The day after the Green Party’s Annual National Meeting concluded I was in Traverse City, Michigan on three hours sleep. It was worth the sleep deprivation.
The July 29 visit was organized by Tom Mair, a former Green Party member of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners who is now running for a seat on the City Commission of Traverse City in the 2019 election.
We started with a campaign meeting with a dozen supporters at Horizon Books, an independent bookstore. We talked about the issues in 2020 and building the Green Party.
Then we took the free public bus to the monthly meeting of Poets meet Musicians, an event that Tom has co-presented for over three years.
I guess you have to be ready for anything running for president. The meeting asked the presidential candidate present to come to the mike. I don’t sing or play an instrument. I read a lot of non-fiction, but little poetry. But when I was called up after the reading of a poem lamenting our culture in the age of Trump, I thought of the one poem that has always stuck with me, Langston Hughes’ 1936 “Let America Be America Again.” I described it as the answer made 80 years ago to Trump’s racist MAGA rants today. I remembered one summarizing passage from the poem:
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
By then Tom had found the poem on his smart phone and handed it to me. I read the whole poem and it seemed to uplift us all.
Next Tom took me to a free film at a beautiful outdoor site. The showing was a trial run for the equipment for the week-long Traverse City Film Festival that was to begin the next day. The festival is a production of filmmaker Michael Moore, whose primary residence is Traverse City. Tom was hoping to introduce us. We didn’t run into Michael Moore, but Tom did introduce me to filmmaker Tia Lessen. Tia co-produced with Carl Deal two Michael Moore films, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, and their own award-winning documentary about the Katrina and New Orleans from the victims’ point of view, Trouble the Water.
Tom Mair is a model for Green candidates. He has demonstrated that persistence pays dividends. Greens need to have a multi-year long-term strategy to build support. One-off campaigns are not going to get it done.
The bylaws of the Traverse Bay Watershed Greens were approved in September 2000 with a mission of electoral education and action. Tom lost in his first four tries for county commissioner in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014. But his vote grew steadily from 30% in 2008 to 45% in 2014.
Then in 2016, Tom won with 53% of the vote. It was a striking progressive win on the dark day of Trump’s election, to which Grand Traverse County contributed substantially, with Trump beating Clinton 53% to 40% while the Libertarian’s Johnson received 4% and the Greens’ Stein received 1%.
Tom lost his seat in 2018 during the mid-term Democratic wave election, despite his fellow Traverse City voter Michael Moore publicly filling out his ballot with a vote for Tom Mair on Seth Myer’s NBC late-night show. Tom received only 15% compared to 33% for the Republican and 51% for the Democrat. 2018 is the first year in memory that Democrats were elected to the county board.
But Tom is coming back for more in 2019 with a run for a seat on the City Commission of Traverse City.
Grand Traverse County has a population of about 92,000 and Traverse City about 15,000. They are in the northwest part of the lower peninsula of Michigan (the “hand”). The economy is based on tourism, health care, education, and growing sectors of filmmaking, brewing, and tech firms. It has a relatively high proportion of independent small businesses.
Tom’s campaigns and tenure in office have featured a strong emphasis on environmental policies, such as protecting the Boardman River, and fighting Republican austerity measures, for example, restoring staffing for the Animal Control Division, which had predictably led to problems, and casting the sole vote against the abolition of the county planning commission. He worked on improving conditions in the county jail, including funding for mental health services and improved food, and raising the working conditions and morale of county employees after years of budget cuts.
Tom brought to his campaigns experience as a Traverse City Parks & Recreation Commissioner, as a Manager setting up airport screening and security systems with the US Department of Transportation, and as a citizen who regularly participates in local public hearings and meetings. He has worked in
construction, managed record stores in Traverse City, and is now a performing artists’ representative. His wife, Susan Odgers, is a disability rights activist and serves on the Traverse Area Library Board and the Traverse City Human Rights Commission.
As I went around town with Tom and his wife, it was clear they are well-rooted in the community. Many people greeted Tom and wished him good luck in his campaign to for the City Commission.
Tom won his seat in an overwhelmingly Republican district where the Democrats had given up running serious campaigns. We talked about how Greens can do that in similar districts around the country.
Because of partisan gerrymandering, most districts in the US are one-party districts without competitive elections because one party has a strong majority of supporters. The smaller major party in those districts – generally Democrats in rural America and Republicans in urban America – often doesn’t even try to compete.
This situation opens up the opportunity for Greens to quickly become the second party in both rural and urban districts across the country. Being the second party gets the Greens into the debate and that is half the battle. Most of our policy positions have majority support. The major parties can’t solve major problems. Most people don’t vote because they are so disgusted at the legalized bribery of major party politicians by private campaign financing, especially the real estate development industry in local elections. Greens can build a majority voting base by engaging with these people and bring them into the electoral process.
Greens can use their position as the major opposition party to make their case to the voters and become the first party in local districts across the country. On that foundation, Greens can begin electing Green caucuses in state legislatures and Congress.
Tom Mair has shown us how to do it. I hope more Greens will follow his example.