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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Chicago Has a Second Hometown Presidential Option, Green Party’s Jill Stein

If choosing between Donald & Hillary is “like being shot or poisoned,” how about the third-party candidate from Highland Park?

Jill Stein speaking at the Green Party Presidential Candidate Town Hall in Mesa, Arizona, March 2016.  Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) failed in his fight to get the Republican nomination this year, but had the best line in the loony 16-man/one woman nomination battle. As the field began to whittle down to two,* Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, Graham quipped that, for him, having to choose between them was “like being shot or poisoned.”

Unfortunately, the line has legs: for many voters in the upcoming general election, choosing between Donald and Hillary is an equally grim choice. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah called it “Sophie’s Choice” between two detestable children: “Grandma Nixon and a traffic cone soaked in raw sewage.”

According to a New York Times op-ed, “about four in 10 voters say they’re having trouble choosing between the two candidates because neither would make a good president.”

Some prominent Republicans have said publicly that they can’t support either, and that they’re going to write in a name; retired (and disgraced) General David Petraeus is often mentioned, most notably by our incumbent senator Mark Kirk who is in the fight of his political life.

But as the Chicago Tribune editorialized last week, if you can’t bring yourself to vote for Clinton (“serial dishonesty”) or Trump (“racially charged rhetoric”), you have two “legitimate alternatives”: the Green Party’s Jill Stein or the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson.

Presumptive Green Party nominee Stein (the party’s convention is August 4) polls behind former Republican two-term New Mexico governor Johnson. Recent polls show Johnson averaging seven percent of the vote nationally and Stein at four percent.

Johnson sometimes comes off as a bit goofy, as noted by the Washington Post, whose editors were taken aback by his “lack of general knowledge and preparation,” noting that he “could not tell us what share of the economy the federal government should spend … and did not know what the nuclear triad is, which, though admittedly alarming in a potential commander in chief, might have been at least understandable if Donald Trump had not infamously muffed the same question in December.”

Jill Stein, 66, born in Chicago in 1950 and reared in Highland Park, focuses on domestic policy—her ideas on national security are described below—and no one would charge her with a lack of gravitas. She is extremely serious.

She was the third of four children—two older sisters and a younger brother— and daughter of a housewife and a corporate lawyer, both now dead, according to a 2002 Boston Globe story. She graduated in the top five of her class at Highland Park High School before moving to Cambridge to attend Harvard College, from which she graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1973, and Harvard Medical School, from which she graduated in 1979.

She is also a talented musician and singer. After college, she faced a decision between medicine and music, and decided to give music a shot first. According to the Boston Globe, she performed “at venues such as the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square and at ethnic street fairs as a troubadour.” Her guitar skills, honed in the second grade, have “expand[ed] to Afro-Cuban percussion, mandolin, banjo, and piano.” (She continues as the lead singer in a folk rock band, Somebody’s Sister, and has released four albums.)

According to her campaign website, after settling into becoming a doctor and while practicing her internal medicine specialty, she “became aware of the links between toxic exposures and illness,” in particular lead and mercury in air and water.

Having witnessed the power of lobbyists and campaign contributions to block health, environmental and worker protections, Jill became an advocate for campaign finance reform, and worked to help pass the Clean Election Law by voter referendum. … [Although it passed by a 2-1 margin,] it was later repealed by the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts Legislature on an unrecorded voice vote. This sabotage of campaign finance reform by the Democratic Party was a pivotal event in Jill’s political development, confirming her growing allegiance to the Green Party.

In her Power to the People Plan, she writes, “It’s time to build a people’s movement to end unemployment and poverty; avert climate catastrophe; build a sustainable, just economy; and recognize the dignity and human rights of every person.” She promises “deep system change” that will move America from “the greed and exploitation of corporate capitalism to a human-centered economy that puts people, planet and peace over profit.”

