With Green Party leader Peter Camejo set to formally announce his candidacy for governor Monday, local party members are attacking him for taking advantage of an “undemocratic” Republican-led effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis.
“Peter is a little blinded by opportunity and isn’t seeing the bigger picture,” said Berkeley Board of Education Director John Selawsky, a county councilor with the Green Party of Alameda County. “I don’t think this is a democratic election, and I don’t think we should be encouraging it.”
But Camejo said Davis is a “corrupt” figure who deserves to lose his job, even if it is conservatives who push him out of office.
“This is the right of the public, the right of the voters,” he said. “We are critical of the reasons ... but not critical of the recall.”
Still, local party members said their standard-bearer will do long-term damage to the Greens by running for governor.
“It would make the Greens more unpopular,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Dona Spring. “It would look opportunistic.”
The local opposition to Camejo’s candidacy is emblematic of widespread concern among California’s 157,000 Greens over the party’s role in a recall campaign bankrolled largely by a $1.15 million contribution from Republican Congressman and gubernatorial hopeful Darrell Issa.
Issa’s organization, Rescue California, must gather about 900,000 valid signatures by Sept. 2 to get the recall on the March 2004 ballot. But the March ballot will feature the Democratic presidential primary and is likely to draw liberals to the polls in droves, which would not bode well for the recall vote. So Rescue California is hoping to collect the required signatures by July, possibly triggering a special election in the fall.
The secretary of state reported Tuesday that recall supporters had gathered 376,008 unverified signatures statewide as of June 16.
If the recall qualifies, voters will decide whether to dump Davis and will select a candidate to replace him should the recall pass. On Monday, Camejo will join Issa as the only two declared candidates. But actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, businessman Bill Simon, who lost to Davis in November, and state Sen. Tom McClintock are considered possible Republican candidates in the wide open election.
Prominent Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Treasurer Phil Angelides have rallied around the deeply unpopular Davis, denouncing the recall and saying they will not appear on the ballot.
The Green Party’s ambivalence over the recall effort came to the forefront in early May at its latest plenary session in Sacramento. Many Greens voiced opposition to Davis, labeling him a money-hungry conservative in Democratic disguise who has led the state into a record-setting $38 billion deficit. Others said recall proponents are misusing a tool that should be reserved for blatant corruption and argued that Green support for ousting Davis could help a Republican get elected.
Unable to come to a consensus on the issue, the statewide party decided to remain officially neutral on the recall.
“While we have great disdain for Governor Davis ... we did not want to seem ostensibly to be in a partnership with Darrell Issa and the Republican Party,” said Green Party spokesperson Ross Mirkarimi.
Left to their own devices, a handful of the party’s county organizations, including the Alameda County outfit, have come out in formal opposition to the recall. The local county council also met personally with Camejo last week to express its concerns.
“The Greens are divided,” Camejo acknowledged. “There’s a whole spectrum of opinion.”
But Camejo, who won 5 percent of the vote in the 2002 gubernatorial race, finishing third behind Davis and Simon, predicted the party faithful will rally behind him if the recall qualifies for the ballot.
“I think 95 percent of the rank-and-file will support me,” he said.
Greens make up just 1 percent of California’s electorate. But Camejo said he will be in a unique position to win Democratic votes in a recall election, given that leading Democrats have bowed out of the race.
“It will be an enormous opportunity to get the Greens’ message out,” he said. “I will be the only well-known [progressive] candidate running against the Republicans.”
UC Berkeley political science professor Jack Citrin predicted that Democratic voters, while generally unhappy with Davis, will probably rally around the governor and defeat the recall—especially if there is no Democratic alternative on the ballot.
But, if voters do approve the recall, he said, Camejo will have a once in-a-lifetime opportunity to get elected.
“If there are a couple of Republican candidates and a Green candidate, you might have an interesting situation,” Citrin said. “Democrats might choose the lesser of two evils.”
Still, some party activists say they want no part in a recall effort that could oust Governor Davis in favor of a Governor Issa or Governor Schwarzenegger.
“We certainly don’t want to, in any way, aid their election,” said Selawsky.
But there is division in the party’s local ranks over the best course of action.
“We are a political party, we’re not just an adjunct of the Democratic Party,” said Suzanne Baker of Oakland, who serves on party’s county council. “It seems rather suicidal not to run a candidate.”
Mirkarimi, the party spokesperson, said the Greens face a delicate dance ahead, balancing their own opportunities against the specter of a Republican governor.
“It’s not just walking the line, it’s a whole pirouette,” he said. “I’m not sure if we’re going to do it gracefully, or be absolutely clumsy about it.”