Running for real change in Maine

November 13, 2014

Owen Hill, a member of the International Socialist Organization in Portland, Maine, agreed to step in late in the race to become the Green Party's candidate for the state Senate seat in the 28th district. Given his lack of previous experience with elections and the short timeframe, he thought 10 percent would be a good showing. After Election Day last week, though, he ended up with 26.97 percent of the vote, matching the total of the winning Democratic candidate's Republican challenger in the previous election.

Here, Owen talks about the people he talked to and the lessons he learned by putting forward a left-wing political alternative in a local election.

STANDING IN their driveway on a late-summer day in Westbrook, Maine, I talked with Tina and Shelly for just under 30 minutes.

Tina was out of work. She had been for over two years, and she knew that wasn't likely to change soon. She had worked since was 12, but now, in her mid-30s, she had suffered the twin blows of a bad economy and a difficult battle with multiple sclerosis.

Tina's husband, who works at Fairpoint, a local telecommunications company, was now the couple's sole provider--and he and his fellow union members were facing down the threat of a company lockout after refusing to accept deep cuts to their pay and benefits after a year of negotiations with the company.

Things were going better for Shelly, Tina's downstairs neighbor, but not by much. In her late 20s, Shelly was thankful to still be working. But even as a professional social worker with a master's degree in social work--and the accompanying debt--she was having trouble keeping ahead of rent and student loan payments. Shelly was overworked, underpaid and, like so many Americans today, just treading water.

Owen Hill with campaign supporters in Maine
Owen Hill with campaign supporters in Maine

I was talking to Shelly and Tina because I was a candidate for the state Senate in Maine from their district. At this point, still early in my four-month campaign, I was in the middle of qualifying for clean-elections funding. This is one of the remaining pieces of what used to be a robust public financing system in the state of Maine. And it's one reason that the Green Party, the first state chapter of which was founded in Maine 30 years ago, has been able to build and sustain itself despite the challenges that face third parties.

But clean-elections funding is also tremendously difficult to qualify for. In order to do so, a state Senate candidate has to show they have real support by collecting $5 contributions from 175 voters residing in the district. For an experienced activist versed in asking people for contributions for political causes, this works out to just over 80 hours of door-to-door canvassing.

It was the third week in August, and I was getting down to the wire for my qualifying time period. Candidates in Maine typically have four months to qualify, but running as a replacement candidate, my campaign had just begun three weeks earlier. I had one week left to collect another 70 contributions, and I was starting to stress. I took a week and a half off from work--the only point during my campaign when I wasn't working full time--to make sure I finished on time.

But it was stories like those of Shelly and Tina that kept me going for that week, not to mention the next two-and-a-half months. And it was their reaction to my story--who I was, why I was running, and how I thought ordinary people could change the world for the better--that made my campaign as successful as it ended up being.

WHEN I set out to run for state senate, I knew I was facing long odds. My opponent, Anne Haskell, was no slouch. A politically powerful Democrat in Maine, Haskell was elected to her first political office back in 1988, the year before I was born. Now, at the apex of her career, she is the assistant majority leader in the state Senate and a ranking board member of one of the state's largest local banks. Anne had experience, connections and the power of a major party backing her--in short, everything that I lacked.

To run against someone like Anne Haskell is audacious. To run against someone like her when you're 25, a third-party replacement candidate and full-time customer service rep is downright crazy. You have to be ready to lose, and lose pretty bad.

So when I set out to run for the state Senate I had hoped for 10 percent of the vote. I ended up doing much better--winning just under 27 percent.

I think this success was for a couple big reasons, few having much to do with me in particular. In fact, in some ways, I was the greatest obstacle to my own campaign. If nothing else, the sheer lack of time and experience on electoral campaigns prevented me from doing better than I might have otherwise.

So what accounted for the relative success of my campaign?

First, shortly after I entered the race, the Republican candidate dropped out. Running in a two-person race is definitely a game-changer for third-party candidates. It opens up possibilities that don't exist otherwise. Without the threat of "spoiling" the election, voters don't have to worry about electing the "greater evil" and so are free to vote for the policies or personalities they like best.

