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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Green Party's Man Is Tickled Pink Over Debate

Camejo sees his participation as an important foot in the door for third-party candidates. And now the phones are ringing.

September 05, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

Elating. Historic. Unprecedented. Those aren't words that likely spring to mind for most voters when they ponder Wednesday's gubernatorial debate. But for Green Party members throughout the state, the experience was all of that.

For them, the 90-minute political discourse was a milestone. It marked the first time a Green Party candidate -- or any third-party contender -- had participated in a widely televised gubernatorial debate in California, political observers say.

For Green Party candidate Peter Camejo -- who readily concedes he could fare worse this time around than he did in last fall's election, when he drew 5% of the vote in his effort to unseat Gov. Gray Davis -- the access is a major win.

Sporting new eyeglasses (so he would look "less professorial") and a borrowed blue Ralph Lauren dress shirt (so he wouldn't wash out under the harsh television lights), Camejo had simple goals.

"My strategy will be to come out as a reasonable person -- which by itself will be a victory for the Green Party," Camejo said before the debate.

By Thursday morning, the Camejo campaign had received 40 e-mails from supporters eager to volunteer, said campaign manager Tyler Snortum-Phelps.

At Green Party offices from San Francisco to San Diego, calls and e-mails poured in from a wide spectrum of voters pleased to have heard another point of view, said state Green Party spokesman Ross Mirkarimi.

"They're saying, 'This guy has my support,' or 'I want to know more,' or 'Why weren't you in the debates before and how did you scale this hurdle?' " Mirkarimi said.

"It's a watershed moment. We have demonstrated the adequate campaign muscle to allow entry into the debates. Peter broke a glass ceiling."

By many accounts, the longtime leftist crusader, who heads a firm specializing in socially responsible investments, accomplished his mission.

Camejo laid out his "fair tax" proposal: hit the rich harder while lightening up on the average worker. He espoused the need for renewable energy. He called for equal rights for gays and lesbians -- including marriage. He condemned the death penalty.

And most of all, he criticized the two-party system that has dominated American politics for so long.

Under the current system, with its dependence on the two major parties, Camejo is not likely to taste victory and he knows it.

He has polled even lower than he did last fall, partly because he is competing with independent Arianna Huffington, whose positions are similar, and an assortment of other independents in the 135-candidate field.

But when you take the long view, as Camejo does, it's all good.

Green Party membership in California recently inched above 160,000, or a mere 1% of registered voters.

Though the party's numbers are still small, they grew by 2.1% between February and August of this year, while Democratic and Republican party registration and total voter rolls dropped, according to the California secretary of state.

Both here and nationally, Green Party members have long argued that their ranks have been limited by their absence from debates.

Ralph Nader was denied access to presidential debates in 2000.

In California, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Dan Hamburg debated Republican Dan Lungren and Gov. Davis, a Democrat, in front of a Latino audience in Los Angeles in 1998, but it was not broadcast throughout the state and he was not included in other debates.

Camejo, the 2002 party nominee, was barred from a Los Angeles Times debate that year because he did not meet a 15% polling threshold. (Similarly, Wednesday's debate applied a threshold. Only candidates who pulled at least 5% of the vote in the previous election -- which included Camejo -- or polled 4% or higher in the most recent Field Poll were granted access.)

In fact, getting heard has been particularly tough in the Golden State, said Richard Winger, editor of San Francisco-based Ballot Access News, which tracks election law changes that affect minor parties.

In 2002, there were 10 minor-party or independent candidates for governor across the country who polled 5% or higher. Camejo was the only one who was never permitted to debate his opponents, Winger said.

"There's a trajectory here," said Steven Hill, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy in San Francisco. "Part of this is about educating voters, giving them options, letting them hear real debate.

"Whether the Green Party pulls 3% or 10%, Camejo is adding something new to the debates that is good for voters, even if voters don't vote for him," he said.

On the ideological spectrum, the graying, fast-talking Camejo landed as far to the left Wednesday as state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) did to the right. That means he's not likely to find a large number of crossover voters running to embrace him, said San Jose State University political scientist Larry Gerston. But that's not the point.

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