On the afternoon of October 16, while Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were preparing for their debate at Hofstra University, Jill Stein was being handcuffed by police outside the auditorium.
She would have preferred to be inside the hall that day, debating alongside her fellow candidates for president of the United States. But Stein, the Green Party’s candidate, was excluded from the event, as she had been from the first presidential debate a couple of weeks earlier (so, too, were other third-party candidates, including Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who’s the Libertarian Party nominee).
So instead, Stein and her running mate, Cheri Honkala, showed up at Hofstra to protest “the mockery of democracy that is tonight’s debate,” as her campaign manager later told the media. When the two women tried to enter the debate site, they were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct. They spent about eight hours in custody—handcuffed to metal chairs, according to the campaign—before being released.
“It was painful but symbolic to be handcuffed for all those hours, because that’s what the Commission on Presidential Debates has essentially done to American democracy,” Stein said in a statement released a few hours later, referring to the nonprofit organization, founded and controlled by the Democratic and Republican parties, that stages the debates and rarely lets in candidates outside those two parties. (Last week, after being excluded from a third debate in Florida, Stein announced plans to sue the CPD; Johnson has also sued the group.)
Stein’s arrest might have been an unpleasant experience, but it was also useful, illustrating one of the key arguments of her campaign: that our political system has been highjacked by a small but powerful class of elites whose interests are advanced and protected by the two ever-obliging major parties.
Stein, a resident of Lexington, Mass., offers a radically different alternative. Since announcing her candidacy a year ago, she’s crisscrossed the country, speaking on college campuses and at Occupy events, walking the picket line with striking Chicago teachers, joining anti-foreclosure protestors outside the Philadelphia offices of Fannie Mae (where she and Honkala were also arrested, along with several other participants, including a nun).
Each step of the way, she’s talked about her progressive economic and environmental plan, which she calls a Green New Deal, and her proposals to relieve the stresses on the middle and working classes and the poor, including free public education through college; a government-run, single-payer healthcare system that covers everyone; and a moratorium on the housing foreclosures that have devastated so many communities. She’s also reiterated her call for a dramatic restructuring of our political system, one that restores power to individuals and communities and eliminates the overwhelming influence of corporate interests on public policy.
A physician by training who came to politics in midlife, “I tell people I’m now practicing political medicine,” Stein said in a recent interview with the Advocate. “Because it’s the mother of all illnesses: politics. And we have to fix this one in order to fix everything else that’s killing us.”
The 62-year-old Stein was born in Chicago and raised in Highland Park, Ill. She came east to attend Harvard as an undergraduate, went on to medical school there and eventually settled in Lexington, where she and her husband, fellow physician Richard Rohrer, raised two sons, now grown.
Stein worked as an internist at the Simmons College health center and has published reports on environmental threats to public health. She got into politics, she said, because of the inadequacies she saw in our healthcare system and the unprecedented rates of disease in young people—“skyrocketing asthma, cancer, learning disabilities, obesity, diabetes.”
Those problems, she knew, had deep roots and required deeper responses than our healthcare system allows. “I became very impatient with simply dispensing pills and medical procedures and pushing people back out to the things that were making them sick in the first place: poverty, pollution, economic disparities, a broken food distribution system,” Stein said.
Her political work began with grassroots environmental causes, fighting to shut down trash incinerators and coal-burning power plants and to establish recycling programs. At first, Stein said, she thought these would be easy victories; after all, who wouldn’t be interested in cleaning up pollution, “especially when you have good solutions that create jobs, save jobs, save money, save the planet—what’s not to love?” Getting elected officials on board should be a cinch, she assumed. “Then you discover, actually, they are paid to stay the course.”
Seeing through her environmental work the degree to which public policy is shaped by the financial interests of a few, Stein joined a coalition of activists working to pass Massachusetts’ Clean Elections law. The measure, which would have provided public financing to candidates who agreed to limited fundraising and strict spending caps, was passed by voters by a 2-to-1 margin on a binding 1998 ballot question.