Additionally, if voters are unhappy with the party in power and want to cast a "throw the bums out" vote against the person in office, you're the only other choice. This is a significant advantage almost never afforded to third-party candidates, and shouldn't be underestimated. But by itself, it doesn't account for my relative success and the support I received from over a quarter of the district.

The second major factor in my favor is the relative strength of the Green Party in Maine, particularly in Portland, the largest city in the state.

Portland's Green Party is one of the strongest locals in the country. As of this election, party members and close party affiliates control two out of nine seats on the city council and three out of nine seats on the school board. Additionally, the Portland Greens spearheaded two successful city referendums in the last two years--the first legalizing marijuana in Portland, the second preventing the sale of an underused and underfunded public park to real estate developers.

A glance at the other Green candidates shows the strength of the party in Portland. Two candidates for state representative, both young radicals like myself, were running for the first time--one got 17 percent of the vote in a three-way race, the second got 28 percent in a two-way race. The other state Senate candidate in Portland got 18 percent in a three-person contest, doubling the share for the Republican in the race.

Finally, two candidates with ties to the Green Party ran for school board (in an officially non-partisan election). One received a quarter of the vote, while the second, a seasoned Green who previously served as a state representative for Portland, won his seat by two percentage points.

But again, it is no coincidence that Green Party members are generating this kind of support in Portland, Maine. The most important reason that voters are drawn to vote Green in Maine is that Green Party policies are tremendously popular--once you get a chance to actually talk about them. Running for a local office, that's probably the thing that sticks with you the most.

I MET people like Tina and Shelly all over my district. There was one low-income condo development I visited where I started a conversation with two older women, one of them named Liz. It just kept going and going until Liz called down to her neighbors to come and meet me. By the end of the conversation, I had talked with seven people living in the same development--they were all retired, and all angry as hell about the state of the world.

I told them that we needed to tax the rich, and they said, "Damn straight." I told them we needed a green jobs program to save the planet and put people back to work, and the floodgates opened with stories of out-of-work relatives and their worries about their grandchildren's futures.

When I talked about the idea of a guaranteed universal income of $600 a week, there was guaranteed universal excitement. But we did hit a stumbling block with that one. "But not for the immigrants, right?" came one of the responses. That one took some time to talk through, but by going over the issue and talking about the actual parasites--the 1 Percent who do nothing but have everything--rather than the scapegoats, and with a little help from Liz, most of the seven neighbors had come around before I left. They all agreed to vote for me.

Of course, this isn't always how it went. There were lots of people who thought I was unrealistic or too inexperienced or too young. And there were other people who never got over one stumbling block or another--racist, sexist or homophobic ideas that I challenged, but didn't change.

But most of the conversations ended on a good note--not always, but most of the time. And there were many more positives than negatives. Lots of people thanked me profusely for giving them an opportunity to talk to someone who they was finally making sense--for validating their frustrations and rekindling their hopes--even if I was interrupting their supper.

NOW THAT it's all said and done, what conclusions should we draw about my campaign?

I think the primary one to draw is that the possibilities for building left alternatives to the two-party system are very real and growing. These possibilities are in no way even across the country, But I think the results in Portland show that when dedicated groups of activists work over the long-haul to put forward a message that's relevant to ordinary people, and they stand in opposition to the corporate duopoly, they can mount real challenges to that system at a local and state level.

Indeed, Portland is likely one of a few unique situations across the country where the human and political capital has been built up to the point that a left-wing third party can expect results like mine from a campaign like mine--one seriously constrained by time and experience.

There are undoubtedly real dangers in this type of work--the growth of egos and the conflicts they create, reformist accommodations, and misuse of resources better spent elsewhere seem like they belong at the top of the list. But there are also real gains from building the kind of base that can turn out campaigns of the sort that I ran: state funding is one, but also important is the credibility that comes from engaging in official politics.

In many ways, the validation and hope that you can bring to working class people flows from your position as a "professional" in the business of making history. It's meaningful for people to feel that they are able to connect with a voice speaking things that they are thinking, but perhaps not yet saying, in an officially sanctioned capacity.

Now, I think back to that day in late August standing and speaking with Tina and Shelly. To the moment when they each--without hesitation, without resentment, in fact with nothing but enthusiasm--pulled out $5 so that I could have funding to run a real campaign.

When I think back on that, it brings to mind the words of the great American socialist Eugene Debs: "Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning."

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