Yes, she sounds like Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, but without the establishment ties of a U.S. senator who ran for the Democratic nomination. Though she previously offered to allow Sanders to lead the Green Party ticket instead and “build a political movement” with her, she was quick to sneer at his endorsement of Hillary today—an endorsement she predicted a year ago upon announcing her own candidacy.

While a number of the points in her platform were standard Sanders talking points, she is unapologetically, no-wiggle-room further left. Her platform points include:

  • “100% clean renewable energy by 2030,” an end to fracking and offshore drilling
  • “living-wage jobs for every American, … replacing unemployment offices with employment offices”  (She said in 2012 that, if elected, she “will end unemployment in America,” an idea that “would never occur to Washington politicians because their corporate backers depend on the threat of unemployment to keep wages down.” )
  • “an end to poverty,” guaranteeing “access to food, water, housing and utilities”
  • single-payer health care in the form of “Medicare for All”
  • “tuition-free, world-class public education, preschool to university”; no standardized testing or charters; cancelation of all existing student debt
  • $15 an hour minimum wage, breaking up “too-big-to-fail” banks, creation of “worker and community cooperatives”
  • a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides “until they are proven safe”
  • creation of “a welcoming path to citizenship for immigrants”
  • legalization of marijuana
  • closing of Guantanamo, an end to drone attacks, “cutting military spending by at least 50 percent,” closing “700+ foreign military bases,” and “leading on global nuclear disarmament”

Although it’s not in her platform, Stein, who, like Sanders, was raised Jewish, is less sympathetic than Sanders to Israel. The “Netanyahu government,” Stein has said, is “clearly war criminals.” (She grew up in a Reform Jewish household; the family attended North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe. She describes herself today as an agnostic.)

Unlike Sanders, who has held elective office as mayor, congressman, and U.S. senator, Stein’s only elective victories have been two races for town meeting in Lexington, Massachusetts, where she and her husband, also a physician, live.

The Green Party’s visibility was raised in 2000 when its candidate for president, Ralph Nader—whom Stein supported—is widely considered to have hurt Al Gore and thrown the election to George W. Bush. The party slated her in 2002 to run for governor of Massachusetts against Mitt Romney. She lost that one—she garnered only three percent of the vote—and also lost, as a Green Party candidate, in a race for state representative in 2004, and a race in 2006 for Massachusetts Secretary of State. Next came her losing the 2012 race as the Green Party candidate for president. (In the primary she battled, among others, Roseanne Barr.)

Married since 1981, She and her husband, Richard Rohrer—whose specialty is transplant surgery–have two grown sons, both in training to become physicians.

In October 2012, Stein and Johnson, along with two other third-party candidates, debated in Chicago; the event moderated by Larry King and sponsored by a group called the Free and Equal Elections Foundation. According to Bob Sector writing for the Chicago Tribune, only “several hundred people” turned out and the sponsoring group was offering half-price tickets.

I’d bet that if that debate were held in 2016, the turnout would be much better.

A week before, she was arrested, Secter wrote, “trying to crash the major party presidential debate” at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. No third-party candidate has appeared in the official general election presidential debates since Ross Perot in 1992. She’d need to up her numbers substantially—to 15 percent—to get a debate invite, and certainly she and Gary Johnson are in each other’s way.

She seems unconcerned that in this unpredictable year she could be, like Ralph Nader, a spoiler. She exhorts voters “not to be cowed by this mythology of lesser evilism.”

Neither Stein nor Johnson is expected to get on the ballot in all 50 states; Stein made 36 ballots in 2012 but expects to do much better this time around. (That year, when she first competed against Johnson, neither cracked one percent of the vote.)

It’s easy to predict that this year more voters will recognize their names.

I exchanged Facebook messages with Jill Stein and she promised a response from one of her “communications team,” but, as of post time, no response.

* John Kasich had not yet dropped out at the time, but, having won only his home state of Ohio, had zero chance of getting the nomination.
Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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