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Nov. 27, 2003, 10:37PM
Tattered Green Party banner raised by ex-Houston attorney
By JULIE MASON
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Three years after a liberal drubbing for their perceived role as spoilers in helping elect President Bush, the Green Party is poised for a comeback, cultivating fresh presidential candidates and pragmatic new campaign strategies for 2004.

Ideas and potential candidates are sprouting like grass. The biggest obstacle promises to be organizing the party, once compared to loading frogs on a wheelbarrow, behind a single person or strategy.

"We basically have the same goals but very different ideas on how we should get there," said Julia Aires, vice chair of the Florida Green Party. "When all is said and done, what we come up with will be something that has been thoroughly discussed and is something the majority will feel comfortable supporting."

The first to declare his presidential bid is Green Party general counsel and former Houston attorney David Cobb, 41. Since September, Cobb has been traveling the Green Party circuit seeking support for his so-called "safe states" campaign strategy, targeting areas that are not expected to be major party battlegrounds next year.

It's a game plan Cobb and his supporters believe will help defeat Bush while drawing the 5 percent of votes needed to secure federal matching funds and future ballot access for the Greens.

"The way we do it is by focusing resources on those states where the vote is already pre-determined," Cobb said in a recent interview from a campaign stop in Delaware. "At most, 10 to 12 states are likely to be swing states next year."

That means Cobb will be targeting such states as Texas, Massachusetts, California and New York, while the Republican and Democratic contenders focus their sights on swing states like Florida, Michigan and Ohio.

A former insurance industry defense lawyer, Cobb was a key player in the creation of the Green Party of Texas in 1999. He also has helped party members build organizations in other states.

That network is already serving him in his quest for his party's nomination, in what is expected to be the first contested Green Party presidential primary race next year.

"I think it behooves the Greens to put our money and effort where it makes the most difference, and that is not going to be in swing states where the Democrats can say a vote for Green is a vote for Bush," said Earl Gerhard, a member of the Harris County Green Party and a Cobb supporter.

To run in a national campaign, Cobb has shed the sandals-with-suit look that characterized his local activism, including a run for Texas state attorney general last year. These days, he's sporting black turtlenecks and a cell phone.

But even among the notoriously independent Greens, Cobb's decision to run for president is proving unorthodox and divisive.

Ralph Nader, the party's 2000 presidential nominee, has yet to announce whether he'll run again next year. He has said he'll make a decision by the end of 2003.

As with many issues, Greens are divided on the Nader issue. Some say the high-profile consumer activist is crucial to keeping the party viable next year, while others want the party to back a candidate, such as Cobb or someone else, from within the party's own ranks.

Still others believe the Greens should sit this one out, and concentrate on grass-roots party building.

Among those favoring a presidential campaign in 2004, support is divided among those who like Cobb's plan for targeting the safe states, and others who want a no-holds barred, run-at-all-costs, full-blown national campaign.

Marnie Glickman, national co-chair of the Green Party, said she is so far uncommitted to a single presidential candidate, but strongly favors having enough for a contested primary.

"I actually really care about supporting candidates who are courageous and support progressive issues and, unlike Democrats, are not whipped when it comes to fighting for what they care about," she said.

In the coming months, the party's national committee delegates will try to forge some consensus on all of the questions surrounding the presidential campaign and party strategy.

Among the Greens, some bad feelings remain over Nader's 2000 candidacy. Although he ran as their nominee, Nader never joined the Green Party, and he refused to share with them his lists of volunteers and campaign donors.

"He has good, Green values, but he also has his own agenda of Naderism. It's a good one, I support him, and those are all good things," Gerhard said, "but they are not exactly the same."

One thing the Greens do not like to discuss is whether Nader was a spoiler in 2000, as many Democrats claim.

Still disputed in many minds is whether the 2.7 million votes Nader won in 2000 cost Democrat Al Gore the election. On this point, Nader has called the Democrats "chronic whiners."

For his part, Cobb said he does not believe Nader was a spoiler. But he said that Nader has failed to counter Democratic rhetoric against the Green Party with a convincing argument of his own.

"I have immense respect for Ralph Nader," Cobb said. "But in 2004, he is not the right candidate for the Green Party."

Whether Cobb is the right candidate for the Greens remains to be seen. At least five others are considering joining the race, including activists Kent Mesplay of San Diego, Paul Glover of Ithaca, N.Y., and former Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia.

Since 1996, the Green Party has grown from organizations in five states to 45, with ballot access in 20. In 2003, the party ran 270 candidates and won 62 races nationwide, most of them for city council or comparable seats in small or mid-size cities and towns.

John Atkeison, a member of the Delaware Green Party, said he is supporting Cobb's candidacy and sees the energetic attorney as a sure bet to help the party grow from electing candidates in city and county races to big-city mayor and beyond.

"He showed up, said he wanted it and made his case. He does not expect any coronation. He has been in it from the beginning, and it's hard to see what personal gain he could possible get from it," Atkeison said, adding, "He'll get his jollies, of course."

Gerhard, the Harris County Green, said Cobb is "just so enthused."

"He is the reason I got involved with the party," Gerhard said. "And I hope personally that the party is ready for a Green-grown candidate. It's easier to think of running somebody who already has a big name, like Nader. But I think for the party to really mature, it has to understand that power doesn't come from a big name, but from the people and ideals it represents."

Cobb was born in Houston and grew up in Galveston County. He graduated from the University of Houston with a political science degree. He graduated from the University of Houston Law Center in 1993.

On Saturday, Cobb will be in Houston for a fund-raiser at Super Happy Fun Land, 2610 Ashland in the Heights, from 7 p.m. to midnight.

Cobb, who earlier this year left Houston for California, has promised to drop out of the race in the unlikely event of Democrats choosing either Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio or New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton as their party's nominee.

Even so, David Jones, a Houston Democrat and longtime friend of Cobb's, predicted that if he stays in the race, Cobb will draw far fewer votes than Nader.

"He is a dynamic guy, given to flights of fancy about his opportunities in politics," Jones said. "He really likes the concept of a charismatic leader and thinks he has some of that quality. And people on a mission, which he is on, probably need that in order to keep going."

SIDEBAR: :PARTY PHILOSOPHY
While each state and local chapter of the Green Party is encouraged to develop its own core values, the national party lists these 10 guiding principles as basic tenets of the party's philosophy:
• Grass-roots democracy
• Social justice and equal opportunity
• Ecological wisdom
• Non-violence
• Decentralization of wealth and power
• Community-based economics and economic justice
• Feminism and gender equity
• Respect for diversity
• Personal and global responsibility
• Future focus and sustainability

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