The (Green) Revolution will not be Televised

Lacking the money to buy air time to get his message out to a mass audience, Peter Camejo brings his campaign for governor directly to the people. And that makes some Democrats nervous.

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo

Green Party candidate Peter Camejo

Photo by Tom Angel

Peter Miguel Camejo, gubernatorial candidate for California’s fledgling Green Party, came to Chico last month with plans to give a speech inside the Chico City Council Chambers. Unfortunately, no one from city government showed up to unlock the chamber doors at the agreed-upon time of 6:30 p.m. Camejo was forced to speak to about 250 enthusiastic supporters in fading light as the sun sank behind the buildings of downtown Chico. The lockout symbolized the fate of both the Green Party and Camejo’s campaign.

The Greens, who now have 51 elected officeholders statewide, are trying to raise themselves from the heap of irrelevancy that traps other third parties across a nation long dominated by the two major parties. But even as it gains members, the Green Party is criticized by some Democrats for playing the spoiler in tight races and helping conservatives get elected.

The most grievous example they hold up is the 2000 presidential race in Florida, where Green Party candidate Ralph Nader was accused of helping put George Bush into the White House by “robbing” Democratic candidate Al Gore of the slim number of votes he needed for victory.

The Greens argue that such logic reduces voters to picking the lesser of two evils, and that does not reflect well on the democratic process.

Their answer, Camejo says, is to hold instant-runoff elections, in which you vote for two candidates, marking both your first and second preferences. If neither of the major-party candidates gets a clear majority of the total votes, an instant runoff is held in which the “second-preference” votes are tallied. Even though this would have helped Gore in Florida, the Democrats, like the Republicans, are opposed to it, fearing a diminishment of the two parties’ overall power.

In California, Camejo is having big trouble getting his message out to a mass audience. His campaign does not have the money for television ads. Those who shovel piles of money into the coffers of statewide political candidates don’t figure that third-party candidates are good investments.

In other words, Camejo has absolutely no chance of being elected governor next month. It won’t happen, not even in this season of disgruntled California voters.

And they are disgruntled. Consider the headline on an article about the race between Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Bill Simon in this month’s California Journal, a staid, unbiased magazine about state politics and issues: “California’s Wretched Choice for Governor.”

The system is so twisted against third-party candidates that even the Sierra Club, the country’s largest and oldest environmental protector, has endorsed Davis over the candidate of the Green Party, whose No. 1 stated value is “ecological wisdom.”

Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club’s regional staff director, offered a heated defense of his organization’s endorsement, saying Davis signed “68 to 70 percent of the bills we’d asked him to” and that Camejo did not understand most environmental issues beyond the need to develop renewable energy.

“Yes,” he said, “Davis has done some things that have driven us crazy, but we just couldn’t afford to do anything that would endanger the environment. We always try to do things that are best for the environment. It is not our goal to change the paradigms of power. It’s not easily done, and in the meantime we have tremendous damage to the environment. Look at what Bush has done since he was elected.”

In the end, Zichella said, “People should realize that, if they vote for Camejo, they are throwing their votes away.”

Camejo understands why the unions and groups like the Sierra Club throw their support to Davis.

“They endorse Davis for their protection,” he says. “You don’t want to be in his face, endorsing the Greens. We know that. We don’t push them. We don’t go to them and say, ‘What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you endorse us? How can you be for everything we stand for and then endorse them?’

“We understand what they are doing. We don’t have free elections, and we have a guy who is running things like a Mafioso type. Even the Republicans are giving him money for protection.”

The California Journal article quotes Simon campaign consultant Sal Russo: “Majorities of voters would prefer another candidate. With Davis, they know him and don’t like him; with Simon, they don’t know him and don’t like him.”

Neither Camejo nor any of the other third-party candidates is mentioned in the piece.

So why put Camejo on the cover of the News & Review? Why devote all this ink and paper to a certain loser just a few weeks before his demise?

The reason is simple. When Camejo came through Chico, he had much to say about the corruption of the political process in America and the dire need for change. His message was fresh, energetic and even optimistic. In short, it was the stuff you’d expect from an old-style progressive Democrat, before that party decided the only way to beat the Republicans was to join them.

The problem is that Camejo’s ideas are not getting out. He doesn’t have the money for statewide or even regional television commercials, and Gov. Gray Davis flat out refuses to engage him in televised debate.

“It’s true,” says state Democratic Party adviser Bob Mulholland when queried about Davis’ refusal to debate. “Just like the [San Francisco] 49ers, we do nothing to help our competition.”

So we say it is time for the press, mainstream and alternative, to start paying more attention to third-party candidates. Their messages may surprise you.

“Why would you bother to report on all the candidates who are running for office?” Camejo himself asked during a phone interview a few days prior to his Chico visit.

“Looking back in history you could ask the same question about the Free Soil Party that was against slavery [in the mid-1800s],” he said, answering his own question. “Why would you report on them? The Democrats were the party of slavery, and the Free Soil party got about as many votes as the Greens get today.”

The point, the rapid-talking Camejo argues, is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the electoral system, that it is too much controlled by the two major parties.

“Instead of walking precincts, getting citizen participation, trying to present a point of view, we degrade citizen involvement,” he said. “Now half the people don’t vote and a third don’t even register. The average candidate is winning with less than 25 percent of the population voting.

“And then the Democrats and Republicans get together and redraw the districts so that they are safe. We don’t even have elections in most areas because we already know who is going to win. They deliberately sector it out so they don’t have to campaign and they can save some money.”

Camejo says the best way for third-party candidates to have a chance of winning, to avoid that label of spoiler, is to install instant-runoff voting.

That would allow Green Party supporters to vote for their candidate first and a major-party candidate second. That way, if neither major-party candidate got a majority right away, an instant runoff would be held in which the Greens’ second choices would be tallied. Instead of throwing your vote away and indirectly helping the candidate you like the least, you can vote for your candidate and also the one you find less offensive of the two major parties.

“If you have runoffs,” Camejo said, “people aren’t afraid to make Green their first choice. Therefore our vote starts climbing, and people see that it’s climbing, so they become more interested. Reporters cover us more, and it continues to climb. If you don’t have runoffs, what happens is the people who are for you don’t vote for you.”

Green Party candidates Peter Camejo and Larry Shoup, who is running for secretary of state, take a tour of Chapman.

Photo by Tom Angel

The two major parties do not want a runoff system, Camejo said. He says it works to their advantage to keep voters from picking their true first choice.

“It’s hard for me to get anybody really worked up over it,” he said, “but we should all be worked up like hell. We don’t really have free elections. Every Eastern European country, when they got the right to have elections [after the collapse of the Iron Curtain], rejected the American system.

“If you don’t allow runoffs, the third parties usually just wear out. People give up voting for them because they never win.”

Camejo, 63, is the son of a wealthy Venezuelan resort developer. He was born in New York but spent the first few years of his life in Venezuela. Today he lives with his wife, Morella, in Walnut Creek.

“My family flew from Venezuela to New York, had me, and then flew back to Venezuela. Literally,” he explained.

He lived in Venezuela until he was 7 years old, then moved with his family to New York.

This is Camejo’s first run for governor but not his first foray into politics. In 1976 he ran for president on the Socialist ticket and gained 91,314 votes. Nine years before that he ran for a student government position at Berkeley, where he was elected but expelled the day after because three months earlier he had spoken, “along with 135 people, in an all-night rally against the [Vietnam] war.

“They said the microphone I used had not been pre-approved and therefore I had violated a university regulation. For that they suspended me.”

At about the same time then-Gov. Ronald Reagan called the fiery Camejo “one of the 10 most dangerous men in California.”

Ten years before that, Camejo enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but subsequently dropped out to march for civil rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today the spry, wiry-haired Green Party candidate looks like a cross between an aging Peter Brady and a college economics professor.

In the 1980s Camejo landed a job as a broker with Merrill Lynch, where he tried to form an individual retirement account that would help fund AIDS groups. When that idea was rejected, he formed a company in Concord called Progressive Asset Management, which invests clients’ money into business that fit certain responsible social mores such as not selling firearms or engaging in trade with companies that use sweatshop labor.

“We now have offices in 17 states,” he said.

He’s also formed a firm to teach organic farming in Central America that closed after five years. “But we turned Nicaragua into the world’s highest producer of organic sesame and established an import-export company for the worker-owned cooperatives in El Salvador.”

This year he formed California Green Light, a solar-energy company.

Until recently he was a trustee for the Contra Costa pension fund, stepping down a few months ago to make his run for governor.

Since 1991, when the party first came to California, Camejo’s been registered as a Green. Before that he was an independent. He’s registered as a Democrat only once.

“I have to be honest with you,” he said, “though I feel very guilty about it. I did it to vote for Jesse Jackson because I thought Jesse was going to break with them and form a third party. I decided to get involved in that, and I think I made a mistake.”

On a hot September day at the Dorothy Johnson Center in Chapman, Camejo stood alone on a big wooden stage outside the facility holding a microphone and addressed about 100 people sitting 25 yards away in the shade of large oak trees.

He greeted his audience of mixed ethnicity warmly, speaking first in fluent Spanish before switching to English. Because this event celebrating cultural diversity was sponsored by the Chico Area Recreation District, a campaign speech was off limits. Otherwise, the other gubernatorial candidates could demand equal time, a slim possibility at best.

An energetic and engaging speaker, Camejo delivered a talk that deftly mixed politics with ethnic matters and was designed for his mix of listeners.

“Non-European people now make up a majority and account for 55 percent of the population in the state,” he began. “But only 25 percent are registered to vote. That means only 45 percent of the population makes up 75 percent of the voters.”

Not everybody in this country, he said, can register to vote today. When Italians immigrated here in the early 20th century, however, they were given the right to vote even before they became citizens. But many Latinos are refused and called illegals.

“All law enforcement [officers] know exactly where the undocumented people are, where they gather. Go to any city, and it’s easy to find undocumented workers because they gather in places where they can get hired for hard labor.

“They are left alone because we need the workers. The authorities don’t round them up and deport them.”

The European community in America, he said, is fearful of things like the degradation of the quality of life if too many people come here.

“It’s time to break the myth that immigrants are here taking advantage of America,” he announced. “It is just the opposite. America is taking advantage of the immigrants.”

Today, he said, America is openly using racial profiling against Muslims.

“The victimizing of innocent people is always wrong and does not work. This is the part of a tradition of history in our nation we are trying to overcome.”

Instead, he charged, we’ve created a caste system.

“When I was a kid African Americans could not vote. It was not until the 15th Amendment. And even then for 90 years the country violated the Constitution. Yet people who did this have never apologized.”

Peter Camejo talks with Jim Brobeck and Diane Suzuki in Chapman.

Photo by Tom Angel

The first government in California, he noted, paid $2.50 for the killing of each indigenous person. At the time, there were a quarter-million indigenous people, 8,000 to 10,000 Mexicans and a handful of Europeans.

“Today those groups have to defend each other,” he said. “There is too much division between people of color; too much misunderstanding. We are one people. We are all the same.”

He went on to note that the minimum wage is at its lowest inflation-adjusted level in 15 years, that we have a “massive shortage of housing” and that in many cases more than 50 percent of household incomes are going to pay rent, money that could be put toward home ownership.

Finally he said, we are the only industrialized nation in the world that has still has the death penalty, which he opposes and Davis and Simon both support.

When he was done, he mixed with the crowed for about 20 minutes answering questions and then climbed onto the back of a pedicab provided by his local Green hosts and was escorted through Chapman to his next engagement at the Chico City Council Chambers.

While waiting to deliver his speech at the council chambers, Camejo talked about the state’s problems and what he would do if elected—a scenario he acknowledges is unlikely. Earlier this year he told the Los Angeles Times that “my wife would kill me” if he got elected.

When asked about the current state budget crunch, he hesitated.

“It is very difficult to give a quick response to a problem created by mismanagement over decades,” he said.

“We’ve put out a proposal with several ways we thought could help the budget. They include putting back in place taxes that we’ve reduced for very-high-income [people] and those paid by the corporate world. They pay less than they did 30 or 40 years ago.

“We want universal health care that, as we proposed, would save state $4 to $8 billion a year. We want to decriminalize marijuana and tax it. It’s not that we are for marijuana. We think marijuana, like tobacco, is a terrible thing, though tobacco is much worse than marijuana. Tobacco is the most dangerous addictive drug that we have on the market.

“Marijuana is not addictive, but we should handle marijuana the way we handle tobacco. We need to educate and get people not to use it. Instead we create a criminal world by criminalizing it, and then the price goes way up and we collect no taxes. That would bring in approximately $3 billion per year.

“Instead we tax the people to build prisons for the people involved in that business. It’s absurd. When a person sells another person marijuana there is no victim.”

He would also reinstate the vehicle license fee, which he says could raise $3.5 to $4 billion a year.

He would lower the pay increase that Davis gave to the prison guards. “I think paying prison guards twice what we are paying teachers is absurd.”

As governor, he said, he would amend the state’s three-strikes law and abolish the death penalty, estimating those two changes would save the state nearly $200 million a year.

“We have 3,350 prisoners in California prisons whose third strike was not a violent crime,” he said. “We’ve got a man locked up for stealing $150 in videotapes, and he got 50 years to life, while the guys over at Enron stole $1.1 billion and nobody’s been arrested yet.”

He said polls show that a minimum of 35 percent of Californians oppose the death penalty. “In a three-way race, that position is as popular as the pro-death penalty. … We differ clearly with Democrats and Republicans, and if my voice was out there I’d be getting 30 to 40 percent of the vote, and that could be enough to win. On many issues we are the majority.”

Other such issues, he says, include increasing the state’s minimum wage. “I believe a majority of people in California would say the minimum wage is much too low. Both Democrats and Republicans oppose increasing it. Democrats obviously do because they control the Legislature and they don’t do it. And the Republicans absolutely oppose it.

“I could go issue after issue like that,” he continued. “Saving the last 4 percent of our ancient forests. Davis is against it, Simon refused to come out for it, and the majority of the people in California are for it.

“A lot of these issues we take a clear stand, everybody knows it, and we do it whether it’s majority opinion or not. Like the issue of gay marriage, if you look at the groups that would support any and all of these positions, you would see that our vote would be huge if people would vote for what they are for. Of course, the problem is they never heard what we are for.”

Camejo says the Green Party is misunderstood and stereotyped too often.

“There is a caricature of the Greens: sandal wearing, tree hugging, marijuana smoking, long-haired,” he said. “OK, that’s part of California, there is a current of people like that, and they do tend to be pro-Green Party.

“But we are much more than that. I like to tell people that we are watermelons. Green on the outside and red on the inside. We’re really the radicals, the people who are pro-labor, pro the poor, pro-Latino, pro-African American. And that is because in America the two parties have pulled far to the right and now there is a real vacuum. And that is why the Greens are growing throughout the United States.

“I think people are really fighting for not only the environment, that is a deep part of our culture and our reason for existence, but we’re also pro-social justice. That is where people make a mistake about the Green Party.”

The Green Party’s image and the party itself are changing, Camejo said. Two groups joining the party include sections of the Latino community and sections of the Muslim community.

“We suspect there will be big protest vote from the Muslim community protesting the open racial profiling that is going on against them,” he suggested.

Just last week the state’s Latino Legislative Caucus—22 senators and assemblymembers—refused to endorse Davis, saying it felt betrayed by the governor, who’s called himself the Latino community’s “best friend.” However, the caucus, which is made up of all Democrats, did not break party lines and endorse Camejo—further evidence of the lurking fear of electing Simon by default.

“The people of California see a party growing without money, and that wins us enormous respect,” he said. “It’s real campaigning, it’s door-to-door people getting involved, people who have nothing to gain by it.

“Davis has no contributions in this campaign. Everything he’s got is from investors, people giving money and expecting something in return. That is a violation of the laws as they exist, much less the laws as they should exist. We don’t have clean elections. Money dominates politics; corporations dominate the two major parties.”

Right now, he said, people are overwhelmed by the two-party system. If they don’t see it on TV it can’t be real. It’s going to take time, he allowed.

“What this really is a revolution of returning the government to the people,” he said. “That is what the Green Party is leading in America. And everywhere the Greens are rising in the polls. A shift is taking place; the two parties are declining, and the Green Party is the third party of the nation right now.

“The Green Party has already won this election, if you look at it from the point of view of which party gained in the 2002 election. It is obviously the Green Party. Entire weeks go by when I am in the [San Francisco] Chronicle every day. The coverage we are getting is very different than in the past. We think we will come out of this election with a whole lot more Greens elected to office. And there will be many more."