Decision time for third parties

Everything I know about third-party politics, I learned from Herman Kirsch.

When I was growing up, Mr. Kirsch lived two doors down Albion Road in the oldest house on the block. Every four years, he would appear on the Ohio ballot as a candidate for some statewide office as the nominee of the Socialist Workers Party.

Although he wasn't the first political figure I came into contact with (Democratic Congressman Louis Stokes, for a time, lived directly across the street from us), he was easily the most enigmatic. I mean the guy never seemed to spend a moment campaigning. Yet when the election rolled around, his name was right there with the Democrat and Republican candidates, albeit with a far smaller vote tally.

Mr. Kirsch wasn't waiting for a Socialist Workers groundswell; his presence on the ballot, he would say, was to "give people a choice." This state's third parties—the Greens and the Libertarians—could learn from his example.

This year, the Libertarians put some 47 candidates on the final election ballot in Washington state. This is a fine political accomplishment, in a Herman Kirsch sense, for voters were granted a third choice beyond the two major parties. In a "getting elected" sense, however, the Libertarians didn't do so hot. Three state office candidates cracked the 5 percent barrier, and Ruth Bennett got 7.5 percent in her bid for lieutenant governor. But no Libertarian candidate with both Democratic and Republican competition matched those numbers—this hardly seems a recipe for future electoral victories.

Aside from Ralph Nader's presidential bid, the Greens ran only a single candidate for federal office in Washington state. Joe Szwaja received almost 20 percent of the vote against Democratic incumbent Jim McDermott in Seattle's 7th District (again, in a race lacking a Republican candidate). Given that Nader fell well short of his goal of 5 percent of the vote nationally, many commentators say the Green Party should look to local races for future gains. Given the Greens' limited statewide voter base, those races would figure to be in Seattle. Which leaves three possibilities:

*The 7th Congressional District. The lack of a Republican candidate is a two-edged sword for the Greens. With no R's on the ballot, Szwaja represents a safe protest vote, but the Democrats can still win fairly easily.

*The 43rd Legislative District. As the state's most liberal enclave, there isn't a lot of room to set up on the left of the current Democratic officeholders. Do the ultra-politically correct Greens dare take on Ed Murray, one of the state's two openly gay officeholders? How about co-Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, the founding director of one of the state's largest social service agencies? Will the district's yellow-dog Democrats really desert their party in numbers large enough to give the Greens a win? Not likely.

*The Seattle City Council. City races are technically nonpartisan, but council candidates must run the gauntlet of Democratic district endorsements. Given Nader's label as presidential spoiler, dual membership Greens, such as Peter Steinbrueck and Curt Firestone, will undoubtedly be pressured to pick one party or the other. If they're interested in getting elected, they'll choose the Democratic Party.

A sobering challenge, although there is one more obvious option. Although a few hundred Green stalwarts aren't going to win an election in this city, they could set aside third-party futility and join their Democratic district organizations en masse. Faced with the prospect of being outvoted routinely by Naderites, regular Democrats would be forced to show up for their own meetings. With a little grassroots organizing (one thing the Greens do well), these "Green Democrats" could control any number of Democratic caucuses. This strategy has worked before, when the Christian conservatives took over the Republican Party a few years back (and managed to run that party into the ground—but that's another column).

Battling initiatives, take three

Initiative-monger Tim Eyman has declared war on the state Supreme Court!

Pardon the exclamation point, but that's how the guy talks. Tim the giant killer was last sighted standing in a corner at the Republican Election Night Victory Party broadcasting live over his cell phone. And chief among his coming attractions was his next creation: The Right To Vote On All Taxes Initiative (those exact words and "all capital letters," says he).

This may come as a shock to the four or five residents statewide that have actually taken the time to read the state high court's decision striking down Eyman's Initiative 695. The ruling clearly stated that citizens could not grant themselves the right to vote on all taxes through an initiative, because doing so would require amending the state constitution. And a constitutional amendment can be placed on the ballot only by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature.

Here's where it gets tricky: Does Eyman not understand the court decision, or is he using the initiative process as a nonbinding plebiscite aimed at panicking politicians into action? We'd guess the latter. The initiative process scares the daylights out of officeholders: Democrats in the Legislature reluctantly joined efforts to cut vehicle taxes after Eyman's I-695 was approved. Even Seattle city officials scaled back the city's planned 6 percent property tax increase after this year's Eyman winner, Initiative 722, passed muster with state voters.

In the age of the initiative, Eyman is betting he can use people power to intimidate cowardly officeholders into doing the wrong thing. He may well be right.

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