But the state Legislature, under the leadership of then-House Speaker (and subsequent convicted felon) Tom Finneran, balked, refusing to fund the new law. Eventually, lawmakers killed it via a poison-pill maneuver, attaching an amendment to repeal Clean Elections to other budget provisions that would have forced supporters of the law to vote also against restoring Medicaid to poor residents and providing prescription drug coverage for the elderly. Adding insult to injury, when state senators approved adding the amendment to the budget, they did so by a voice vote “so that no one would be held accountable for it,” Stein noted.
Watching the Legislature repeal Clean Elections despite the popular support it enjoyed— “that, for me, was the last straw,” Stein said. In 2002, she ran her first political race, as the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party’s candidate for governor.
Stein said she was recruited by the Green-Rainbow Party to run. “I had not been active in any political party. I don’t think I’d ever been to a political meeting,” she said. But she was drawn to the Greens’ agenda, which aligned so closely with her own priorities: job creation, environmental and public health, economic equality. “I thought about it, and I said, ‘Everything else isn’t working; why not try that?’”
Stein’s 2002 gubernatorial platform included calls for environmental protections and against the MCAS exams. But getting her message heard was not easy; she, along with other third-party candidates, was excluded from that election’s debates, too. Meanwhile, Democrats tried to sandbag her campaign by labeling her a “spoiler” candidate who would hurt their party, in much the same way consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the Green’s presidential nominee in 2000, was accused of helping George W. Bush beat Al Gore. In just one example of the criticisms Stein faced: Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary who ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination but lost to state Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, was quoted in the Daily Hampshire Gazette saying, “A vote for the Green Party is in effect a vote for the Republican Party.”
Ultimately, Stein came in third, with 76,530 votes, or 3.5 percent of the electorate. The winner: businessman Mitt Romney, one of Stein’s rivals in this year’s presidential race.
Stein said she entered the 2002 gubernatorial race “out of desperation. And I emerged from it in complete inspiration.”
Through the campaign, she said, she saw how eager voters were for an alternative message and alternative solutions to the ones proffered by the two major parties. “I was just flabbergasted that the vision and the integrity and spirit of the public was not at all what it was portrayed to be by big media,” she recalled. “People do not consider themselves branded from birth with a red or blue sign. People very reluctantly resign themselves to these two pigeon holes because that’s all that’s ever been offered.”
In the years since, Stein has been the Green-Rainbow candidate for other state offices, including state representative in 2004 (she won 21 percent of the vote) and, in 2006, secretary of the commonwealth (she won 18 percent). In 2010, she ran for governor a second time and was joined on the ticket by lieutenant governor candidate Rick Purcell, an activist from Holyoke; that year, she won 1.4 percent of the vote. Stein has also been elected twice as a Town Meeting representative in Lexington.
In October of 2011, Stein announced her presidential campaign. Honkala, an anti-poverty activist who co-founded the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, joined as her running mate last summer, a few days before they secured the Greens’ nomination at the party’s national convention, where comedian-turned-activist Roseanne Barr was among the other contenders.
Stein and Honkala have had to fight to get their names on the ballot in many states. But, at last count, they will appear on the ballot in 36 states, including Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. The campaign is asking supporters to write them in on the ballot in states where their names won’t appear, including Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont. The campaign estimates they will appear on 85 percent of ballots cast.
In a September CNN poll, 2 percent of registered voters (and 1 percent of “likely voters”) said they would vote for Stein for president. Based on the number of voters who turned out in the last presidential election, that 2 percent could amount to 2.4 million votes, her campaign noted.
At the heart of the Stein/Honkala campaign is the “Green New Deal,” which the campaign describes as “an emergency four-part program of specific solutions for moving America quickly out of crisis into the secure green future,” in much the same way FDR’s New Deal moved the country out of the Great Depression.
Stein’s plan calls for the creation of 25 million new jobs, many of them in green fields such as sustainable energy, funded by the federal government and controlled on the local level. The government would also provide grants and low-interest loans to support research in such areas as sustainable energy and organic agriculture, as well as to support environmentally sound businesses, with an emphasis on the small and local. Funding for this and other programs would come from cuts to the military budget and to corporate welfare programs, and from higher taxes on the wealthiest.
