She came, she saw, and on April 5, Green Party candidate Medea Benjamin got a raw taste of the biggest obstacle facing her U.S. Senate campaign: persuading sympathetic Democrats—and even fellow Green Party members—to vote for her in November.
Benjamin's lunch meeting with polite but pragmatic Orange County labor leaders at Santa Ana's Azteca Grill was illustrative. Participants worried that voting for Benjamin would steal votes from her Democratic opponent, Dianne Feinstein, assuring the Republicans of an easy victory in the race.
"As a Latina, I see the splitting of the vote as a human issue because the Republican Party in California is a distinct and powerful enemy," said Donna Griggs, an organizer with the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. "I applaud your principles and ideals, but we do not live in an ideal society, and sometimes we have to be pragmatic. Our votes will probably have to go to an imperfect Democratic candidate rather than to someone who will split the vote."
The "imperfect Democrat" is incumbent Feinstein. An ardent advocate of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Feinstein has sought to expand the controversial agreement to Latin America and Africa. On top of that, Feinstein is a strong supporter of President Clinton's effort to extend most-favored-nation trading status to China.
Labor bitterly opposes each initiative. That's what brought Benjamin and the Green Party to the Azteca Grill. But her sympathizers—and even ardent admirers—say voting for Benjamin is likely to help Feinstein's opponent, moderate Palo Alto Republican Tom Campbell, slip into the Senate.
Benjamin has a response for that. She points out that Feinstein is so conservative that Campbell is actually more progressive—at least on such issues as ending the ill-fated war on drugs. Further, Benjamin argues, because Feinstein leads Campbell by a three-to-one margin, disaffected Democrats can still give Benjamin 10 percent of the vote without threatening a Feinstein re-election victory.
Benjamin's expectations are modest. "I hate to say it, but I'm not going to win the Senate race," she said. But she figures that winning just "10 percent of the vote . . . would send a big message to the Democrats."
If Feinstein is an imperfect Democrat, it's fair to say that Benjamin is the perfect Green Party challenger. For three decades, she has fought on the front lines in the battle for social justice and basic human rights around the world. As founding director of Global Exchange, the San Francisco-based human-rights organization, Benjamin helped successfully sue U.S. companies over their labor practices in the U.S. territory of Saipan and exposed sweatshop labor in China, Indonesia and Vietnam. She also played a key role in organizing the massive protests in Seattle against the now-infamous World Trade Organization, (WTO). Introducing her during a fund-raiser that same evening, OC Green Party chairwoman Vangee Oberschlake called Benjamin the person "who put the Teamsters and the turtles together."
The fund-raiser, held at the spacious Gypsy Den Grand Central Caf in Santa Ana, was packed with Green Party supporters and proved an easier room than the Azteca Grill. To much cheering, Benjamin claimed that the Green Party agenda of fighting corporate dominance in politics and standing up for labor and environmental rights over free trade has finally become part of the mainstream debate.
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"If you look at the polls, the vast majority of Americans agree with us," she said.
As evidence, Benjamin pointed to the tens of thousands of religious activists arriving at the U.S. Capitol April 9 to demand the U.S. government forgive debts owed by Third World nations. A week later, on April 16, thousands more activists will descend on Washington, D.C., to protest the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the two agencies responsible for creating and prolonging the massive debt owed by the world's poorest nations.
The highlight of the evening came when someone in the crowd asked Benjamin to provide specific proposals regarding the World Bank and IMF. At that moment, she found herself in a perfect position to sum up the moral economy of the crowd—not just the one inside the Santa Ana caf, but a much larger, emerging political voice, the same one that held the world's attention in Seattle for several days and that the Green Party hopes to empower through the ballot box.
"Sure," the Green Party candidate responded. "Shut 'em Down!"