A rebel with a cause

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David Cobb addresses the Texas Green Party State Convention. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
A rebel with a cause

By Lisa Sorg

David Cobb: It's his party and he'll run if he wants to

"Cobb. Cobb. No nominee."

In the Bastrop Intermediate School gymnasium, Texas Green David Pollard read the ballots that had been cast to nominate a candidate for the President of the United States. Other Texas Greens attending the party's state convention looked on, and one observer pretended to scan the paper ballots for hanging chads.

"Camejo. Cobb. No nominee."

On the campaign trail, David Cobb, a former Texas Democrat, is running against five candidates, six, if you include no nominee, for the Green Party's presidential nomination. He won the majority of delegates in Oregon and Colorado, and could clinch the nomination at the party's national convention in Milwaukee, June 23-28.

Yet Cobb's most formidable opponents in this race are two people who aren't even party members: Green-turned-Independent Ralph Nader and no nominee. In Minnesota, no nominee is sending eight delegates to the national convention, while Cobb is sending five.

That no nominee is a choice illustrates the conflict besetting the Greens, which since 1996, when Nader jumpstarted the party as its presidential candidate, have emerged as a viable alternative to the Republican-Democrat duopoly. After Nader garnered 2.74 percent of the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election, Democrats and even some Greens deemed Nader, and by association the party, as "spoilers"; this is an unfair mantle, Nader and many progressive note, because Nader's polling showed 25 percent of his vote came from Republicans, 38 percent from Democrats. ("People call the Green Party 'spoilers,'" Cobb noted. "I call it 'participation.'")

The debate at the state convention demonstrated the party's dilemma: Many Greens don't want to risk jeopardizing the party's reputation by possibly winning enough votes to tilt the election toward George Bush.

"I love David like a brother. He's the godfather of the Texas Green Party," said Charlie Mauch, who ran unsuccessfully for railroad commissioner in 2002. "But I personally don't think the Green Party should run a candidate this year. We're going to get votes in swing states and we could make a difference in the election. I think we should endorse Dennis Kucinich."

"Kerry may not be Bush but he's no progressive. He is not presidential at all. I just think George Bush is a fascist."

— David Cobb

Some, such as presidential candidate Kent Mesplay say Kerry and Bush are twin sons of different mothers, and that Greens need to provide a true alternative to their candidacies - although Greens disagree on how vigorously a candidate should run in the swing states. While Cobb says he won't campaign in those battleground states, in a written statement, Mesplay emphasized he would run all-out, everywhere. "Undecided states are prime places to grow the party. The campaign is a war and I'll run to win."

Still others, including Green presidential candidate Peter Camejo, who is running merely as a placeholder, plan to endorse Nader. Nader has stated he will accept the Green's endorsement only if the party doesn't run a presidential candidate. In some states, Nader has received the Reform Party's endorsement; in others, he's running on the Populist ticket against the Greens.

As the ballots were counted, Cobb sat at a lunch table on the other side of the room and occasionally bit his fingernails. Earlier that afternoon, after a particularly rousing speech that garnered a standing ovation from the 40 Green Party delegates, he seemed uncertain whether he would win Texas: "It ain't over 'til it's over."

A selective campaign strategy

Cobb bounded to the microphone and delivered his speech with the fervency of a Baptist preacher. He did not use notes, and he often wildly gesticulated to convey his point. "The Democratic Party is where genuine progressive politics goes to die," he exclaimed. "It's the same with Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton: All the energy and enthusiasm of their campaigns disappears because there is no institution on which to build the process."

Cobb has built his campaign on a platform that opposes the Iraqi war, closes tax and regulatory loopholes for corporations, provides universal health care, strictly regulates environmental polluters, calls for a federal living wage, supports reproductive rights for women, and demands equal rights for gays and lesbians.

