Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Once I Was A Cool Moose

"Often derided as spoilers, third-party candidates and their movements hold an important place in American political history; Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party was just such an example when he became the 16th President of the US, presiding over the Civil War, and forever changing the national political landscape. In this year's polarized political atmosphere, the Green Party sees an opportunity to build a third-party movement in the state. With the Democratic Party poised to retake Congress, Democrats in Illinois have been met with scandal and sagging approval ratings. The state GOP, meanwhile, has remained fractured and divided, partially from the George Ryan scandal. Rich Whitney, a Downstate Illinois civil rights attorney running for Governor on the Green Party ticket, is hoping he can pull people together in a movement for positive change."

That is the introduction to an interview with Rich Whitney, the Green candidate for Governor of Illinois, who is polling double digits. The interview can be read here.

Rich Whitney is a long shot to win the election, but he could perform well enough to secure a ballot line for the Greens on the Illinois ballot. He does not take that predicament lightly, nor should he.

A little while ago, back in my home state of Rhode Island, I was involved in a weird, exciting, yet ultimately disappointing chapter in our state's politics. A lawyer from the bayside town of Warren ran for Governor - several times. He called himself the "Cool Moose" candidate and became a recognizable and entertaining figure because of his Jerry Garcia hair and crazy beard, his bear-like stature, and his reedy Rowdaaaaylun accent.

In 1994, Healey earned 9% of the vote and that was enough to establish his party on Rhode Island's ballot. Overnight, he went from being a protest candidate / novelty / pain in the ass to being the leader of Rhode Island's new and official third party, the Cool Moose Party.

Shortly after that election, I showed up at the first-ever convention of the Cool Moose Party and got myself involved in the platform committee. The whole event was a circus. We were at the campus of the University of Rhode Island out in southern Rhode Island, and everybody came out wanting to help define this new party. There were Greens, libertarians, wise-use activists, and liberals and conservatives having constructive conversations I can't imagine happening today. I vividly recall one guy running around in camouflage and a wool cap. The political reporter for the Providence Journal went straight for him, having always been very skeptical of Healey because of his hair, and seeking to portray the Cool Moose Party as a bunch of nuts.

What emerged was a political party that made a lot of sense for Rhode Island. I pushed and got myself into the platform committee - the youngest writer there, at age 24. Our platform (which you can still read here and I note they still haven't fixed the typos) called for government to stay out of social policy as much as practical, while regulating government ethics, the state lottery, and the banking industry (Rhode Island has a very painful history involving banks and credit unions), demanding that all legislation include a spending component (in short, it would have to include how to pay for the whatever action the law calls for), and...and...

Oh, you can read the document if you are interested. To sum up, what emerged was a socially libertarian, fiscally conservative party that wanted to empower local government more and make state government more transparent. It was uniquely Rhode Island, and our party had no aspirations of exanding beyond our borders. We wanted a statewide party that wasn't influenced by the pressures to which a national party is subject.

It was a good start. The problem was, we couldn't kill off our charismatic founder. Bob Healey was great. (And he's still around, currently running for Lieutenant Governor, vowing to work towards abolishing the office if he is elected, so as to save Rhode island the expense of this largely ceremonial office.)

After the '94 election, it was time to recruit Cool Moose candidates for other elections, to put up a slate of people and win more elections. We had to establish credibility as a political party independently of wildman Bob Healey.

This effort never got off the ground. We put up very few candidates and they didn't perform well. I was asked to run for office myself; I said no. The momentum slowed and the percentages dropped, and the Cool Moose Party fell off the ballot. The public perception was that our party did not flourish because it could not make the step from a protest party to a governing party.

The Green Party IS a governing party (with 223 office holders in 28 states and D.C.), yet it is not out of the woods. Rich Whitney sounds like a credible candidate for Illinois who understands what needs to take place if the Greens establish that ballot line for themselves. I wish him well.

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