Stein’s plan would guarantee workers a right to living wages and safe workplaces and would strengthen the rights of organized labor. It calls for free public education through college, relief from student loans, an equitable tax system, and a moratorium on home foreclosures, with a federal bank created to handle distressed properties by either restructuring payment plans or allowing former homeowners to rent the properties.
Stein advocates the breakup of large banks and the formation of smaller, nonprofit banks. Taxpayer-supported bailouts of financial institutions should end, and executives at bailed-out institutions who receive big bonuses should be subject to a 90 percent tax rate on that money, she says. Stein would fight for the strengthening of banking regulations and the restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, which erected a firewall between commercial and investment banking.
On the contentious issue of healthcare, Stein supports a single-payer “Medicare for All” model that would offer complete care to all Americans. The program would be paid for by “recapturing” the administrative waste of the current system and introducing “modest new taxes [that] would replace premiums and out-of-pocket payments currently paid by individuals and business.”
She supports abortion rights and full access to contraception and calls for investments in a “community health infrastructure” that includes access to fresh, organic food, clean renewable energy and access to public transit and bike paths. She advocates phasing out nuclear and coal-burning power plants, opposes hydrofracking and drilling that threatens natural resources, and wants to see the creation of a binding international treaty that aggressively addresses climate change.
Stein’s campaign calls for the repeal of the Patriot Act and other measures that allow the government to restrict the civil rights of its citizens. She supports a Constitutional amendment overturning the “corporate personhood” doctrine established in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling and advocates public financing of elections to eliminate the influence of corporate money. (The Greens, as a policy, take no campaign donations from corporations, lobbyists or political action committees.) She supports the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment as well as a federal law granting marriage equality to same-sex couples.
“We are at the breaking point for people, the planet, our economy and our democracy,” Stein said. And her opponents, she said, are not addressing these problems in any meaningful way. “There are so many crises right now for which the Wall Street parties have no solutions, just: ‘Wait,’ while they continue these bailouts.”
The Greens “really do have all kinds of exit strategies from these desperate circumstances: off-shoring of jobs … expanding wars, climate change, declining wages, [high] poverty rates, a generation of students who are indentured servants with their unforgiving student loans and no jobs to pay them back with, foreclosures that just continue to roll out by the millions,” Stein said.
“People get that this is the breaking point for 99 percent. We have the opportunity in this election to turn that breaking point into a tipping point, to take back that democracy and the peaceful, green economy we deserve.”
As in her first gubernatorial campaign, Stein again faces the “spoiler” label, the criticism that her candidacy will draw left-leaning voters away from Obama and pave the way for a Romney victory. (Meanwhile, Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, is accused of posing the same threat to Romney.)
But to Stein’s supporters, her candidacy is an antidote to the hypocrisies and abuses practiced by Republicans and Democrats alike. In an endorsement of Stein earlier this year, Noam Chomsky called her candidacy a symbol of a “resurgent democracy … that thrives outside of the Democratic and Republican Parties that are sponsored by and subservient to corporate America.” Stein has been endorsed by a number of other well-known progressive activists, including Nader and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group Code Pink.
Four years of an Obama administration, Stein said, have done little to address the problems that need to be addressed. “We’re not just stuck; we’re actually accelerating in the wrong direction—and we’ve done that under a Democrat,” she said.
“It’s important to get beyond the warm and fuzzy narrative and look at the track record here,” she continued. “What has Barack Obama done?” A few days after taking office, he approved sending missiles to Pakistan, she noted; later that year, he sent more troops to Afghanistan. While those troops have since been withdrawn, the president has expanded the use of drone strikes.
“These have been disastrous,” Stein says of Obama’s military policies. “And we are not more secure for having doubled the cost of the military budget, the military-industrial complex. Now we’re seeing blowback from the Middle East, showing how many hearts and minds we haven’t won through the policy of bombing weddings and funerals. … We ain’t got the peace president we thought we were voting for.”
