SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - The greening of American politics has taken on new meaning following an upset special election to fill an Assembly vacancy in California's San Francisco Bay area. Green Party member Audie Bock, 53, a single mother and East Asian scholar, bested the seasoned Democrat, Elihu Harris, former two-term Oakland mayor and six-term assemblyman, by just 327 votes out of 29,021 cast in late March, ending nearly 30 years of Democratic domination in the district.
Bock is the first Green Party nominee ever to win a legislative seat in the United States and the first third-party candidate to be elected to the state's legislature since 1917.
Political analysts are comparing her surprise victory to Reform Party member and former pro wrestler Jesse "the Body" Ventura's capture of the Minnesota governorship last November. The political upset comes on the heels of former-California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat-turned-independent, becoming Oakland's new mayor.
But, is Bock's success an anomaly or the sign of a trend? Some say it is an isolated incident, the result of unique circumstances; others say it illustrates the discontent of voters with the two-party system in America.
Tim Hodson, the director of the Center for California Studies, a political research institute based at California State University in Sacramento, said that he disagrees with Green Party claims that this marks the beginning of a new millennium and is a harbinger of the election of many more Greens.
"I strongly feel that in a year and a half Ms. Bock will be a footnote not a harbinger," Hodson said. "If she proves in the next year and a half to be an effective (enough) legislator to be reelected, then you can start talking about major trends."
Jacqueline Salit, an author and political consultant on independent candidates and parties, sees Bock's win as a sign that voters want more political options and a candidate who can bring reform to an arena dominated by two parties that have lost their vision.
Salit said that young people, especially, are driving the engine of political reform. A recent Gallup Poll shows that 41 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 consider themselves politically independent rather than Democrat or Republican. Among this group, only 1-2 percent belong to a specific third party while the rest are unaffiliated.
"Third parties are bringing political reform to the table, uniting people across the ideological spectrum." said Salit, whose forthcoming book on the contemporary history of third parties is called Reforming America. Bock was a political novice whose only other experience running for office dates to her high school days when she ran for class secretary. Harvard-educated, she worked as a part-time community college teacher for the past two decades specializing in East Asian studies. She was also an interpreter for the late Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa.
Her alliance with the environmentalist Greens began in 1996 when she volunteered for consumer-advocate Ralph Nader's short-lived presidential campaign. Although 64 Green Party members hold elected offices in 15 states, none is higher than county supervisor.
"I saw that I could make a difference by joining together with others who want to change the back-scratch, business-as-usual approach of big politics. I believe we can get better schools, cleaner air and water, quality health care, transportation, and housing for everybody, but we have to fight for it," Bock said.
A chain of unusual circumstances brought Bock to office. When Rep. Ron Dellums retired from Congress in February 1998, state Sen. Barbara Lee won Dellums' seat in a special election. Rep. Don Perata, then an Assembly member, won Lee's state Senate seat.
In this February's primary campaign to fill Perata's Assembly seat, Elihu Harris, who served as a state representative from 1979 to 1991 gained 48.7 percent of the votes, Bock garnered only 8.7 percent. There was no Republican candidate in the district, which consists of the largely black, 66 percent Democratic city of Oakland, and the wealthier surrounding towns of Alameda and Piedmont. Bock is a resident of Piedmont.
Harris could have been hurt in the primaries by his refusal to debate Bock. He has also been highly criticized in the media for what Bock campaign manager Greg Jan called "Chickengate."
In an effort to increase voter turnout in the February primary campaign, the state Democratic Party offered free chicken and potato salad in some precincts to voters who brought ballot receipts to a distribution center.
"A lot of people saw it (the dinner coupons) as unethical and a cynical ploy. If you are going to get out the vote why don't you do it in a more grassroots way instead of buying the vote?" said Michael Yarne, an East-Bay Green Party member and a Law student at UC Berkeley. "The chicken dinner also has some subtext of racism. The media more than anyone picked that up. It wasn't Bock's campaign that pushed that."
Lacking a clear majority of the votes to win in the primary, Harris and Bock headed to the general election where Bock won with 50.5 percent of the vote.
"There is no question that Ms. Bock provided an attractive, acceptable alternative to Elihu Harris. It gave voters a credible way to say no' to Harris. Had she not been as articulate, had she not campaigned, people who liked Harris simply wouldn't have voted," said Center for California Studies Director Tim Hodson.
Yarne said that voters were also frustrated with the series of special elections that were held in the past year and "having to go out and vote at odd times for hand-picked party candidates."
"The vote against Elihu was a vote against the Democratic machine of Oakland. She (Bock) represents a new face and she owes no one anything," said Yarne referring to Bock's low-budget $34,000 campaign, compared to Harris' $400,000.
On her first day on the job, clad in a green suit, and accompanied by her 14-year-old daughter and a group of supporters Bock rode the train to her swearing-in ceremony in Sacramento, underlining her support for mass transit.
It is too late in the session to introduce new bills, but the issues that top Bock's list are education, healthcare and the environment. Bock is also an avid supporter of campaign finance and political reform.
Third parties in America
Vermont is the only other state with third party representation in the legislature. In the state assembly in Montpelier, there are four members of the Progressive Coalition and one Libertarian who ran with Republican endorsement.
The Greens have been a dominant force in parts of Europe for a generation but in the United States have come close to winning state seats only in Hawaii and New Mexico. Previously, the closest the Greens have come to winning a partisan race in California was in 1992 when Green candidate Joe Desist won 13 percent of the vote in a three-way race for an Assembly seat in San Bernardino County.