Don't bother Kent Mesplay with notions like, "Ralph Nader helped elect George W. Bush." He wants none of that.
Urging Green Party sympathizers to go Democrat so as not to give Republicans a leg up "are words of consensus builders, of pragmatic, cautious Greens-words of defeat," said Mesplay, who's hoping to beat the other Green Party candidates for the presidential nomination when Californians go to the polls March 2.
"To run with anything less than the drive to elect a Green president is to run with half a heart," he said. "Let us be bold with our power."
A resident of Mira Mesa, Mesplay works full-time as an air-quality inspector with the San Diego Air Pollution Control District. But he's spending his weekends campaigning in an "all-out run" for the presidency, recognizing that doing so, in theory at least, hurts the Democratic Party.
Mesplay, 41, was born in the U.S., but grew up in Papua New Guinea. He earned a doctorate from Northwestern University in biomedical engineering and became active with the Greens in 1995 as treasurer of the San Diego Green Party Council and as co-chair of its communications committee, according to his website, presidentkent.org.
Don't bother telling him he doesn't stand a chance of becoming the country's next leader.
"I will absolutely run all the way through," he said. "The predominant attitude among the Greens is that we can't win. But how the hell are you going to run a campaign that even attracts voters and helps build the party if you say you can't win?"
Mesplay's primary goal is to make it to the debates this fall where he believes third-party candidates deserve a chance to be heard. First, however, Greens must garner 5 percent of the vote-the Green Party has just about a third of a million people registered nationwide. They're growing fast, however, and Mesplay believes his party's platform scares Democrats who, he says, recognize that Greens "stand for a lot of things that they no longer stand for." He's hoping to tap into this shift in ideology and win some votes. "There are a lot of people who don't vote because they're frustrated, they're apathetic, they're angry," he said, "and I intend to tap into that and that would give me a landslide if I could even get a third of these people."
The candidate acknowledges that he lacks political experience but counts it as an advantage. "We're trying to change the system," he said. "We're not trying to be a part of it." Democrats and Republicans are too closely allied with corporate interests and tend not to advocate for the people, he added. For example, Mesplay emphasizes the need to move toward national energy independence based upon renewable energy. He believes the U.S. has the capabilities to do this, but, he said, "we just don't have the political will.
"The motto of my employer, the county of San Diego, is: "The noblest motive is for public good,' and our government doesn't work that way."
Mesplay calls himself a fiscal conservative and says he's been attracting former Republicans and Libertarians with his stance in favor of chipping away at the power of the federal government.
"I'm a long shot," he said. "I'm not delusional, I know it's next to impossible. But things can change very quickly, especially if more people become frustrated with George Bush in part because of his fiscal mismanagement. At the very least, it's good for the Green Party to have presidential candidates because it helps encourage Greens to run for other ticket positions on the ballot.
"We have to accept the risk that there may be a repeat of 2000," Mesplay said, "and I'm willing to take it. Bush is a dangerous man. As Peter Camejo says, "the only way to defeat Bush is to run against him.'"
In his bid for his party's nomination, Mesplay will be up against Camejo, the Green Party's favorite son who ran a visible campaign in California's gubernatorial recall election, boosting the Green Party's recognition as a viable third party. In an interview with CityBeat about the 2004 presidential race, Camejo took a page from Ralph Nader's 2000 election playbook: "This is not an election. You're forced to choose between corporations-do you want the blue or the red version? Kerry voted for the Patriot Act and voted for the war. What's the difference between that and Bush?" he said.
Becoming a U.S. senator, Camejo said, means pledging to uphold the Constitution, and Kerry, along with his fellow Democrats, has not fared well on that score. In fact, Camejo argued, the Patriot Act and the vote to give Bush the power to invade Iraq were both illegal.
Kerry has defended his Bush-friendly votes by saying the President broke promises, but, Camejo said, "if Bush can fool you, you shouldn't be president."
He and Mesplay agree that running a Green candidate for president is the best way to reach the public with the party's message. "The Green argument is so much more appealing" than what you'll find in our predominantly two-party system, Camejo said. "If we don't get out and talk, nobody else will."
