SACRAMENTO — A part-time community college teacher whose last campaign for office was in high school appears to have made political history this week, besting a veteran Oakland Democrat to become the first Green Party candidate in America elected to a state legislature.
In an upset that spawned comparisons to Minnesota's Jesse "the Body" Ventura, Audie Bock beat former Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris by 336 votes in a race for a Bay Area Assembly seat, unofficial election returns show.
Bock, a single mother who says she wants to change the "backscratch, business as usual approach of big politics," was outspent 20 to 1 by Harris, who held the Oakland-based Assembly seat for a dozen years before becoming mayor.
But analysts said Harris was overconfident and could not overcome the district's changing demographics and hunger for new blood, as evidenced by the recent election of maverick Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. as Oakland's mayor.
"There has been a restless, convulsive desire for change in Oakland that began with Jerry Brown," said Harris' campaign consultant, Richie Ross. "Elihu just happened to be standing at the railroad crossing when the train was coming down the track."
Bock, 53, saw it differently, suggesting Tuesday night that her victory means that voters are fed up "with the Democratic Party machine."
In a statement Wednesday, she also credited her victory in part to Harris' refusal during the campaign to debate her, saying that it showed "a disrespect for voters striving to make an informed decision."
Planning a possible trip to the Capitol today, Bock added that "the Green Party of California is thrilled that we'll finally be able to bring our populist message to the state level."
Party Celebrates Unlikely Victory
Other Greens were equally jubilant. On Wednesday, the party's Web page trumpeted "WE WON! WE WON! WE WON!" and members throughout the nation exchanged a flurry of e-mails and phone calls about the upset.
"This is an enormous, enormous step forward for the party," said Santa Monica City Councilman Mike Feinstein, one of two Greens on the council. He added that the party had not expected to win a state legislative seat for at least 10 more years, and assumed that it would occur in a state with fewer voters.
"For it to happen in California, now, is evidence that people are willing to vote Green when we're standing on a level playing field side by side with Democrats," Feinstein said.
There are 31 Greens who hold local offices in California, and 32 more elected to nonpartisan posts elsewhere. Although Greens have sought state offices in New Mexico, Maine, Alaska and New Hampshire, none has succeeded.
Some Greens predicted that Bock's election would lift the fortunes of a party that is a dominant force in parts of Europe but has only 98,000 registered voters in California.
"This is going to give a big boost psychologically to the Greens, and also make people take us more seriously," said Greg Jan, who managed Bock's campaign.
Other third parties seemed to take comfort from the outcome as well, calling it further proof that Jesse Ventura--a former pro wrestler who carried the Reform Party banner to victory in the race for Minnesota governor--marked the start of a trend.
"This proves that the right circumstances combined with the right candidate can lead to victory for any third party," said Mark Hinkle, state chairman of the Libertarian Party.
Bock is Harvard-educated and teaches ethnic studies at a community college. She runs a small foreign language film distribution business in Piedmont, an upscale town next to Oakland. Her campaign pledges focused on improving schools, health care reform and protecting the environment.
Bock's last political campaign was as a student at Berkeley High School, where she ran for class secretary. Despite a tiny budget, she waged a spirited Assembly campaign buoyed by scores of volunteers and the endorsement of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who appeared at one of her fund-raisers.
"It's truly a miracle," said Wendy Kress, an attorney who voted for Bock.
Bock's victory was improbable for several reasons. For one thing, Democrats dominate the 16th Assembly District in voter registration, making up 66% of the total. By contrast, only 1% are Greens.
Winner Finished 3rd in Primary
In the February primary, Harris fell only a few hundred votes short of winning the seat outright, which would have allowed him to avoid Tuesday's runoff. In that election, Bock finished a distant third with only 8.6% of the vote. That was enough to get her into the runoff because no Republican was running and another Democrat came in second (runoffs involve the top finishers from each party).
Harris enjoyed a commanding dominance in fund-raising from the beginning, fueled by help from the state Democratic Party and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). Harris raised about $400,000 and Bock a little more than $20,000.