Campaigning with Issues

— an interview with Ann Menasche

ANN MENASCHE, WHO ran for Secretary of State in California on the Green Party ticket, was interviewed by Dianne Feeley for ATC. Menasche is a longtime activist and an attorney concentrating on disability rights.

ATC: Why did you decide to run for office?

Ann Menasche: I’ve been active in the Green Party since I moved to San Diego in 1998, but didn’t really think of running for office until a few years ago, when I seriously considered a run for City Council.

At the time I talked to a number of my contacts among community activists involved in struggles for affordable housing, and peace and social justice and put together the beginnings of a platform. I received a lot of encouragement; however, after attending a workshop on running for office, I decided I simply didn’t have the money or time to devote to a serious campaign.

But in the late fall of 2009, I received a call from Greg Jan, a leader in the California Green Party, who was putting a statewide slate together and urged me to run for Secretary of State.  He said that we wanted to make sure there were Green Party candidates for each of the statewide offices. So he convinced me to do it, despite my limited time and resources, promising that very little would be required of me.

I ended up doing a lot more than I originally planned to do, though it was still a modest campaign.  And I was lucky to get a lot of help from people in the local party — especially Masada Disenhouse, who acted as my quasi-manager and set up my website; and David Morrison, who was my treasurer. It really whetted my appetite for future Green Party races.

ATC: What issues did you raise?

AM: It turned out that my campaign for Secretary of State allowed me to talk about issues that I felt passionate about — the corrupting influence of corporate money in elections, and how certain reforms such as publicly funded elections, Instant Runoff Voting, free media time for all candidates, and proportional representation would allow ordinary people and non-corporate parties a chance to be heard.

For many years, through my job as a disability rights attorney, I’ve been involved in the Disability Movement and in broad coalitions to fight state budget cuts to healthcare, education and social services. In my campaign, I could connect the dots and talk about how corporate campaign donors have meant that real solutions to the budget crisis in the state — closing corporate tax loopholes, reforming Proposition 13, etc. were placed out of reach.

Instead, each year low income families, people with disabilities, seniors and students have been given the ax in the form of increasingly devastating budget cuts to the programs they depend on. The campaign was a perfect fit for me.

ATC: What goals did you have in your campaign and did you meet them?

AM: First, I just wanted to help the state party maintain ballot status, which we did. I believe 2% would have done it, and I got a full 3% — higher than any other statewide Green Party candidate. I was amazed that close to 287,000 people voted for me.

Sometimes I would be talking to a colleague or someone I have contact with through my legal work, and they’d say, “oh, by the way, Ann, I voted for you!” I had never even mentioned my campaign to them and they weren’t radicals or anything, so it would pleasantly surprise me.

It showed me that the Green Party potentially has broad appeal, if we can find ways to recruit more activists, raise a little more money and get the word out. Lesser evilism is a big barrier, of course, but as people become more and more disappointed in Obama and in Jerry Brown, our new/old Governor, we have an opportunity to get a real hearing.

My second goal was to raise enough money to put a statement in the Voter’s Guide for the general election. I had a successful fundraising event at my house in which I raised over one thousand dollars. I also received some donations through the website. So I was able to pay for a decent size statement.

My third goal was to be able to do a bit of media. I flew up to Sacramento to appear at the California Cable Channel free airtime project. I was interviewed by someone from the League of Women Voters, as were most of the other candidates. I also was invited to speak on public radio in San Francisco.

However, they segregated the major candidates from the minor ones, (delegating me and the Libertarian, Christina Tobin, to the second half of the program.) So I didn’t get an opportunity to debate or discuss the issues alongside the Democratic and Republican candidates.

I also appeared on local public access TV in San Diego. Of course, there is precious little out there in terms of free media. Mostly I got ignored. But these were all small but wonderful opportunities to get my message out.  My campaign also produced a small amount of buttons and flyers that we distributed from our table at San Diego’s Earth Day event and at other venues.

ATC: What did you learn about California politics from your campaign?

AM: I was quite already aware of how stacked the system is against third parties and candidates who lack large sums of money, but there is nothing like experiencing it first hand — like I had no idea that the state actually charged candidates for putting statements in the Voter’s Handbook at $25 per word!

That is really outrageous. It shows you how limited our brand of democracy is and what a long, struggle we have ahead of us.

ATC: In an era when rightwing women are seeking office, have you gained insights into how to present socialist feminist values?

AM: Though I didn’t talk about socialism or feminism in those words in the campaign, it came through in everything that I spoke about. I presented a vision of a state where everyone enjoys a high quality of life and has equal rights, and has access to quality education, healthcare, affordable housing, living wage jobs, and a clean environment, a society which recognizes the dignity and value of every human being, regardless of race, sex, sexual preference, disability, or immigration status.

This is the ethical and moral imperative that underlies socialist and feminist thinking, and that we must begin to articulate more forcefully. We have to convince people that another world is possible and worth fighting for. It is the only way to counter the growing influence of the right.

ATC: Any final thoughts on your experience and the future of this effort?

AM: The electoral arena is an area of politics that the left ignores at our peril. Building the Green Party as a party independent of the two corporate dominated parties is a worthwhile endeavor, even though quite challenging at the moment given the undemocratic winner-take-all corporate-dominated electoral system in which we are forced to function.

Running for office gives candidates an opportunity to articulate that alternate vision and help build a movement, even when we may not have a significant chance of being elected. And we never know when greater opportunity will open up for a third party like the Greens to really grow.

ATC 151, March-April 2011

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