The national Green Party is the fastest-growing minor party in the U.S. Since being founded in 1996 as a way to promote the interests of the state Greens, party membership has more than doubled. Currently, there are 204 Greens holding elected office nationwide, with 67 in California and five in San Diego County. The Green platform is broad, emphasizing grassroots democracy free of corporate influence, ecological wisdom and social justice, including a so-called Blue-Green pro-labor agenda, equal opportunity, non-violence and community-based economics.
Despite their gains, the Greens are in a quandary. Many on the left say a vote for a Green presidential candidate is, in effect, a vote for the Republican nominee. Nader is still blamed in some quarters for Al Gore's loss to Bush in 2000. The Green Party itself is encountering dissension among its ranks, including one of Mesplay's opponents for the Green presidential nomination, David Cobb.
"The only thing worse than President Bush being re-elected would be if the American people believed that the Green Party was responsible for him being re-elected," said Cobb in a recent Green Party debate held at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
Cobb plans to monitor the swing states and pull out if it appears his presence will spoil it for the Democrat. On his website, Cobb acknowledges that he can't win the White House but predicts that the Greens, with their social-justice platform, will prove formidable presidential contenders within the next few decades.
The existing electoral system caters to the two major parties, making it difficult for third parties to get on the ballot and requiring at least five percent of the vote to earn federal funding for that party in the next election. Changing the system is near impossible because those in power have nothing to gain.
After the recent run-off in the San Francisco mayoral race, in which Green Party candidate Matt Gonzales lost to the big-money campaign of Gavin Newsom, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said, "I respect the Greens and the enthusiasm that they bring to the political process.
"However," she said, "the fight in this country is between the Democrats and the Republicans and in order for the Democrats to prevail, to be strong-having the mayor of San Francisco be a Democrat is important to us."
The United States is the last democracy with such a backward election system, Camejo charged. "The U.S. is the last bastion of a winner-take-all, un-democratic election system," he said.
"After the gubernatorial election, we had endless e-mails from people apologizing for not voting Green and we e-mailed them back and said to say 10 Hail Marys," Camejo said, adding that he urges people to register Green and vote Green because it's the only way for them to get the power to implement free elections and affect change. The government these days treats voting like a game, he said.
"The masters have given us a choice and now we should go and try to figure out which is better. All you gotta do is run Hitler and we'll vote for Mussolini."
Mesplay said the way to avoid having Bush re-elected is by reaching out to people who have not registered to vote and bring them into the Green Party.
"There's a huge pool out there to draw in that won't create the situation whereby we would by chipping away at the Democratic Party," he said. "There are Republican Greens, Libertarian Greens, those who aren't Green but vote Green. But my goal is to help the party bring in the youth."
Camejo agrees with Mesplay's thinking. He said half of the population didn't vote in the 2000 election, and picking on 90,000 in Florida-blaming them for spoiling the election for Gore-doesn't make sense. "Democrats are the biggest whiners," he said. "When Perot ran and Clinton won, the Republicans didn't complain."
Nonetheless, some in the progressive press have pleaded with the Green Party and Ralph Nader to stay out of the race. Publications such as The Nation and Mother Jones-as well as MoveOn.org-who have historically supported independent voices, have stressed that de-Bushing the White House takes precedence over party-building this time around. "Context for an independent presidential bid is completely altered from 2000, when there was a real base for a protest candidate," says an open letter from The Nation's editors to Ralph Nader, who announced Sunday on Meet the Press that he will indeed run for president this year, but as an independent, not a Green.
Eli Pariser, creator of the online petition 9-11peace.org and the campaign director of MoveOn.org, was quoted in Rolling Stone, saying, "Tactically speaking, polemical messages aren't going to get you very far. They alienate swing voters and that's how the left defeats itself.... I don't want to be a part of the great leftist martyrdom story where we say, "We fought the good fight and lost,'" he said. "I want to win."
But Kent Mesplay said he intends to do just that. "I'm aware of the risk and I don't want the term spoiler to be placed upon my shoulders," he said. "That's why I'm running to win."