The Green Scene

Fueled by coffee and a mission, a group of activists goes to Baton Rouge to legitimize the Green Party in Louisiana.



The well-caffeinated morning ride to Baton Rouge rarely lacked for conversation.

Perhaps it was the riders excited by their shared purpose: to hand over the required documents, plus 1,000 signatures and $1,000, to the Secretary of State's office so that the Green Party becomes an official political party in Louisiana. Or perhaps that chatter flowed from the first questions asked in the conversation: What does the Green Party stand for, and what can it accomplish in Louisiana?

The three Green Party members, each well-versed in the international progressive party's history and mission, were well equipped to surmise Green philosophy. Yet, for 80 minutes their verbiage was strengthened by the Louisiana landscape -- refineries spewing clouds of pollution, substandard poverty housing, mercury-filled waterways, agribusiness-employed 18-wheelers -- that hammered home their points on the liberal/radical political spectrum.

The Green Party mission is broad -- the riders all state it is the world's only truly international political party, one spawned from a decentralized, bottom-up structure rather than the prevailing trickle-down political paradigm. Driver Leenie Halbert says it fills a void. "The two-party system has left no room for diversity on the left," Halbert says. "It's a big gaping hole. Greens aim to be the electoral arm of various social movements, especially in environmental and social justice issues."

Adding to problems arising from America's two-party system is that "both Democrats and Republicans are hopelessly bought off," Halbert says.

Yet, on this day, the Greens will join the Democrats and Republicans as official political parties -- affiliations you can circle with each driver's license renewal -- joining other third-party upstarts such as the Reform and Libertarian parties. The newly official parties gained access in Louisiana when Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed into law Act 889, which lowered the requirements for parties to gain official recognition in Louisiana to just the signatures of 1,000 registered voters affiliated with the party and payment of $1,000.

Once in Baton Rouge, the group -- Halbert plus shaggy-haired Steven Godfrey and Malik Rahim, who received more than 6,000 votes in his 2002 run for New Orleans City Council -- first stops at the home of Romi Elnagar. Elnagar greets Rahim, a large, dreadlocked man roughly twice the age of his driver, with their shared Muslim greeting of "Salaam alaikum." Then she serves the group coffee despite the well-juiced group's polite hesitations. Elnagar says she spent years as a teacher and activist in California, starting in the days of protest against the Vietnam War, but didn't become a Green Party member until after the 2004 elections, when she "became completely disenchanted and frustrated with the Democratic Party."

Next, the group navigates the maze of bureaucratic buildings off Essen Lane to find the Secretary of State office, parking in front the Subway sandwich shop that graces its entrance. The group walks silently down the carpeted hall, past the door where Fox McKeithen's nameplate still marks the office of the late Secretary of State, and into the office of Nancy Underwood in the Elections Division.

Underwood brandishes a large, metallic stamp to make the paperwork official, but pauses when she reaches the Green Party of Louisiana's official emblem: the silhouette in green of a pelican with wings spread over the same sun/sunflower symbol the BP company employed for its recent shift in marketed image. "I'm not going to stamp this ... it's just too pretty," Underwood says, smiling from her desk up to Halbert.

The process seems complete, and Underwood offers congratulations. Halbert responds with a hug and the offer of a state Green Party button, which Underwood politely declines. "I'm not allowed to wear anything with any party identification," she says.

The Greens then hold a press conference; reporters from The Advocate, Times-Picayune and WAFB Channel 9 in Baton Rouge all ask questions, with a well-prepared Halbert delivering a 10-minute earful, ruminating on Green solutions on issues from the street violence problem in New Orleans to single-payer, universal health insurance. The reporters leave with statements of "Good luck."

Yet, celebration is put on pause for the Greens as Underwood returns to Halbert to say the office also needs to a copy of the Green Party's constitution to make it official. Halbert pauses. "Umm ... can I print it off the Internet?" he asks. Underwood confers behind closed doors to determine if such use of state capital is legal and ethical. It is, and Halbert nervously searches the Internet, finds the constitution, prints it out and hands it to Underwood.

"Congratulations," Underwood says again.

"This is history. This is history in the making," Rahim says to the group in the lobby. "Who knows? Ten, 20, 50 years from now, we might be the majority party in Louisiana."

"I'd be happy just to be a strong minority," Halbert says, before adding with a smile: "But yeah, I'm happy."

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