the tenets of Buddhism? He replied, ‘You change Buddhism.’ That’s where I’m at on this.” As for the cost, Keller says, “The state is so far in debt, it’s a matter of where we put our resources. We don’t invest in health, transportation or scientific research. It’s $6 billion [with interest] over 30 years. People think government comes free. It doesn’t.”

“I’m totally for it,” Camejo agrees. “We definitely can afford it, in a different sense. Regardless of the cost, its about being for stem-cell research.” Or as Keller puts it, it’s about searching for the truth.

Chris Malan supports Proposition 71 for another reason. “My son broke his neck three years ago and he’s paralyzed. It’s strictly personal. We have to do something–and I was against Gov. Schwarzenegger’s $15 billion bond.”

Highway to Hell

Keller’s support for Proposition 71 goes to the heart of a subject he talks about often: who funds the commons? By “the commons,” he’s referring to all of the things that supposedly belong to us: the government and the services it provides, such as healthcare and public transportation; and the environment, which provides the air we breath, the water we drink and the parks and open spaces we enjoy. As things stand now, the commons are not faring well. “The neocons and the Republicans have basically decided to defund the government,” he says. You get what you pay for. In our case, not much.

That doesn’t mean progressives can’t turn things around. At the state and national level, North Bay progressives for the most part are lining up to support the traditional slate of Democratic candidates, most of whom have respectable track records supporting left-leaning causes: Barbara Boxer for U.S. Senate; Mike Thompson for 1st District U.S. representative; Lynn Woolsey for 6th District U.S. representative; Carol Migden for Third District state senator; Patty Berg for 1st District state assemblywoman; Joe Nation for 6th district state assemblyman; and Noreen Evans for 7th District state assemblywoman.

However, the real meat for progressives comes at the local level.

“I’d say there’s a huge amount at stake for progressives if they keep their eyes on local issues,” says Daniel Solnit. City council races, for instance, are often decided by fewer than 100 votes. “We still have some control over these institutions.” In addition, all three counties feature local transportation measures on the ballot–always a concern for progressives seeking to reign in growth. And in Marin County, there’s a genuine progressive measure on the ballot, Measure B, which seeks to ban genetically modified organisms in the county.

“I was one of five sponsors of Measure B,” says Egger. “We collected 15,000 signatures in five weeks. It’s vital that we get this approved.”

“There are lots of organic farmers in Marin County,” adds Marge Piaggio. “If they have contamination from GMO seeds or pollen, it finishes them; they lose their certification.”

If approved, Marin would join Trinity and Mendocino counties, which have already enacted anti-GMO measures. Similar measures are on the ballot in Butte, Humboldt and San Luis Obispo counties, and Solnit, who chairs GE-Free Sonoma County, hopes to have a measure on the Sonoma County ballot in March.

But here’s where the rubber meets the road: transportation issues–which is to say the Highway to Hell, the ungodly black strip that links us all together in ways that mostly have to do with the amount of oil left in the planet, which by the estimates of most geophysicists, is now less than half the original existing supply. That’s why the price at this writing has pushed over $50 a barrel. In all three North Bay counties, widening and repairing existing roads is the issue that won’t go away.

Marin County’s Measure A would increases the local sales tax by .5 percent in order to raise $280 million over the next 20 years to improve local transportation. The Marin County Peace and Justice Coalition has endorsed the measure, particularly because 50 percent of the money raised will be spent on public buses.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s better,” says Piaggio. “It’s shocking that the people who work cleaning the big, fancy houses in Mill Valley can’t even catch a bus home.”

A similar proposal in Sonoma County, Measure M, increases the sales tax by .25 percent in order to raise an estimated $470 million over the next 20 years. However, because 80 percent of the money raised would go to expanding Highway 101 and fixing local roads and only 20 percent goes to public transportation, Sonoma County progressives are split on the measure.

“I think it should be supported,” says Martin Bennett, who sits on the executive board of the North Bay Labor Council. “If it doesn’t pass, we have serious problems putting together a coalition to support a comprehensive transportation plan.”

Sounds a little bit like the war in Iraq.

Liberal Santa Rosa City Council members Mike Reilly and Noreen Evans support Measure M. So far, environmental groups such as Sonoma County Conservation Action have remained neutral on the issue, which is fine with Bennett, who has devoted much time and energy attempting to mend fences between environmental and labor interests. But other local progressives are anything but neutral.

