Green Party holds presidential debate in San Francisco
Delfin Vigil, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008
(01-13) 20:01 PST San Francisco -- Withdraw from Iraq immediately. Eliminate the No Child Left Behind law. Legalize marijuana.
Those were just some of the goals stated by candidates at the Green Party presidential debate Sunday in San Francisco.
About 800 people of varying ages, economic backgrounds and political parties attended the "Presidential Debate that Matters" at the Herbst Theatre, where the five Green presidential hopefuls spent more time agreeing with one another than actually debating.
"We're not so much against each other as we are for each other," said one of the candidates, Kent Mesplay, an environmental engineer who also ran for the Green Party nomination in 2004. "We have to be because by no means is (the two-party system) a level playing field."
The nearly three-hour event was co-moderated by "Peace Mom" Cindy Sheehan and KPFA radio host Aimee Allison, who allowed the candidates timed answers to questions about the war in Iraq, illegal immigration, the farm bill and health care, among other subjects.
Nearly every answer was greeted with nods of agreement from the other candidates waiting their turns and by roars of applause from the audience, giving the forum a pep rally feeling.
Bay Area elected officials who are Green Party members - including Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and San Francisco Board of Education member Mark Sanchez - also took the lecturn, urging the crowd to see the Green Party as the most progressive political option and not as a wasted vote.
"Please. This is serious. This is not a joke. This is about starting a real movement in this country," said candidate Cynthia McKinney to a standing ovation.
The former Democratic congresswoman from Georgia who converted to the Green Party last year was, at one point during the debate, acknowledged as the front-runner. The party's presidential nominee will be selected in July in Chicago.
The other three candidates included Jared Ball, a hip-hop scholar and assistant professor of communications at Morgan State University in Baltimore; Kat Swift, a 34-year-old dread-locked activist from San Antonio who said she will "be just old enough to be president by the time of the next election"; and actor and filmmaker Jesse Johnson from West Virginia.
Getting the Green Party candidate on the ballot in every state is the priority, according to the candidates, who repeatedly urged the audience to register Green after the debate.
"Can the Green Party get beyond being blamed for Bush coming into power?" asked Mesplay, sarcastically referring to the argument that the Green Party takes votes away from Democrats. "We're not the ones who spoiled the American vote. Bush is."
The candidates' answers ranged from dramatic sound bites to simple solutions.
When asked about the farm bill, Swift's answer was not that of a typical politician:
"I'm not familiar with the details of the farm bill. From what I've heard from farmers is that it doesn't work. I would get farmers together and ask them for the answers."
Ralph Nader, the 2000 Green Party presidential nominee who has yet to announce his intentions for 2008, was scheduled to participate in Sunday's debate, but he did not. Nader showed up late for the event and addressed the crowd for about 10 minutes
Former San Francisco mayoral candidate and Green Party member Matt Gonzalez was scheduled to co-moderate the event but could not make it due to illness, according to event spokesman Cress Vellucci. Gonzalez received the loudest applause when his name was announced as one of several elected officials from the Green Party.
At least three hecklers who interrupted the forum also received a few claps of approval.
The event was organized in the past month by several Bay Area Green Party activists who spread the word through advertisements in local weekly newspapers and on Air America Radio. About 760 paid the $10 to $20 suggested donation to attend the forum, while an additional 50 to 100 got in free, according to Vellucci.
Mini Kahlon, a 38-year-old San Francisco resident, came to the event at the suggestion of a friend.
"I had hoped for a higher caliber of interaction on the issues," said Kahlon. "There was a lot more cheerleading than I had expected. But I like the idea of a debate that doesn't only include Democrats and Republicans."
E-mail Delfin Vigil at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A - 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle