A Big Win for the Green Party
— Mike Rubin
ON MARCH 30 Audie Bock became the highest-elected Green Party officeholder in the United States and the first Green candidate elected in a partisan race. By defeating Elihu Harris, the former mayor of Oakland (and former state assembly representative) by more than 300 votes out of about 30,000 votes cast, she became the California State Assembly representative for the 16th District.
Clearly this was a major upset, as shown by the widespread attention in the news media nationwide. The 16th A.D. includes most of racially mixed Oakland and the smaller, less racially mixed cities of Alameda and Piedmont.
Audie Bock got some lucky breaks. She was elected in the last in a chain of special elections set off when Congressman Ron Dellums resigned in mid-term.
The primary, on February 2, featured three Democrats and Audie. Voter registration in the 16th district is two-thirds Democrat so Republicans didn't bother to field a challenger to Harris, who was expected to win easily. And he almost did win outright, gathering over forty-nine percent of the vote.
While the prospect of facing a runoff March 30 against an unknown, underfunded political newcomer seemed to bore Harris, it energized Audie's small campaign committee. Harris virtually stopped campaigning, refused to debate Audie, and went off to Sacramento to talk to the pols about which committee assignments he could expect.
Meanwhile, disgruntled Democrats who had supported the two Democratic losers in the primary, and some Republicans, came over to Bock.
Just A Fluke?
While there were some accidental factors in this election, it would be a mistake to write it off as a fluke. Herself a Democrat until 1994, Audie Bock is part of a growing rejection of the Democratic Party, which local voters see as the business-as-usual party, especially at the state and local level.
The Raiders deal—in which the city of Oakland and the county of Alameda are spending taxpayers' money to cover the football team's losses as promised when the team moved back to Oakland—has become the “poster boy” for rotten deals, and all politicians connected with it have suffered at the polls.
Jerry Brown's recent election as mayor of Oakland was made easy because his leading opponents were connected to the Raiders deal. In addition, he got a boost when, during the campaign, the papers broke the news that Brown had left the Democratic Party. In a city that is about three-fourths registered Democrats that might seem surprising. But it foreshadowed Elihu Harris' defeat in what was supposed to be a cakewalk.
The Democratic Party is politically and morally exhausted. It has ceased to stand for even the most limited reforms. At best, the Democratic Party stands for holding on to past gains, such as women's right to abortion.
Another long-term problem for the Democratic Party is the winding down of the strategy of people of color voting for people of color as a way of achieving social change. While some people of color have benefitted from this strategy, the great majority has nothing to show for twenty-plus years of this strategy in the big cities.
The result is a tremendous legacy of apathy. Even when candidates such as Harris try to suggest that his election is in some way a continuation of the civil rights movement, the voters stay home in droves. Only fifteen percent of the voters turned out for the special election in which Audie Bock defeated Elihu Harris.
Audie Bock's election is an important event in the political history of the East Bay. Independent political action has broken out of the margins and into the arena of mass politics. To maintain the momentum several things must happen.
First and foremost, Audie's performance must be different from that of just another Democrat. She has made some good steps so far. She speaks out publicly for universal health care and against the death penalty. Most of the Democrats are unwilling to touch either issue. She continues to speak out against the medical waste incinerator in Oakland which is emitting Dioxin into a low-income neighborhood.
Accountability will be another factor in our ability to move independent political action forward. The pressure on her to go along with the Democrats will be enormous. The political collapse of Bernie Sanders is a real object lesson of what can happen.
The Democrats are simultaneously threatening and cajoling. One Democratic leader has threatened the flow of state money to Audie's district, while others are courting her.
The Green Party is not strong. So it will be especially important to build some kind of ongoing political structure that can provide feedback from the grassroots. One possibility under consideration is a series of advisory committees made up of movement activists in various spheres. We look forward to the possibilities.
ATC 82, September-October 1999