Nor do we have the civil-liberties champion many expected him to be, she continued. “In the area of civil liberties, Obama has gone much further than George Bush,” Stein said, pointing to his administration’s expansion of policies that allow, for instance, broad government surveillance of citizens and the open-ended detention of people the government considers terror suspects, including citizens. In addition, Stein said, the president has not held unscrupulous financial institutions accountable for their transgressions; has, like other Democrats before him, signed trade agreements that hurt American workers; and has taken inadequate action to address the crisis of climate change.
“We are making a beeline right now over the cliff,” Stein said. “The president [and] the Republicans, they are both leading the charge.” While there is a “marginal difference” between the two major parties on tax policy, she added, that’s hardly enough to make either the right choice: “Throughout history, the lesser evil has never been a solution, and it certainly isn’t now.”
For a third-party candidate, perhaps the biggest challenge is making voters even aware of her candidacy. In a political system built around—and, to a large degree, controlled by—the Democrats and Republicans, third-party candidates typically receive scant media attention and are excluded from debates and polls. (Some, of course, have broken through those barriers, such as Ross Perot, who was aided by his personal wealth.)
Stein’s campaign does not have a lot of money. According to filings with the Federal Elections Commission, Stein has raised just shy of $400,000 this election cycle, including a $24,000 loan she made to her campaign. By staggering comparison, Obama’s campaign has raised $560.7 million and Romney’s $337.1 million—and that’s not counting the hundreds of millions spent by their respective parties and super PACs, which bring total spending on their candidacies up to $834.7 million for Obama and $771.7 million for Romney, the New York Times recently reported.
Then, of course, there’s Stein’s exclusion from the presidential debates, the highest-profile opportunities for the candidates. Stein has participated in several alternative debates—what her campaign calls the “real debates”—including a clever “Expanding the Debate” special on the radio program Democracy Now!, held on the same night as the final presidential debate, in which Stein and other third-party candidates were invited to answer the same questions posed to Obama and Romney.
The exclusion of third-party candidates who’ve done the work to get on the ballot is “an affront to democracy,” said Stein, pointing to polls showing that the American people are interested in alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans, including a recent a Gallup poll in which 46 percent of respondents agreed that the two big parties “do such a poor job [representing the American people] that a third major party is needed.” Nonetheless, those voters are fed a constant diet of the two big parties, who steer scrupulously clear of sticky issues, Stein said. “They have an unspoken agreement between their campaigns that they will not discuss the real healthcare solution, Medicare for all, or the free trade agreements and their role in offshoring our jobs. They don’t want to go there,” she said.
“The silver lining here among all these dark clouds is they’re not fooling anyone,” she continued. “It’s not by accident that half of eligible voters want to stay home.”
And that, Stein said, is where the Green Party comes in. The Democrats and Republicans, she said, maintain their dominance through “the politics of fear,” including the “spoiler” argument that if voters look for alternatives to the big parties, they’ll inadvertently end up advancing the party they like least. “It’s the only power they have, the psychological warfare to convince people they are powerless,” said Stein, who instead calls for “a politics of courage” that demands more than the two “corporate-sponsored” candidates are offering.
Throughout American history, Stein said, third parties and “outside” groups have driven all kinds of crucial social changes—abolition, women’s suffrage, workers’ rights—by pressuring the establishment parties until they’ve been forced to respond. “It’s absolutely false propaganda that third parties are a liability,” she said. “In fact, third parties are the only thing that can drive us forward.”
For the Green Party, that means tapping into the grassroots movements—the Occupy demonstrations, the anti-foreclosure protests—springing up around the country.
“There is a wonderful movement going on right now of democracy and justice breaking out all over. And as democracy is breaking out, people are breaking away from the mess that got us here in the first place,” Stein said. “If we win the White House, and turn the White House into a Green House, that’s great. But there are many ways to win this election. We win it simply be recovering our political voice and our political courage.”•