He envisions the Green Party as the electoral arm of a broader social movement that supports racial and social justice, non-violence, and fair trade. "We have new ideas about fundamental changes that should be made to the established party," Cobb told the delegation. "The establishment says, 'What! You're completely naïve; go away.' Or, 'What! You're a socialist, a communist.'

"Now," he said, pointing his finger at the crowd. "You're a terrorist."

Cobb's strategy is to bypass the battleground states, such as Ohio, and run only in "safe states," including Texas, where the electoral college is already committed to one candidate. By running this type of selective campaign, he says he can grow the party without throwing the election. As the party membership increases, the logic goes, the Greens will have the ballot access, funding, and political muscle to win congressional, and eventually, presidential races.

"The system is designed to prevent our success," Cobb told the delegation. "It's designed to prevent our existence. And yet you're here in Bastrop at a Green Party convention. What are you? Nuts?"

A voice in the crowd cried out: "Yes!"

A Dem turned Green

Cobb's politics are informed by his upbringing in San Leon, Texas, a shrimping town on the mainland side of Galveston County. His father supported his family of five as a junk man; his mother worked as a homemaker. The Cobbs had no flush toilet. "We were the working poor," said Cobb, who now lives in Humbolt County, California with his partner, Kaitlin. "Today you would call it grinding poverty."

"The Democratic Party is where genuine progressive politics goes to die."

— David Cobb

As Cobb grew older, he became more aware of the division between rich and poor. He waited tables at Medford's Seafood, an upscale restaurant, and worked as a construction worker and on shrimp boats. "The people who worked on the boats didn't eat at Medford's," he recalled.

At the University of Houston, where he graduated with a law degree in 1993, he became involved in an anti-apartheid campagain. "It was definitely a political campaign even though no office was involved," Cobb said. "The Green party understands that issues are political."

Then a Democrat, Cobb worked on the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992. After Bill Clinton won two terms as president - and signed NAFTA, the anti-terrorism act, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that deregulated the communications industry, Cobb switched parties. "As far as I'm concerned, Bill Clinton created the Green Party," Cobb said. "Clinton was the epitome of the Democratic Party gone bad."

If Cobb wins the Green nomination at the national convention, he vows to participate in the presidential debates, "or get arrested trying." He particularly wants to dissect Democrat John Kerry. "He may not be Bush but he's no progressive," Cobb said. "He voted for NAFTA, the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind. He opposes universal health care."

Cobb also faults Nader for describing Kerry as "presidential."

"John Kerry is not presidential at all," Cobb said. "I just think George Bush is a fascist."

In 2000, Nader tapped Cobb to manage the Green Party in Texas, where he coordinated the ballot access drive, and organized volunteers who collected more than 76,000 signatures in 75 days. Cobb's priority in his presidential bid is to grow the Green Party, increasing its membership and number of states where it has guaranteed ballot lines. Nationwide, the Green Party has grown from 10 state chapters in 1996 to 44 this year. Likewise, the Greens had guaranteed ballot access in five states; now it has 23. (Although the number of Texas chapters has increased from four to 26, the Greens don't have ballot access.) About 40 Greens were elected to office eight years ago; in 2004, there are 206. In Texas, Edwards Aquifer Authority Board member George Rice is the sole elected Green.

Cobb ran for state attorney general on the Green Party ticket in 2002, receiving 0.9 percent of the vote against winner Republican Greg Abbott, Democrat Kirk Watson, and Libertarian Jon Roland.

Such is Cobb route to the Texas State Party Convention. After the ballot count, Cobb learned he handily won the Texas Greens' nomination with 25 delegates; no nominee received 8 delegates.

"I want to build consensus in the Green Party about how to navigate these dangerous waters," Cobb told the delegation. "Progressives should vote their conscience. If you can't vote for John Kerry, then vote for the Green Party. If you think Bush is so bad that you want to vote - pull a lever - against Bush, do that and I won't hold it against you. But join the Green Party." •

By Lisa Sorg

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