Voters have long felt like losers, even when they cast their ballots for winners. And for good reason: The difference between most Democrats and Republicans is determined by their contributor lists, their commitment to the issues as solid as a path of smoke.

Enter the Greens and Libertarians. By attracting alienated Americans from the Left and Right, they are crashing the two-party system — much to the chagrin of the Democrats and Republicans, and to the delight of voters searching for alternatives.

Nationwide, third parties — Independent, Reform, Greens, and Libertarians — have won races (although the Greens' electoral triumphs in Texas are hardly worth mentioning) and altered outcomes even when they didn't receive the most votes. They have achieved this recognition despite huge obstacles: The Greens and Libs are routinely excluded from televised debates, have no mechanism to raise corporate money — or refuse to take it — and have little or no access to mainstream media, the primary campaign vehicle.

Libertarian Raymundo Aleman is running for District Attorney, and has been endorsed by the Green Party.

Instead, the Greens and Libs campaign on the cheap: blockwalking, handbills, the Internet, recruitment on college campuses. Their impact can be notable — the Greens hold the majority on San Francisco's City Council — or even significant: The 2000 presidential election will be remembered not only for Bush's theft of the Oval Office, but also for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who, with three percent of the vote, proved that the long-neglected Left matters.

Now the challenge to third parties lies in remaining on the state ballot and winning races, but also deciding how to use their power — for party growth or to balance their political interests with a larger national agenda.

Growing at the grassroots level
In the early years, Libertarians had to collect signatures to get on the Texas ballot; since 1998, the party has received enough votes — five percent in a state race — to get automatic access. (In 2000, Alejandro de Pena received 12 percent of the vote in his race against the Democrat incumbent, U.S. Representative Charlie Gonzalez.) The Libs have also clinched several Texas races, including a City Council seat in St. Paul.

In this election, the Bexar County and state chapters, fielded 23 candidates, including the party's candidates for U.S. Senate, governor, and several statehouse races.

"The electorate wants alternatives and we have more competition," says Libertarian Party Chairman Jay Moore, adding the Bexar County chapter has about 850 active members. "Most of the people who vote Libertarian are disaffected Republicans. We get a few conservative Democrats and that forms the backbone of the party."

The Libs advocate for smaller government and prefer to leave the daily pulse of civic life to the private sector. Some Libs run for offices they consider redundant — public weights, county treasurer — to try to abolish it if they win. The Libs criticize the major parties, but especially the GOP, for the erosion of civil liberties, tax breaks for the wealthy, the blurry line between church and state, and America's pointless War on Drugs.

District Attorney candidate Raymundo Aleman is running on a platform that includes alternatives to jail for petty drug offenders. "The proper thing is to render justice," says Aleman. "There are many illegal searches and there are too many people in jail who could be on probation."

"We think government oppresses the individual," adds Moore. "The Republican Party is very intrusive."

In 2000, the Green Party of Texas collected 74,000 signatures, nearly twice the number required, to get ballot placement. It automatically kept its spot after Texas Supreme Court candidate Ben Levy received nine percent of the state vote.

Party leaders say 12,000 Texans belong to the Greens members, up from just 1,000 three years ago. Fifteen Greens are running on the Bexar County ballot, including state offices.

The Greens' progressive views on environmental protection, economic and social justice, and defusing corporate dominance has lured Dems and some Republicans whose parties have failed them. Ken Stahl, co-chair of the Bexar County Greens, was raised Republican, but left the GOP because, he says, "besides having allowed the extreme right to take it over and enforce religious values on the rest of party, it is using government to enforce the corporate interest."

The Greens have scooped up the traditional left, who are tired of the government's pro-corporate agenda, and disenfranchised Republicans who don't feel at home in the Libertarian Party. "They want government to have a role in balancing power in society," Stahl says. "They don't believe the market is magic. Greens believe the government has a legitimate role, it's just not playing it."

Charlie Mauch, a former — and reformed — oil man now running for railroad commissioner (the commission oversees the state's energy policy), believes government is to blame for America's addiction to cheap energy — and the Bush administration's eagerness to go to war over oil.

"Their idea of an energy policy is to drill and produce more, and throw a bone to environmentalists," Mauch says. "They don't consider what it costs to fight a war, global warming, oil spills, health affects, subsidies to the oil industry. You are paying five to 15 dollars a gallon for gas; you just don't pay it at the pump."

Greens have positioned themselves as the anti-war party. (Although some Democrats, including Charlie Gonzalez and Ciro Rodriguez, also voted against Bush's resolution giving him the authority to call for an attack on Iraq). "This is one of the most extreme examples of a war for oil there's ever been," remarks Attorney General candidate David Cobb, as he was driving to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's office for a sit-in. Hutchison supported Bush's war resolution.

"We've got to have a citizen-led movement for democratic renewal, to put people in control of the economy and decisions that affect their lives," he adds "And an aggressive use of the attorney general's office could help local jurisdiction to craft laws that would hold corporations accountable. The Green Party is fundamentally opposed to corporate wealth and power."

Dems to Greens: Come home, prodigal sons and daughters
Texas Republicans haven't suffered the exodus that Democrats have experienced with the Greens, and the GOP has had Texas in a headlock since George W. Bush beat Ann Richards for the governorship; after November 5, the GOP is likely to regain control of the house for the first time since Reconstruction. "Texans have flocked to the Republican party," says Christy Payne, deputy communications director for the state party. "It's the mainstream party for their beliefs and values."

