Out of the Streets, Into the Senate?

Why is Medea Benjamin, a veteran activist who has successfully taken on corporations from Nike to Starbucks, running for a political office she can’t win?


From a converted pier warehouse on San Francisco’s waterfront, the sound of African drumming spilled out onto the bay, quickly giving way to live Cuban salsa music. Walking past, one never would have pegged the place for a law office, or the party within for a political fund-raiser. But inside, in a rustic room hung with Tibetan prayer flags, dancing a sure-footed salsa at the center of a small crowd was Medea Benjamin — the California Green Party’s candidate for US Senate.

The unconventional gathering seemed fitting for the longtime social activist and founding director of Global Exchange, a human-rights organization that most recently made headlines by playing a key role in the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Like Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Benjamin accuses Democrats and Republicans of having lost all grassroots legitimacy by aligning themselves with big-money corporations. Also like Nader, she stands — to put it charitably — little chance of winning.

Benjamin is challenging incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who already holds a gaping 26-point lead over her Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Campbell. Nonetheless, the prospects for a progressive candidate like Benjamin to at least influence the election are better than at any time in recent years, amid a surge in public support and media attention for Nader and the left-wing Green Party.

Largely unknown in the US a few years ago, the party is growing rapidly. In 1996, when Nader made a half-hearted run for president, Greens had 43 elected officials in 13 states. Now 78 Greens hold office in 19 states, and more than 1,200 of their supporters showed up for the party’s June national convention in Denver.

The growth of the Green Party, along with such other third-party successes as the election of Jesse Ventura to the Minnesota governor’s office and Ross Perot’s startlingly well-supported presidential campaigns in 1992 and 1996, certainly seems to indicate more voters are looking for an alternative to the two-party system. Polling company Rasmussen Research recently found 26 percent of voters would support a third-party candidate if they thought he or she had a legitimate shot at winning.

Nader is now on the presidential ballot in more than 30 states and the District of Columbia. If he can win 5 percent of the popular vote in November, the Greens will qualify for millions of dollars in federal matching funds in the next election year. National polls currently have him pulling in as much as 7 percent.

Still, while Nader has enjoyed a recent spate of mainstream media coverage, the press has hardly touched Benjamin’s campaign. “Feinstein seems a pretty sure bet,” says Martin Wattenberg, a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. “Campbell is hardly getting any attention. If he’s not getting any ink, (Benjamin) would have to be in a freeway chase to make the news.”

Benjamin’s platform calls for a living wage, universal health care, and a moratorium on genetically engineered foods. Her tactics for achieving these goals can be surprisingly militant: To press for universal health care, she suggests “sit-ins in hospitals until you get treatment, (or) take over pharmacies until you get prescription drugs covered.” Hardly the kind of rhetoric likely to win over soccer moms. Still, Benjamin does have the support of California’s 100,000-member Green Party. Even if she loses, says Benjamin, her run will help strengthen the party, already the nation’s largest.

Benjamin has never held, or even run for, public office. But she has been remarkably successful as an activist. She spearheaded the anti-sweatshop campaigns against US multinational companies such as Nike and the Gap, exposing the low pay, long hours, and safety hazards endured by their overseas workers. She also was instrumental in convincing Starbucks and other chains to offer coffee certified as providing minimum profits to small farmers in developing countries.

So, having been an activist for roughly half her 47 years, why would Benjamin suddenly switch gears to make a longshot run for a seat in the Senate?

“I took on Dianne Feinstein because her record is so atrocious,” says Benjamin, citing Feinstein’s support for the death penalty and normalizing trade with China as examples. Benjamin isn’t bothering to aim for a more attainable office at the state or local level because, she says, she wants to address foreign policy issues.

Campbell, meanwhile, leans to the left of most Republicans. Given the electoral landscape, Benjamin dismisses the concern that her candidacy will only take votes away from the Democrats. “The spoiler argument doesn’t even apply to this race because Feinstein has such a lead,” says Benjamin. “Plus, Campbell is as good if not better than Feinstein, she’s become so conservative.”

Feinstein’s camp isn’t too worried about Benjamin stealing votes. “Besides me and the Seattle police, no one’s heard of her,” says campaign advisor Bob Mulholland. And California pollsters are neglecting Benjamin’s candidacy altogether.

Still, judging from the attendees at the San Francisco fund-raiser, the Greens are indeed attracting newcomers to the party. About 100 strong, the crowd included longtime Greens as well as disenchanted Democrats like Leanne Carroll, a physical therapist who volunteered to give free chair-massages at the event. “I think of myself as mainstream,” she says. “But (the Green platform) attracted me. Now I’ve started telling my friends about it.”

Why does she support Benjamin, knowing she won’t win? “I want to be able to vote for someone I feel good about,” says Carroll.