Is Jill Stein Really a Contender — Or a Tiny but Lethal Threat to the Progressive Cause?
Glorious is a word not often used in reference to the Gowanus Canal. But as we stand on Brooklyn's 9th Street Bridge, Jill Stein is oddly inspired by the degradation around us.
The presumptive Green Party candidate for president, Stein sees glory in Gowanus — a quintessentially Brooklyn combination of EPA Superfund site, luxury development projects, and start-up businesses — because it embodies what she calls the "modern dilemma."
"Who decides what happens here," she asks, rhetorically, "local residents or private profiteers? And how do we build an equitable and sustainable future?"
Stein, a spry 65, is based near Boston but doesn't have the accent; like Hillary, she's a product of the North Shore of Chicago. And as it is for the Clinton campaign, Brooklyn will soon become Stein's base of operations: Next week, the Greens' national office opens in Bed-Stuy.
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"Good ideas come from third parties," veteran Brooklyn reform Democrat Sal Albanese tells the Voice. He sees the addition of candidates such as Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson, who's calling for an end to the drug war, as "positive for our democracy."
But some of Clinton's most vocal supporters are already fretting about Stein's impact on the November election. With the very real possibility that the Philadelphia convention will be hotly contested, observers like Times columnist Paul Krugman have been sounding the alarm about Bernie's legions going "full Nader"; Mother Jones's David Corn is tweeting that "it's hard to take serious any Dem or prog[ressive] Sanders supporter who says s/he won't vote HRC over Trump."
Stein, a physician, has written extensively about the impact of environmental toxins on public health. And while she cloaks her assessments in a soothing manner, there's no denying that her view of things is pretty bleak: As her campaign website puts it, "We are being battered by unemployment, inequality, poverty, injustice, endless war, impending climate catastrophe, and a broken, corrupt political system." So much for the audacity of hope.
As Stein explains it, sites like the Gowanus would serve as central stages for the enactment of the so-called Green New Deal, a climate-centered Marshall Plan to adapt the nation's infrastructure for the rising tides ahead. The Green New Deal promises to create 20 million jobs rebuilding roads, bridges, power grids, and water systems and would be enabled by the type of participatory budgeting process seen in many New York City Council districts, whereby residents help decide how funds are allocated.
The Green New Deal is significantly more ambitious than Bernie's already sizable infrastructure plan, which itself aims to add 13 million jobs, but in many respects the Greens and Bernie are closely aligned. Both offer comprehensive plans to reduce carbon emissions dramatically, and Stein, echoing Sanders, tells the Voice that "Hillary is in the hip pocket of the fossil fuel industry." She is also a firm advocate of Medicare-for-all and seconds Sanders's call for a "political revolution" against big-money interests.
So if Hillary captures the nomination, it's easy to see how Stein might become the default setting for disaffected Berners feeling lukewarm at best about sending a Clinton (let alone two) back to the White House. Stein received 470,000 votes as the Green Party candidate in 2012 — the highest number ever for a female U.S. presidential candidate. That number is well shy of Nader's 2.9 million votes as the Green candidate in 2000 (and, of course, only about 60 million or so short of what it takes to win the White House), but given the remarkable surge this year in electoral enthusiasm from the left, it's plausible that Stein could reach and perhaps surpass Nader's national mark in the general election. She has already been pitching her campaign as "plan B" for Bernie supporters. And she has made no secret of her willingness to join forces with Sanders, presumably on the Green ticket. In our conversation she points out that while Bernie has never been openly allied with the Greens, his brother (and fellow Brooklyn native) Larry Sanders is a leading figure in England's Green Party.
To date, Stein has heard only crickets from Vermont. When asked about an alliance with the Greens earlier this month in California, Bernie neither rejected nor embraced the idea. The Greens' national convention starts one week after the DNC, in Houston — which means Bernie could be feeling relatively...available. A Sanders-Stein ticket is not out of the question.
In the meantime, Stein will be formally nominated as the Greens' candidate at the New York State party convention on June 11 in Troy. And while Stein and the Greens will be hard-pressed to turn their critique into digestible soundbites, she remains a compelling candidate, at least for activist voters.
But even some sympathetic observers wonder whether the Greens are ready for prime time. "They still haven't shown that they are a serious party," says Doug Henwood, veteran left-wing economist and leading Hillary critic. Rather than focus on national campaigns, he says, the Greens should be targeting local, winnable races. A Green New Deal is necessary, Henwood agrees, but he cautions that the Democratic leadership is firmly against any sizable expansion of the public-sector workforce (even in the depths of the 2009 recession, Obama never pushed a New Deal–style jobs program).
Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, the Sunset Park–based climate justice group, is concerned about the Greens' weak efforts in organizing among people of color. Given that the U.S. will be a majority-minority country in the next few decades, Yeampierre says, "folks on the ground need to be on the front lines of agenda-setting." Stein's running mate in 2012 was Cheri Honkala, a Native American with a track record of organizing the poor in Philadelphia, but Yeampierre wants to see more comparable work in Brooklyn.
Stein is undeterred, and her campaign is definitely not built on the idea that the Democrats will move leftward. "Clintonism created Trump," she notes, pointing to voter discontent caused by the era of NAFTA and bank deregulation. "The lesser of two evils paves the way for greater evils," she adds, which suggests that she is more than willing to play a spoiler role. Such statements will drive the Clintonites bonkers, but Krugman and company also will have a hard time pegging Stein, who, importantly, does not call herself a socialist. "I'm a physician, not a politician," she says.
During our tour of Gowanus, we stop in at Big Reuse, a salvaged-goods emporium. There, Stein chats up an employee named Lavelle, an inquisitive 21-year-old from the Bronx. She listens intently as Lavelle describes the history of the organization, an early "green business" in Brooklyn. Then Stein begins talking up her plan to relieve the nation's 43 million indebted college students of their burden.
"That's one of the main reasons why I'm running for president," she says.
"Kinda like Hillary Clinton?" Lavelle replies.
"Yes," Stein says. "But a good one."
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