Greens’ election success challenges Illinois’ two-party system

By Bonnie Stiernberg

For many years, the Green party has been seen as a spoiler for Democrats, a gift to Republicans and a target for late-night comedians. However, when gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney took home an unprecedented 11 percent of the vote on Election Day, many people were forced to question the future of Illinois’ time-honored two-party system.

“Rich Whitney’s showing is a huge success,” said senior in LAS and Campus Greens Vice President Susan Rodgers. “Eleven percent is huge. That’s double digits. We had no idea he would even be on the ballot.”

By receiving more than five percent of the vote, Whitney legally established the Greens as a statewide party. This will give the Green party easier access to the ballot for the next four years. For this past election, the Greens had to collect 25,000 signatures in 90 days in order to get on the ballot.

The party works on a grass-roots level, and the University Campus Greens played a big part in Whitney’s campaign. They helped with the petition drive, went door-to-door, and handed out literature on Election Day, Rodgers said.

“Most of our efforts are done by volunteers,” she said. “The Campus Greens played a huge role locally.”

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Many believe that Whitney’s success is a direct result of dissatisfaction with the two major candidates.

Rodgers, who served as president of the Campus Greens for two years before taking over as vice president this year, said that the Whitney campaign grabbed more attention when voters became “overwhelmed by the partisan bickering” of Democratic incumbent Rod Blagojevich and Republican candidate Judy Baar Topinka.

Frank Calabrese, a sophomore in LAS and the internal vice president of the College Republicans who ran Topinka’s campaign in Champaign County, agrees with Rodgers.

“Generally, in campaigns, third party candidates do very well when major candidates go negative with their advertising,” he said.

Justin Cajindos, senior in LAS and president of the College Democrats, agreed with Calabrese’s theory that negative ads played a factor.

“I think that many voters were turned off by the negative commercials aired by both the Blagojevich and Topinka campaigns,” he said.

Because both the Green and Democratic parties are both relatively liberal, many people are quick to label the Green party a spoiler, said Cajindos.

“I really do think that in many cases the presence of Green Party candidates on the ballot hurts the Democratic candidate’s chances of winning, especially in a tight race,” he said. “There is little doubt that Ralph Nader running as a Green gave Bush the election (in 2000) . If Greens really cared about advancing a progressive legislative agenda, they would work from the inside to push the viable progressive party, the Democrats, to the left.”

This year, Republicans were accused of attempting to steal votes from the Democrats when Republican Pennsylvania incumbent Rick Santorum funded the candidacy of a local Green candidate.

However, the Green party maintains an ideological distance from the Democrats.

“We’re the only party that’s been against the Iraq war since its inception, and unlike Democrats, we don’t just oppose the ban on gay marriage, we support gay marriage,” Rodgers said.

In Illinois specifically, Republicans faced competition from the Green party as well, Calabrese said,

“Rich Whitney and Judy Baar Topinka were competing for the same vote, and that’s the anti-Blagojevich vote,” he said.

Allegations of corruption in the Blagojevich administration may have aided Whitney’s campaign, said Steven Seitz, associate professor of political science at the University,

“There is a small core of Green party voters, but there also was a Democratic defection to the Greens among voters worried about corruption in the current administration,” Seitz said.

Rodgers is optimistic about the future of the Greens in Illinois:

“I think (Whitney’s showing) says a lot for the establishment of third parties. The Illinois Green Party membership has gone way up since the election … Whether or not we win any big elections, our presence will be known.”

However, Cajindos and Calabrese remain skeptical. Cajindos said he believes that “the Greens need to be taken seriously as a political force,” but added that Democrats “should not fret too much, because Democrats with Green opposition will still win as long as they run good campaigns.”

Calabrese said he believes that despite a strong local showing (Whitney received roughly 16 percent of the vote in Champaign county and 25 percent in Winnebego and Boone counties), the Green party remains “statewide just a protest-vote party.”

“I know a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans who voted for Rich Whitney because he wasn’t Blagojevich or Topinka,” he added.

Seitz said he thinks the Green party may lose voters to the Democrats in the future.

“As a general rule, one of the major parties will absorb more and more of the appealing elements of the third party, leaving it without an effective constituency,” Seitz said. “Expect the Democrats to pick up more and more of the Green party issues over the next decade or so.”