“I’m not supporting Measure M,” says Keller. “It’s skewed way too heavily to Highway 101 and road expansion, something that’s readily available from state and federal money. The real ringer is, no one is factoring in the casino traffic. It’s the same old outdated, nonfunctional thinking. Finally, it’s not a good idea because it’s based on the total illusion that two years from now we can get a rail-only measure passed.”

“It’s an awful lot of money for automobile transportation and very little for rail,” says Solnit. “We’re at peak oil. Building more roads for more cars doesn’t make sense.”

Or as Healdsburg’s ever-provocative Tod Brilliant puts it, “I’m Mr. Super Rail. I could give a shit about widening the freeway. I don’t think Measure M is good enough.”

Widening and improving local roadways is where progressives break their picks. Keller will tell you that the proposed expansion, which will turn Highway 101 into three lanes of hot, black asphalt running north and south between Novato and Healdsburg, will only improve the existing traffic conditions, which everybody agrees are horrendous. But he will also tell you that the cities and local developers see the expansion as an opportunity to grow even more, bringing more traffic, more roadway expansion and, inevitably, more environmental degradation.

Bennett, on the other hand, is concerned that many people in Sonoma County, perhaps most, aren’t even making a living wage. New projects mean new jobs, and in many heavy industries, that still means union in the North Bay. At the same time, the SRJC instructor is deeply concerned with the mainstream business model that sacrifices the environment for the common good.

It’s a complex formula, and to be honest, no one progressive has yet figured it out. The Napa County Greens aren’t waiting around for answers. Measure W on the ballot is an advisory seeking to expand Jamieson Canyon Road, a treacherous bit of roadway linking I-80 and Highway 29. According to Lowell Downey, the measure is being sold on the idea that nearby Solano County has agreed to provide housing for Napa’s underpaid farmworkers.

“There is no such agreement,” Downey says. “Basically, Napa County is saying it isn’t going to provide housing to those people.”

Downey’s closer could be applied to every roadway measure on this year’s ballot: “The traffic issue is a big nightmare,” he says. “The burden on the roads in Sonoma and Napa is getting out of hand, and something has to be done, but this isn’t it.”

Sebastopol’s Robinson has been stalking his city’s streets drumming up support for Measure T, which raises the city’s sales tax 1.25 percent to provide funding sucked out of the city’s coffers by the state. In the end, it all boils down to the road most frequently traveled. “It will help make up for some of the funding Sacramento has been taking from us for 12 years,” he says, “so we can pave our streets.”

Will the Real John Kerry Please Stand Up?

With many focusing their energy and their vote on once again defeating the lesser of two evils, smaller concerns such as fixing pot holes and providing a living wage have taken a back seat. Can progressives, in the current political framework, ever expect to effect positive change within the existing system?

“I think you’ve raised the $64,000 question,” Peter Camejo chuckles, pausing to muse what that might cost in today’s dollars. “How do we change society? You can’t change it till you recognize the problem.” Still, he thinks “America will change. How, exactly, we get there, I’m not sure. But our campaign is a step in the right direction.”

Indeed, North Bay progressives remain certain that they can change things within the existing system.

“I’ve been slammed by all the newspapers, including yours,” says former Petaluma City Council member Matt McGuire. “But I had the best rep for bringing both sides together. If you have an intelligent majority, you really can get things done.”

Robinson is equally optimistic. “There are some people in the environmental movement who think we cooperated too much with the business community,” he says. “There are some people in the business community who expected more cooperation from the city council. On the whole, I’m finding a tremendous amount of support for what we’re doing.”

As far as the presidential election is concerned, many progressives are supporting Kerry with the hope that he will turn out to be more liberal than his current campaign indicates. Will the real John Kerry stand up after the election?

“I think so, because right now he still has to appeal to mainstream America,” says Chris Malan. “People care about the environment, but if you put too much emphasis on it, you’re considered a radical. It irritates and frustrates me to no end that both candidates don’t talk about the environment.”

“If Kerry does win, we’ve got to remind him of who it was that made his victory possible,” says Robinson. “The real work begins Nov. 3. My fear is that if Kerry wins, progressives will again become complacent. If Bush wins, we’ll be so demoralized, it will be a generation before we recover.”

From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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