Historic Overview

By Mike Feinstein

Additional information about the history of our party is available in an article by Mike Feinstein which was published in Green Pages.

The Green Party is now in its fourth decade. Founded in 1984, the party has run a national ticket in every presidential election since 1996. In 2000, nominee Ralph Nader received nearly three million votes; in 2012, Jill Stein received the most votes for a woman in a presidential election in U.S. history. There have also been hundreds of Greens elected across the nation, from state legislatures and mayors down to local zoning boards.

The Idea of a Green Party

In May 1984, when progressive politics in the United States was fighting for survival, a Green Movement Committee was founded with the goal of “the formation of a Green political organization in the USA.” The committee declared, “To be effective, a Green political organization must originate from a broad base of support, from natural allies concerned with ecological politics and social justice, peace and non-violence, local and regional self-management and grassroots democracy.” That summer, the founding meeting of U.S. Greens took place in St. Paul, Minnesota.

According to Mark Satin, a journalist invited to cover the meeting, “About 50 of us were trying to think of a project that could help define us and put us on the political map. Everyone sensed that something important could come out of [the workshop designed to come up with the document]. A ‘collective brain’ seemed to take hold, and we began working together as one.” A committee was formed to draft a Values Statement from the notes, which resulted in a set of Ten Key Values that became a foundational basis for U.S. Greens going forward.

While the Green movement was just sprouting in America, it was taking root in West Germany. The U.S. Greens were inspired by the Four Pillars of the West German Greens: ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy, and non-violence. They also decided that, in the spirit of grassroots activism and democracy, the emerging party would go from the ground up, with local and state organizations having the most important role.

The First National Green Gathering at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1987 drew more than 600 attendees. At the conference, activists debated various forms of activism, and after the event, focus shifted to developing a set of policy approaches based upon the original Ten Key Values.

The Second National Green Gathering, held in Eugene, Oregon, in June 1989, centered on what would come to be called the “SPAKA” process -- Strategic Policy Approaches in Key Areas. SPAKA was essentially a participatory effort to formulate a national platform from the grassroots up. The Gathering also focused on an electoral strategy for the emerging party. A national Green Party Organizing Committee was founded several months later, in March 1990.

Building the Green Party

That turned out to be a key year for the party. In 1990, Green Jim Sykes received 3.4% of the vote in his Alaska gubernatorial run. Nationwide, 21 Greens ran for office, with nine elected -- six in California, where a massive voter registration drive was underway, with the goal of registering at least 103,000 Greens to qualify for 1992 ballot access.

In 1991, the emerging party adopted the name The Greens/Green Party USA (G/GPUSA). But within a year, tensions began to surface over whether the new structure fairly represented all state Green Parties, which was in part a question of how “membership” was defined. For example, in some states, a person could simply register as a Green voter and be considered a member of that state party without any other requirements. However, the G/GPUSA structure required members to pay dues to the national party to be considered a member, even if the state party did not require dues.

Still, the party was having more and more successes. In 1994 in New Mexico, Green Roberto Mondragon received more than 10% of the vote in his run for governor, and Green Cris Moore was elected to the Santa Fe City Council. The next year, the Green Gathering ‘95 took place in Albuquerque, where plans to organize Green parties in 40 states and nominate a 1996 national ticket were discussed.

Consumer advocate and progressive activist Ralph Nader, who had appeared regularly on the Gallup Poll list of most admired Americans regularly throughout the 1970s, became the first Green Party presidential candidate, winning nearly 700,000 votes despite appearing on the ballot in just 22 states and limiting total campaign spending to $5,000. (By contrast, the Libertarian ticket, on the ballot in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, spent nearly a million dollars and received just 485,000 votes.) Nader’s running mate was Anishinaabeg Native American activist Winona LaDuke, who two years earlier had been listed among Time magazine’s 50 most promising leaders under age 40.

Less than two weeks after the 1996 election, the Association of State Green Parties (ASGP) was founded with 13 states joining in. From 1997 to 1999, as new state Green Parties continued to form, a highly competitive environment between the ASGP and the G/GPUSA began to develop in terms of whom which state parties would affiliate with which organization. Starting in 1999, some members attempted to gain consensus around plans to unify the two national organizations, but the struggle continued until after the 2000 presidential election, and in some ways, to the present day.