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, particularly in Texas, has been gutted as a result of the division among the Left: The Dems are blaming the Greens for abandoning them, and the Greens feel cheated by the Dems.

Darby Riley, president of the Environmental Democrats, a progressive arm of the Party, says Greens have worked with his organization against the PGA Village, but adds that the Dems are hemorrhaging members to the third party. "We find it a shame," Riley says. "It's understandable in that some of the Green candidates speak more progressive views more than Democrats. But in the state rep and governor races, they're the spoiler. I'm supporting Sanchez because Perry is a disaster. I'm afraid Perry will win because the left is so divided."

Yet Sanchez is one reason Democrats have alienated the Left: In his heart, he's a Republican. Sanchez contributed to Bush's campaign, maintains a corporate-friendly agenda, and, as an oilman, it is unlikely that he would support alternative energy sources.

Nonetheless, Riley blames the Greens for robbing the Democratic Party — which had long been veering toward the Right — of its liberal leaders. "If we didn't have a Green party, the Democrats would be stronger on these issues," Riley notes. "If we had Ralph Nader running as a Democrat in the primary, he would get votes and drive the party to the Left. We need that kind of leadership. If you look at the Democratic Party, it's an empty shell."

The third-party punch
While the major parties criticize Greens and Libs for being "spoilers," there is also a debate occurring among third parties about their political strategy. If they concentrate on getting votes at all costs, could they drive the country further to the Right? Or should the parties consider not running in races where progressive major party candidates are on the ticket — for the sake of the national agenda?

In Texas, the Greens are running candidates in all the top offices, which could hurt Sanchez; the Libs likewise could damage Perry. But on a local level, the Greens aren't running a U.S. Representative candidate against progressive Democrat John Courage; instead they endorsed him. The Greens also endorsed Aleman, a Libertarian, in his race against Republican District Attorney Susan Reed.

The Greens faced a tough dilemma in the Minnesota Senate race before Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash on October 25. Green Party candidate Ed McGaa was polling at three percent — enough to divert votes from Wellstone, who was running even with St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican.

Green Party member Robbie Franklin of Houston, Texas told the Star-Tribune that Wellstone's liberalism had given pause to some Green Party members. "He's not ... with us on everything, but you don't need to be. And if we do make a difference in the outcome of the race ... and remove a fairly liberal senator — is that really what we want to do?"

Yet, many third party members contend that no one should be guilted into voting for the major parties. "Instead of blaming the Greens, look at how many Democrats voted for Bush," the Greens' A.J. Worthy explains. "It's fraudulent to argue the Greens did in Al Gore. He didn't focus on Bush's record, which was horrible. The Democrats are complaining that independent-minded people, who are very patriotic, are obligated to vote for them. They blame us for fact that the party has failed to stand for anything."

Barriers to success
No money, no access, and no exposure: It's a tough way to build a party, but the Greens and Libs have no choice. Third party candidates are usually left out of state and national debates. In 2000, Nader not only wasn't allowed to debate, police illegally forced him to leave the building where it was being held — even though he had a ticket. In Illinois, the state GOP, who observers say was afraid Libertarians would take votes from Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan, tried to oust the Libertarians from the ballot. In Texas, Green Rahul Majahan and Libertarian Jeff Daiell have been excluded from the two gubernatorial debates — both sponsored by major media: The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, and KHOU-TV contended that unless candidates poll at least 10 percent of the potential vote, they shouldn't be allowed in debates. But to capture voters, candidates need exposure — thus the Catch-22.

The reason for these omissions? The major parties are scared, says Worthy. "They saw what happened when Ross Perot ran. They decided by taking control of the process they could set the bar as high as they wanted."

"The third parties would add a lot to the debate," says Moore. "`U.S. Senate candidate` Scott Jameson wants to find alternatives to income tax, but you're not going to hear it. To keep a political movement functioning in a dynamic way is not easy."

It's nearly impossible without the well-moneyed contributors — or personal wealth. (Republican John Barger, who is running against state Representative Mike Villarreal in District 123, owns radio station KMFR, and can place political ads ad nauseum.) "The whole thing is about access to politics and media through large corporate donations," explains Green Ken Stahl. "Ralph Nader was correct when he said citizens' voices have been shut out over the last 20 years because corporations and wealth determine political discourse. We don't have the wealth or the machinery to run those campaigns; it's remarkable we even got on the ballot."

The future of third parties
Third parties are lobbying for instant runoff, a system where voters rank their candidates, to address the problem of spoiling elections.

"We have a two-party system and you have to work with them," says Democrat Darby Riley. "It's going to be tough to get the legislature to change the system that put them in office."

Third parties grow when voter malaise, the unpopular war, and corporate corruption continue to send voters to the margins. Greens and Libs someday the margins will be as viable as the dominant parties.

"We're on the front lines; I take pride in that," notes Worthy. "If I wanted to be on the winning side I could cast a mindless vote and pull a straight party lever. It's not about being on the winning side; it's about voting your conscience."

The Greens and Libertarians who win races must prove their mettle. "The Green party has to prove it can be trusted with public policy," says Stahl. "Those who achieved office are going to be watched to know whether we're hypocrites or not."

Ironically, the Greens' and Libs' success could pit the upstarts against one another, by splitting the protest vote. "There are some fears about ballot status," explains Moore, a Libertarian. "When we split the vote, are either of our parties going to requalify? We have no idea how that's going to fall." Whether you're casting a protest vote or voting your conscience, the Bexar County ballot offers candidate choices. The two-party system is failing America, and the minor parties — if allowed into the public discourse — may ultimately prove they are the real voice of the people.

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