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Alaska Success Encourages Greens’ Move into Electoral Politics

March 26, 1991

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Color Alaska Green.

That might be an overstatement; the Green Party of Alaska garnered just 5,700 votes in last year’s gubernatorial election. But that was enough to give them official recognition, something the Greens - a loosely organized band of activists for environmental and other causes - are still seeking elsewhere.

″We tell everybody about Alaska and it raises our morale around the country,″ said John Rensenbrink of Cambridge, Mass., a member of the national Green Party Organizing Committee. ″It shows we’re on our way.″

The movement’s poster boy of the moment is Jim Sykes, a tall, bearded independent radio producer who successfully petitioned to get his party on Alaska’s November ballot, even as Green organizers elsewhere debated whether they should get involved in statewide politics.

Then, with running mate Jeanmarie Larson-Crumb, candidate Sykes won the 3 percent of the vote needed to win official recognition for the Greens.

″The Democrats and the Republicans get votes by not offending people. I got votes by being completely honest,″ said Sykes, 40.

In Europe, where the Green movement began, Greens built political parties and constituencies in many countries. In the United States, the movement has remained a loose collection of community activists who emphasize environmental protection, non-violence, health care and grass-roots change.

But encouraged by Alaska’s example, the national committee recently decided that the Green movement may have room for a national Green party. In 1992, they decided, the Greens will put forward a presidential candidate.

The Alaska Greens ″have helped put the Green Party on the map because the media and the public are so much more receptive to a political party,″ said Mindy Lorenz of Ventura, Calif., another member of the organizing committee.

She ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate for Congress and is a leader of a petition drive to win official party status for the Greens in California.

The Alaska Greens are too busy to crow much. It’s hard to build a new party in a state this large and this sparsely populated.

Representatives from Green groups held their first statewide convention in mid-March. Sykes, chairman of the state party, has opened a party office in Anchorage and is putting together a statewide computer network.

It’s hard to say how many Alaskans identify themselves as Greens, he said. About 800 people contributed small sums to Sykes’ campaign, and 300 to 500 people do volunteer work for Green groups.

After Sykes’ television exposure in gubernatorial debates, more people joined Green groups around the state. But the number remains small.

″We had 30 to 40 people before. Now there’s probably 100 people on our mailing list and anywhere from a dozen to 50 at any given meeting,″ said Joni Whitmore, a founding member of the Kachemak Green Movement in Homer - the oldest Green group in the state, though it is less than two years old.

″Patience is certainly required,″ said Whitmore. ″I don’t think anybody expects miracles overnight. It takes time for people to educate themselves.″

The Greens must continue to get 3 percent of the vote in general elections or lose their official state status. They barely squeaked by in November.

″Last time, I could say, ‘Give us the 3 percent.’ It was a simple message,″ Sykes said. ″I can’t do that now. We have to have perhaps a more powerful candidate or campaign.″

Green leaders stress that their agenda is broader than just environmentalism, and some of Sykes’ campaign literature makes a point of distinguishing the party from the environmental group Greenpeace.

Of all the candidates, Sykes alone opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He favored statewide health insurance. He proposed boosting small industry to make Alaska more self-sufficient when the oil runs out.

These stands placed him in competition with Democrats for liberal voters. Sykes said Democratic friends asked him to quit because he might hurt their candidate. No, he said - Green ideas will attract new voters and force the Democratic Party to pay attention.

″Democrats have always assumed they would get votes from environmentalists, from people interested in social change, and they can no longer count on that,″ Sykes said. ″One of the sticks is we can cost a Democrat an election.

″The Democrats may cry foul, but hey, it’s all part of the system of competitive politics.″

As it turned out, Sykes did not draw enough votes from Democrat Tony Knowles to prevent him from beating conservative Walter Hickel, a longtime Republican who ran on the Alaskan Independence Party ticket.

Sykes believes Hickels’ election will help the Greens by creating more controversy over environmental and social issues.

Hickel has promoted a crop of big capital projects, such as a railroad to the Yukon River and a new port near Anchorage. He has pushed oil development on the coastal plain of the refuge and in the Arctic Ocean. And he has tried to prune the budgets of social and municipal services.

″Wally Hickel’s probably the best ally the Greens have,″ Sykes said. ″We hope not too many people get hurt, but we think people are more active, more vigilant, more aware, and in the long run that’s going to benefit the Greens.″

Still, Sykes has no illusions about the Greens winning statewide elections at this point. He wants the party to be a gadfly, forcing other candidates to deal with things like his proposal for state health insurance.

But even gadfly politics, he learned, is expensive. Sykes’ campaign donations and expenses came out even, he said, at about $8,200.

″I’m quite new at this. I learned so much about how the system’s stacked against a third party - money’s a big factor,″ he said.

But if the Greens call on him, Sykes will run again. The sign in his living-room window reads, ″Jim Sykes - Vote Green for a Healthy Alaska.″ It hasn’t come down yet.

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