John Rensenbrink, the Bowdoin professor emeritus who is often called the father of America’s Green Party, pictured with his wife, Carla, recently had a roadway into the Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham named for him. Jill Stein, the Greens’ former presidential candidate, said Rensenbrink is “an inspiration and a shining light” for Greens. “He got the ball rolling” nationally and “helped create the international network of Green parties known as the Global Greens.” (photo James McCarthy)
John Rensenbrink, the Bowdoin professor emeritus who is often called the father of America’s Green Party, pictured with his wife, Carla, recently had a roadway into the Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham named for him. Jill Stein, the Greens’ former presidential candidate, said Rensenbrink is “an inspiration and a shining light” for Greens. “He got the ball rolling” nationally and “helped create the international network of Green parties known as the Global Greens.” (photo James McCarthy)
Our Confronting the End of Everything series takes up how, politically, Maine people could help avoid the environmental disasters facing them and the Earth. Here, we further examine the opportunities for Green Party candidates and green independents in the new ranked-choice-voting political landscape—and begin to relate ranked-choice to the Democratic Party, which will be the subject of our third column.

How much time do we have?

To prevent the most brutal effects of climate change due to human-caused global warming, we have about 30 years, the United Nations says.

To prevent the human-caused extinction of a million animal and plant species, we have no more than “decades” for many of them, according to a U.N. report.

To prevent the destruction of much life — possibly, including us — due to the human-caused global disappearance of insects, we may have 50 to 100 years, according to a widely publicized analysis of 73 scientific studies.

This column is about how practical politics in Maine could help prevent these disasters. We won’t be discussing practical personal green choices such as limiting airline travel, eating only organic food, or getting rid of your car and relying on walking, ride-sharing, car rentals, taxis, buses and trains.

From an environmental perspective, those are excellent choices. But unless some crucial political choices are made, only a small minority of people will do — or be able to do — the right, green thing on their own, as history shows.

So, are you ready to lobby politicians to heavily subsidize organic food? Ready to tax the rich at a high rate to finance a massive new mass-transportation infrastructure?

(On that last point, 91 percent — yes, 91 percent — was the top marginal, personal federal income tax rate in the early 1960s. Such levels of taxation began more than 20 years previous as anti-Depression and Second-World-War-mobilization measures. They continued through one of the most prosperous periods in the nation’s history. Shouldn’t we be at war now against the devastation of the Earth?)

The enactment of aggressive green policies depends, of course, on sending the right party and individuals to the city council, Legislature, governorship, United States Congress, and White House.

Coalition opportunities

In Part One of this series, Maine’s first-in-the-nation state ranked-choice voting law was discussed as an opportunity for the Green Independent Party to begin to break the lock of the Democratic and Republican parties on political decision-making.

Ranked-choice extends to primary and general elections for United States House and Senate seats and legislative and gubernatorial primary elections. In 2020, the presidential general election will be included.

The same opportunity that the Greens or other third parties now have — a growth in king-making power, if not victory — is available to independent candidates, as was shown in last year’s Second Congressional District general election.

Two independent, somewhat liberal candidates garnered, between them, 8 percent of the vote in the first ranked-choice round, in which no one had a majority. When a computer then reallocated the second choices of the independents’ supporters, Democrat Jared Golden emerged triumphant over incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin, who had had the plurality when the votes were first counted.

In a debate, Golden had said he would rank the two independents above Poliquin on his ballot, which may have increased both his and their stature among some voters. Amy Fried, a University of Maine political science professor, told me she believed that, “Ultimately, it did help him win.” And it didn’t help Poliquin that he said he’d only vote for himself and that all three opponents said they’d rank him last.

Ranked choice should force Democratic candidates to pay attention to Greens and environmentalist independents and their proposals. Although much will depend on the particular dynamics of a race, informal coalitions become possible.

In Australia, which has had ranked-choice for many years, “More powerful parties or candidates ... often incorporate policies of weaker ones in order to attract second-choice votes from those parties’ supporters,” according to a New York Times story last year on Maine’s ranked-choice system.

Already in Maine, two contenders in last year’s Democratic primary, Mark Eves and Betsy Sweet, forged an agreement in their attempt to drain votes from frontrunner Janet Mills, now our governor: They announced they’d rank each other second.

Many scenarios can be imagined. Let’s say a Green gets on the 2020 U.S. Senate ballot. Let’s assume in the first round of ranked-choice voting the (increasingly vulnerable) Republican incumbent Susan Collins gets 48 percent, the Democrat 47 percent, and the Green 5 percent. But in the second round let’s assume most of the Green votes go to the Democrat — say, 4 percent. Thus, the Democrat wins with 51 percent.

“The second choices of the Green Party certainly could have an impact,” Fried agreed.

That potential impact will get attention. Besides encouraging Greens and independent voters who like green policies to list him or her as their second choice, a Democratic candidate could angle to be their top choice by embracing such policies as, say, severely limiting pesticides or massively funding solar energy. This process could turn the Democratic Party toward greener programs.

Justin Beth, the Portland Greens’ chairperson, who serves on the national party’s steering committee, is skeptical about Democratic politicians becoming greener.

“Democrats have no problem,” he said, borrowing Green positions — the Green New Deal, for instance. But he wasn’t optimistic they’d turn positions into laws: “They are beholden to their donors.” Still, inaction by the Dems would be called out.

