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California and the West

How the Greens Got the Blues

Politics: Two years after pro-ecology party won its first city council majority in U.S., many have found that fighting city hall suits them more than running it.


ARCATA, Calif. — Two years ago, a jubilant Green Party celebrated the election here of the nation's first-ever Green majority on a city council. With three seats on the five-seat council, the Greens had their first chance to freely implement their eco-friendly, less-is-more philosophy in small-town America.

This liberal, North Coast college town seemed the perfect showcase for a party that has struggled for more than a decade to become a force in national, state and local politics.

But the Greens quickly learned that in municipal government, the path to glory is paved with potholes, garbage, recycling bins, panhandlers and all the other mundane facets of urban life that tend to obscure the big picture.

Two years after their victory gained global attention, the Greens have a handful of modest accomplishments to point to and a dearth of party activists willing to run in this November's election, even though their council majority is at stake.

Ultimately, Arcata may come to illustrate the problems facing the Greens as they strive to establish credibility across California and the rest of the nation.

"The reality is that we are a political party of people who don't want to do politics," said Melanie Williams, one of the founders of the party here and a political science instructor at Humboldt State University.

Williams says she gives the Green council members just a B for creativity and civility, while granting them an A for hard work these last two years. She is dismayed, she says, that their work didn't seem to inspire other Greens to run in the upcoming council race.

"We did a lot of arm-twisting," she said, "but nobody wanted to do it."

The party finally settled for Bradley Freeman, 52, a political unknown and former landscaper now between jobs.

Freeman is hardly campaigning, spending just $44 of his own money so far and refusing to take any donations. He is running, he says, "because someone has to make decisions. I would rather it be me than conservatives."

The only other candidates are the current mayor, Democrat Jim Test, who is expected to easily win reelection, and Robert Noble, a Libertarian and political unknown. Two seats are at stake.

The biggest problem, Williams says, is that being inside City Hall is a lot less attractive to most Greens than being outside.

"The town hall stuff is pretty boring," she said over morning coffee at Los Bagels, a bakery favored by Greens as much for its smoked-tofu bagel spread as for the fact that it is locally owned. "How do you stay in the streets and work in town hall without making that an either-or choice?"

Jennifer Hanan, one of the Greens elected to the council two years ago, agrees with her former instructor's analysis. After her term ends in two years, Hanan said, she will never run for public office again.

"I've learned a lot about the difference between being a person on the outside, trying to make change, and being within government," the 31-year-old Hanan said. "On the outside, I could organize things," such as the fight she led before running for the council to block a housing development and industrial park. "I'm looking forward to getting out."

Hanan says she was shocked at the political intrigues that exist even in a town the size of Arcata, which for two decades has been governed mostly by liberal Democrats. With 17,000 residents--7,500 of them students at Humboldt State--Arcata has fewer than 2,000 registered Republicans. It has long had a reputation for being the most liberal city in a county filled with dead and dying lumber towns.

Watching From the Sidelines

Mayor Test, who has been active in Arcata politics for more than a decade, likes to say the town's Democrats were Green before there were Greens. Asked to name anything the council has done in the past two years that could be singled out as "Green," he draws a blank.

Even those who most feared the coming of a Green majority now are hard-pressed to name specific things the Greens have done that they don't like.

"When the Greens got elected, I called them the eco-groovy, granola-eating, renegade environmentalists," said John Peterson, owner of Arcata Muffler and a conservative lifelong Arcatan. "Now, I don't even keep up with what the council is doing. They do what they want to do. I try to go to work and go home."

Carl Pellatz, a Republican and former mayor who was defeated when he ran for reelection two years ago, says Republicans aren't fielding a candidate this year.

"We're just going to sit back and let them do themselves in," he said. "I think there's a sense of despair. There is a lot of anger in this town. There is a good chunk of the population who absolutely feel they don't have anyone on the council who will listen to them. Businesspeople, people who have lived here a number of years, feel shut out. So we've decided to stay on the sidelines for two years."

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