It's tough to build a political party in a busy restaurant, with the sporadic din of the milkshake machine, the muted but constant roar of the soda cooler, and the occasional small child wanting to do "show and tell" with her anti-war sign stuck to a tree branch.
This week's meeting of the fledgling Howard County Green Party at Columbia's Blue Cow Cafe looked a lot like friends getting together in someone's kitchen to hash out the affairs of the day.
The 11 Greens who attended pushed a couple of tables together, ordered sandwiches for dinner and reviewed a dizzying array of issues from whom to back for president next year to a plan to remove invasive garlic-mustard plants from nearby Patapsco State Park to mark Earth Day next month.
"It's a challenge, but we do manage to get things done," said Lise Mendel, a member and organizer, whose husband, Steve Kramer, is county party coordinator - and whose daughter, Dorothy, 7, wanted to show off her sign as her older sister, Abby, 9, amused herself at another table.
"For me, the issues are really the point. It's all about principles," Mendel said, rather than the pursuit of political power.
With Democratic Maryland's election last year of conservative Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., not to mention equally conservative President Bush, this may not seem the time for a left-leaning group like the Greens to make much progress, even in traditionally liberal Columbia. But that has not discouraged local members - especially as they march to oppose the war in Iraq.
"I think people - especially in Maryland - are very frustrated because they feel the Democrats haven't spoken up and stood their ground. We are the only political party that has made a statement against the war," said Patricia Cruz, Maryland Green Party co-chairwoman.
The frustration over the war, she said, is helping the Greens attract new interest. "It's another way of getting your voice heard," she said.
There were 286 registered Howard County Green Party members Feb. 28, according to county elections board records, and about 5,000 statewide, compared with 1.5 million registered Maryland Democrats and more than 800,000 Republicans.
But if the county group seems minuscule, note that the Greens are the only alternative party certified in Maryland, according to Donna Duncan, director of the Election Management Division of the state elections board.
The Reform, Constitution and Libertarian parties all lost their state certification Jan. 31 for lack of 10,000 signatures on petitions, which the Greens had taken pains to gather rather than concentrating on running candidates.
Fourteen Green Party chapters are operating in Maryland, with the largest concentrations of just more than 1,000 each in Baltimore City and Montgomery County. The Green Party had candidates who ran for local offices in Anne Arundel, Carroll and Charles counties last year, as well as state comptroller, without success. Nationally, the Greens are active in 36 states with just more than 200,000 members.
Maryland Greens think they are percolating, but Donald F. Norris, a political science expert at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, believes the Greens' chances of becoming a national political force to be reckoned with are "slim to none," because of U.S. history.
Wendy Fiedler, Howard's Democratic Party chairwoman, said she knows the Greens are there, but "I don't see a big enough registration of Green Party members" to see them as rivals, though the Greens typically draw voters from disaffected Democrats.
Beth Hufnagel, 49, a former accountant and Howard resident who ran for state comptroller as a Green last year, got 3,635 votes compared with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer's 1.1 million, but it was a valuable experience, she said.
Holding meetings at the locally owned Blue Cow - a convenience store/restaurant in Long Reach - is a deliberate decision, Hufnagel said.
"One of our plans is we support local business," not big-box, chain stores, she said. So the group decided not to meet at someone's home, which might have been more quiet. "We made a decision that this may be a little more busy, but we're trying to draw attention," and be available to people, she said.