My assumption is that a Green or a greenish, not-wealthy independent in any major race wouldn’t win because she or he wouldn’t be able to afford the advertising needed to reach marginal voters — those who don’t pay much attention to politics but do vote in important elections. Money will continue to produce huge distortions in politics.

Beth, however, promised a good “ground game” of Green organizing: “We have a great shot to win” the Senate race.

Well, maybe. But in the long run, as third parties play roles as kingmakers rather than spoilers and get more attention as a result, the ranked-choice voting process should elevate their status and their chances to win.

Already, with ranked-choice voting, “It’s quite easy to see a Libertarian, Green, or independent candidate doing extraordinarily well in Maine” in 2020, wrote conservative columnist Jim Fossel recently in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

As Maine’s Committee for Ranked Choice Voting states, it “levels the playing field.” (The 39-member, bipartisan committee, which helped lead the campaign to get the new electoral system adopted, is composed of Maine political, business, and nonprofit leaders.)

Thus, Maine politics is a whole new ballgame. Or maybe a whole new tango, since a lot of flirting could go on. Making politics less like a dogfight was a selling point of ranked-choice proponents.

In ranked-choice schemes, you’re encouraged to “broaden your message,” acknowledged Alex Stack, the state Democratic Party’s spokesman, though he felt there’s a limit to how much a message can be changed.

Credible candidates needed

For this new process to benefit the state’s Greens or environmentalist independents, credible candidates are needed. There’s still plenty of time for other candidates to emerge, but the two who are now likely to vie for the Green Party nomination in 2020 to take on Collins and whomever the Democrats nominate are virtual unknowns.

One of them has another problem: Announced candidate David Gibson, a 34-year-old alternative-energy expert from Morrill, has a platform plank indicating that people over 65 shouldn’t be allowed to run for office — in, mind you, the “oldest state” in the nation, and old people love to vote. Older people “don’t represent the future,” Gibson told me in an interview.

“What! Are you kidding? That’s absurd!” exclaimed John Rensenbrink, 91, when he heard of Gibson’s position. The retired Bowdoin professor is widely credited with organizing the Green Party in Maine and, with a few other activists, the Green Party of the United States.

“That’s a huge no-no,” agreed Jon Olson, 77, the former Maine party chairperson.

Pressed on the issue, Gibson said, “This is not a cornerstone of my campaign.”

His expected, but so-far-undeclared, primary opponent is Lisa Savage, a schoolteacher and longtime peace activist from Solon. Asked about what issues she’d emphasize, she first brought up Bath Iron Works as “a perfect site to do a conversion from building weapons” to building things like “commuter rail and solar panels.... Hospital ships are also a wonderful conversion project.”

Savage has solid standing among antiwar folk. She has been arrested several times during civil-disobedience protests at BIW. She’s the founder of the Maine Natural Guard, an environmental advocacy group “to help people connect the dots between the Pentagon and its harm to our climate.”

Most political commentators would see her anti-military emphasis as not just narrow but foolish. Challenging BIW — and, indirectly, its thousands of workers — is considered a political third rail. But her position fits well with many Greens and, if the “conversion” part is emphasized, could resonate more widely.

“One huge distinction” between the Greens and Democrats, Beth said, was his party’s questioning of military spending.

Savage was reluctant to criticize Gibson’s position on post-65 candidacies except to note, humorously, that at 62 she makes his cut. And to say, “We need all voices.”

Logistical and other obstacles

Gibson and Savage each must collect 2,000 signatures from registered Greens (there are 44,000 of them) within two and a half months beginning January 1. Years ago, the Green gubernatorial campaigns of Pat LaMarche and Jonathan Carter accomplished this, but since then it has proven beyond Green Party candidates’ organizing abilities.

A big problem signature-gatherers face is that many of those 44,000 people, Green leaders concede, probably saw the words “Green Independent” on the registration card and thought they were registering only as independents. Finding actual Green Party members is “an amazingly difficult task,” Carter said in an email.

Another possible difficulty for the party is that, in Carter’s view, it has become “a fraternity of ideologues” — a common condition of outsider groups. He said that many members don’t even like to see anyone having a leadership role.

If Greens wish to convince Democrats and independents to rank them higher on the ballot, however, it would help a lot if they weren’t just talking among themselves — especially, now that they’re allowing independents to vote in their primary.

Ben Chipman, a former Green organizer who is now a Democratic state senator from Portland, said the reason he left the Green Party was logistical. For his three terms in the House, he was an independent because getting the signatures was easier. Being a Democrat is similarly practical for him. Portland is chock-full of Democrats.

(Greens face logistical problems elsewhere. Gibson ran as a Green for Nevada governor in 2014 but dropped out because he couldn’t collect the necessary signatures to get on the ballot.)

Chipman votes staunchly environmentalist, and in a chamber that the Democrats dominate he has become the Taxation Committee’s chairperson. As he may be proving, if the goal is to have a strong environmentalist in office, doesn’t it make sense to be a Democrat rather than a Green or independent?

Rensenbrink, however, said Democrats haven’t been able to “relinquish their attachment to unlimited growth.” Likewise, Olson saw Democrats “anchored in corporate capitalism.”

But now we’re approaching the territory of our next Confronting the End of Everything column: How far will the Democrats go into green politics? Will it be enough to both capture a majority of voters and — to the extent that Maine can help — prevent environmental catastrophe?

To read Part One, featuring an interview with Green Party former presidential candidate Jill Stein, visit this link.