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Maryland Green Party still struggles for a seat at the political table

Maryland Green Party still struggles for a seat at the political table
Schlakman, Maryland's first Green candidate with an office, apparently shaved his beard to get serious for election day. (Marie Machin)

It's important that I see Ian Schlakman's office, because it's apparently a first. It's a tiny, corner room on the second floor of 218 E. Lexington—just above Sidebar, where a Jack and Coke after 6 p.m. goes for $6—with a desk on the far side, a rectangular table in the middle, cans of Dr Pepper next to a cooler in one corner, and an air conditioner installed in the only window. The carpeting resembles the sort a college might use to cover its dormitory floors; three of the walls are painted a shade of green commonly found on golf courses. Schlakman says several internet-based crowd-funding campaigns have helped pay the rent.

"It's bittersweet when you're the first Green candidate to have an office," he says.

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Bittersweet indeed. Schlakman holds the distinction (he thinks) of being the first candidate in the 14-year history of the Maryland Green Party to have an official campaign headquarters. A young man of 29 with a slight paunch and a dark brown beard running from ear to ear and from his neck up to his jaw line, Schlakman considers this a point of pride in a now-10-month bid for elected office that will almost certainly end unsuccessfully on Nov. 4. That's the day when Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat and U.S. Congressman who has represented Maryland's 2nd congressional district since 2003, will win his seventh term in office.

"I have no illusions," Schlakman tells me on a Friday evening several weeks before Election Day while sitting in his corner office. "I don't think the Green Party is going to take over Congress."

It's highly unlikely the Green Party wins one seat in Congress, let alone stages a takeover. Although the Green Party isn't an unknown quantity in the U.S., most people's knowledge of the party is probably limited to Ralph Nader's failed 2000 campaign for president—and the story line, following Al Gore's defeat, that the Green Party, in nominating Nader, was responsible for siphoning votes away from the Democratic candidate. But over the last decade, Greens have started to shed their role as the punch line of American electoral politics. And the rise of Maryland's Green Party has mirrored that of its national counterpart. Of 71 elections in which Maryland Greens have run since formally establishing the party in 2000, they've won nine—town and city council positions all, except for one Board of Directors seat in Columbia in 2013—which isn't an insignificant achievement for a political party often caricatured as nothing more than tree-huggers living a hippie redux. Baltimore even played host in 2012 when the national Green Party held its Presidential Nominating Convention at the Holiday Inn on Lombard Street and chose Jill Stein as its candidate.

Winning an election of larger consequence has remained elusive for Maryland's Green candidates, and it's in this situation that Schlakman, a college dropout turned technology and cyber security entrepreneur, currently finds himself. His war chest is puny: less than $5,000. It's hard imagining the Sunday political talk shows giving a fair hearing to his campaign platform: Medicare for all; a basic income guarantee for all; free tuition at public universities; the dismantling of the U.S. security state that Maryland's 2nd District represents (Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, as well as a piece of Baltimore City, are located within District 2); and de-escalation of war in the Middle East.

"Around the world we're known as a bringer of war and violence. I'm tired of that. I'm absolutely tired of that," Schlakman says. "And if there was ever a reason to run as a Green or Independent, instead of a Democrat, I think that is the one key reason."

But while the Green Party nationally has managed to take advantage of social media and YouTube to trudge out of obscurity and circumvent the gatekeeper institutions in U.S. politics—the D.C. political machine and the national media, to name two—that focus solely on the Republican and Democratic parties, Maryland's Green Party continually fights for a place on the ballot. On a Saturday morning in late October, only a couple of weeks from Election Day, Schlakman meets with members of Baltimore City's Green Party at Red Emma's to talk about making phone calls to some 1,500 registered Baltimore Greens for a get-out-the-vote effort, but the more pressing topic is how the statewide ballot petition is coming along.

Maryland law stipulates that a new political party must show that its membership comprises at least 1 percent of registered voters or that the party's nominees for governor of Maryland received at least 1 percent of the total vote in the latest election. Because Maryland Greens have never commanded 1 percent of the votes in any gubernatorial election, it must turn into the State Board of Elections 10,000 verifiable signatures of registered Greens to remain on state ballots. In March 2010, the Green Party's ballot petition was rejected when the Board of Elections ruled that only 5,919 signatures of nearly 15,000 collected were valid. What might make a signature invalid? If you included your middle initial when you registered to vote, but forgot to subsequently write it on a ballot access petition, for example, your signature is nixed. A lawsuit filed in conjunction with the Maryland Libertarian Party was appealed all the way up to the Maryland State Court of Appeals, which ultimately ruled in May 2012 that signatures on ballot petitions are invalid if there are no exact matches in the state voter registration record, forcing the Green Party to collect over 4,000 more signatures in the span of a few months to remain on the 2012 ballot.

"We've never not been able to run candidates in an election year," says Brian Bittner, co-chair of the Maryland Green Party. "But we spend all of our time and resources just proving that we ought to be allowed to be a political party, which is ridiculous."

Maryland Greens are on statewide ballots this year, and according to Vince Tola, treasurer of the Baltimore City Green Party, more than 10,000 signatures to keep Greens on ballots in the next two election cycles have been collected so far. However, only about 70 percent of those signatures will end up being valid, so the goal is 15,000 signatures by the end of November, which will put the party ahead of the game before they have to be turned in at December's end.

That's time that could be better spent on passing out campaign literature, pressing the flesh, and raising money, a necessary evil if any Green candidate hopes to unseat an entrenched incumbent such as Dutch Ruppersberger. "The Democrats in Baltimore City need to be challenged," says Schlakman. "But it's definitely tougher to run as a Green."

Still, one gets the sense that Schlakman has run a professional campaign that Maryland Greens can be pleased with. He earned the endorsement of Jill Stein. He debated Ruppersberger, and unlike his Republican and Democratic opponents, managed to sound articulate on matters such as climate change and demilitarization without bloviating mindlessly or veering into lamentable, Dennis Kucinich-like territory. Schlakman's defeat, of course, is a foregone conclusion, but that's kind of the point. After all, what good is the current electoral system when outside voices can't break in?

"I don't know if there's a place for someone like me in the mainstream news cycles," says Schlakman from his office on that Friday evening in October. "You got to be sincere. You have to be who you are. And this is who I am."

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