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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Party of One in Maine

John Eder's election to the state's Legislature gives the Green Party a boost nationally -- but he's on his own when it comes to getting results.

June 04, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

AUGUSTA, Maine — Just as the legislative session was winding to a close, John Eder managed to get his first bill passed. For a moment, the freshman representative reveled in a round of back-slapping and high-fives from his Capitol colleagues.

Then he slipped off to write a thank-you note to the committee chairman who helped him.

In a statehouse where Democrats hold a slim margin, the only Green Party candidate elected to a legislature in a general election quickly learned how such subtleties of political etiquette shape the craft of deal-making.

"There is the party stuff, there are issues and then there are relationships," Eder said. "The last one, relationships, that's really the only neighborhood I have to work in. I have no party power. It is just me."

Eder is Augusta's one-person party. The 33-year-old house painter and massage therapist won an open House seat from Portland in November by a two-thirds majority -- making him at once a national beacon of emerging third-party activity and a lonely testimony to the eccentricity of Down East politics. Eder's struggle to make a mark in Maine also shows how hard it is for any outsider to function in a fierce two-party system.

Eder had not passed a single bill until his measure to limit pesticide use near schools won approval last month. Though he has more working space than most of his colleagues, he toils in a 6-by-8 cubicle that is crowded with one desk, one chair, one phone and one computer. When his eight-hour-a-week legislative aide is on duty, Eder stands so his assistant can sit.

He has no car, no cell phone, no college degree -- and almost no bank account. He buys his suits at Goodwill. His $5,000 campaign was fueled by shoe leather and financed by state clean election funds.

Yet Eder's popularity so unnerved Democrats that as soon as he took office, they remapped the boundaries of his district, forcing him to run against a Democratic incumbent in 2004 or move to run from another district. Eder and the Green Party retaliated by suing.

"The Democrats look at the Greens -- and John Eder -- as a threat," said Mal Leary, a Maine political reporter. "They are really worried that the Greens could manipulate that House seat into a Senate seat -- and after that, who knows what."

Eder sees the Democrats' discomfort as a compliment.

"Somehow all of this shows that we're worth sweating over, and I think that's great," he said. "The bottom line is, we do have the power to move the agenda."

Right from the start, however, Democrats in the part-time Legislature froze Eder out. When committee assignments were handed out, the lawmaker from Portland -- a city with no farms or forests -- found himself on agriculture.

Many of his legislative efforts -- from a bill to reduce mercury use to one advocating alternative fuels -- have been repackaged by Democrats, who then guided the bills to passage. Eder said he voted with the Democrats "99.9% of the time."

Two years ago, Audie Bock faced a similar situation when she won a special-election spot as a Green in the California Assembly. Bock, who failed to win reelection, left the Greens to become an independent and now is a Democrat.

Bock said in a phone interview from her home in California that she faced such an uphill battle as a third-party legislator that she told her staffers: "Don't expect doors are going to open to you. You're really going to have to beat your head against the wall every day."

Herb Adams, a longtime Democratic representative from another Portland district, offered much the same assessment. Maine traditionally has embraced unconventional politics, Adams noted, from the Temperance Party to Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party.

Still, he cautioned, "when you don't have a party to back you up, you're left to rely on the three Ps: personality, platform and persistence."

Eder scored high in all three categories with voters in Portland's West End last year, when the Greens picked him to run for the open seat. The waterfront district of 8,000 voters is among the state's most diverse constituencies, populated by many new immigrants who hold low-income jobs and live in multiple-family dwellings. But the area also is home to grand residences owned by doctors, judges and executives.

Eder's work painting houses offered flexibility for campaigning. He spent a year knocking on every door in his district. Sometimes he sat for hours while potential voters poured out their problems.

Adams marveled that "with no party structure to tutor him," Eder instinctively found his pace at corner stores and Saturday-night bean suppers.

"I know people whose door he knocked on three times. He knew the names of their dogs," Adams said.

Eder came up with this strategy on his own: "I thought, maybe this is what you need to do to be a politician. You need to listen."

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