National Prominence, Local Victories

The year 2000 was a watershed year for the Green Party. The June national convention in Denver again nominated a Nader/LaDuke ticket, which received more than 2,883,000 votes nationwide that fall, or about three percent of the total. Some polls that summer showed Nader as high as six percent, and it is possible that if the national race between the Democratic and Republican nominees had not been so close, he could have received millions more votes.

That year, a record 282 Greens ran for office nationwide, with 46 elected. In addition, the Denver convention revised the original Ten Key Values to what they are today: Grassroots Democracy, Social Justice and Equal Opportunity, Ecological Wisdom, Non-violence, Decentralization, Community-Based Economics and Economic Justice, Feminism and Gender Equity, Respect for Diversity, Personal and Global Responsibility, and Future Focus and Sustainability. These values were cited in the creation of the Global Greens charter between 72 national Green parties in 2001.

The Green Party of the United States

In July 2001, the Association of State Green Parties voted to change its name to the Green Party of the United States (GPUS) and apply for recognition of national committee status by the Federal Election Commission.

The party was also finding success elsewhere. In 1999, Green candidate Audie Bock was elected the California state legislature in a special election even though her rival outspent her by more than 16 to one. In 2002, Green John Eder was elected to the Maine House of Representatives with 65% of the vote. The next year, he was voted “Portland’s Best Politician” by readers of the Portland Phoenix. He was re-elected in 2004, despite redistricting intended to gerrymander him out of his seat. (Two more Greens would later serve as state legislators: New Jersey Democrat Matt Ahearn switched to the Green Party in 2003, and Richard Carroll of Arkansas would be elected as a Green in 2008.)

The success of the 2000 Nader campaign had an ironic backlash among progressives -- some on the left faulted Nader and the Green Party for the defeat of Democrat Al Gore. In 2004, the Greens nominated attorney David Cobb for president and labor activist Pat LaMarche for vice president. Cobb, a longtime Green leader, pledged to use the presidential campaign primarily to build the party. His campaign’s goals included increasing Green Party membership, helping local candidates and initiatives, and creating state and local chapters where they did not yet exist.

Cobb also felt that Greens should emphasize the need for Instant Runoff Voting, and that if there were a relatively “progressive” Democratic candidate, most Green resources should be focused on those states where the Electoral College votes are not “in play” (which is most states). He saw this as necessary for Greens to appeal to a broad swath of the population.

Nader also ran for president again in 2004, saying that he would run as an independent and not a Green, but would accept the Green Party’s “endorsement” if offered. Emotions ran high on both sides of the nomination battle. This led to a division among party activists and a low final showing for the Cobb/LaMarche ticket.

But the party recovered in 2006, with 66 victories nationwide including the election of Gayle McLaughlin as Mayor of Richmond, California, a city of 100,000. In addition, LaMarche received nearly 10% of the vote in her run for governor of Maine, while Green Rich Whitney won 10% of the vote in his Illinois gubernatorial run.

Also in 2006, local Green parties placed resolutions on local ballots across the country endorsing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. These received more than eight million votes in favor.

In 2008, the Green Party nominated former U.S. representative Cynthia McKinney for president. McKinney had spent 12 years in the federal legislature, compared to just four for Democratic nominee Barack Obama. With Nader making yet another independent run, the ticket received just under 162,000 votes.

While many progressives had backed Obama in 2008, the continuation of Bush-era policies on Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of killer drones in the Middle East, and the broken promise to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison -- as well as the failure to prosecute anyone for the 2008 financial collapse and other disappointments -- led many to seek an alternative when Obama sought re-election.

Making History

In 2012, the party nominated Jill Stein, a physician and two-time nominee for Massachusetts governor, for president. Stein was nominated on the first ballot at the Baltimore convention over television personality Roseanne Barr and several other candidates. Anti-poverty activist Cheri Honkala was nominated for vice president.

In October 2012, Stein and Honkala arrived at the site of the second presidential debate between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. Stein asserted that as the nominee of an FEC-recognized party on enough state ballots to win the presidency, she should be included. Both were arrested for “disorderly conduct” and were detained, in Stein’s words, “in tight plastic restraints, tightly secured to metal chairs,” for “about eight hours.”

The Stein/Honkala ticket received nearly 470,000 votes in 2012, three times the Green Party’s showing four years earlier. It was the highest number of general election votes for president ever received by a female candidate.