By Kris Kitto - 11/29/11 12:52 AM EST
If Green Party political veteran Jill Stein were to visit Occupy Boston several times, and if she were to describe the Occupy Wall Street movement’s grievances as “synergistic” with her own policy beliefs, and if she were to unveil her campaign for the 2012 presidential race at the height of the national movement’s growth, would that make her the country’s first Occupy Wall Street candidate?
Others might use simple logic to come to a “yes” conclusion, but Stein says no.
But in the same breath, she highlights the seamlessness between her candidacy and the Occupy Wall Street movement, describing the warm reception she received when she stopped by the Occupy Chicago base during a recent campaign trip through Illinois.
“I would say, when I went and showed up in Chicago, there were people who came up to me who said, ‘Oh, you’re Jill Stein — I’m so glad you’re here. I’m so grateful for what you’re doing,’ ” she says.
Occupy Wall Street candidate or not, Stein is embracing the movement — and also taking the nation’s college students under her wing — in launching a long-shot bid for the White House as another in a long line of third-party candidates who have experienced various levels of success in shaking up presidential campaigns of the recent past.
Stein started considering a run for the presidency when the debt-ceiling showdown took shape in Washington last spring.
“This [was] really a crisis of the president’s creation, so that was pretty problematic to start with,” she says. “Then when he put Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on the chopping block … it seemed to me absolutely unconscionable for the president’s policies not to be challenged.”
Stein announced her presidential bid in late October. Her main policy platform is what she calls the “Green New Deal,” which she claims will end unemployment through government investments in energy efficiency, among other tools. She promises to protect citizens from the special interests of Wall Street and corporate America and sees her campaign as “filling the void of a national voice for the 99 percent.”
That the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged as Stein was plotting her presidential run is merely a coincidence, she says, but a great one at that.
“It was so exciting to hear the same agenda reflected back at us, especially from a younger generation,” she says. “It felt almost miraculous that this was happening.”
But she’s careful not to appear opportunistic.
“We are not looking to hijack them or force them to be electoral or force them in any way to shift from what they’re doing,” Stein says. “I think the chemistry between the two entities is rich and synergistic, and we’ll see where it goes.”
It remains unclear how willing the Occupy Wall Street activists are to embrace Stein. An Occupy Boston spokesman said the group doesn’t endorse politicians and was unsure whether Stein had made any lasting impression on his comrades.
“I do believe I have heard that name around camp, but I am pretty sure she has kept a low profile,” spokesman Ryan Cahill wrote in an email.
Stein sees a more reliable base on college campuses, and her first campaign stop reflected that priority.
The candidate traveled to Macomb, Ill., after being invited to Western Illinois University’s mock presidential election, a two-week event that includes conventions, campaigns and nominations. Stein won 27 percent of the vote, coming in third behind President Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney.
“I was, of course, the only candidate interested enough to show up at this thing,” she says, conceding that WIU is “hardly a hotbed of activism for Green politics.”
“We are very excited at the resonance we’ve had with students in particular, and that will be a major priority for us,” Stein says. “The student group, Campus Greens in Western Illinois, is growing and helping other colleges start up groups.”
It’s not hard to understand why any college student facing an extraordinarily tough job market and student-loan repayments would take a second look at Stein’s candidacy. She proposes forgiveness of student-loan debt and a tuition-free option at public colleges and universities.
“Students are currently an indentured class — they graduate with loans, which they cannot pay without loans,” she says. “It’s very hard for them to be contributors to the economy.”
She’s hoping to grow her student support from the Midwest outward. Other than a 10-day tour through California in late November, her campaign hasn’t yet planned other stops — “We are at the threshold of developing our plans,” she says — but ideally, she’d like to have students accompany her along the campaign trail.
Stein is a 61-year-old physician who was recruited by the Green Party in 2002 to run for Massachusetts governor after having made a name for herself in advocacy. She was working on community-level solutions to obesity, cancer, learning disabilities and other public health issues when the Green Party asked her to consider politics.
“I was not a political animal, but I was approached by the Green Party at a time when I was waking up,” she says.
After losing the 2002 race, she mounted losing campaigns in 2004, for the Massachusetts House of Representatives; in 2006, for Massachusetts Commonwealth secretary; and in 2010, again for the governorship. She won races for Lexington Town Meeting representative in 2005 and 2008.
“To my mind, low vote counts are not a reflection of a failed campaign,” she says.
What’s come out of her serial candidacy, Stein says, is an organization that will help her attack the monumental task that third-party candidates confront every presidential cycle: obtaining enough signatures to appear on the ballot.
Former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader says signature collection alone can consume a third-party campaign’s resources.
“By the time you finish, it’s Labor Day, and you’re exhausted, and you don’t have any money,” says Nader, adding that he sees promise in Stein. “She’s an M.D., which is a good advantage, since healthcare is a big issue … She has a good head on her shoulders.”
But if Nader faced an uphill battle in his two third-party presidential runs, Stein is looking at reaching for the impossible, one expert says.
While Nader had name recognition before entering electoral politics, “when you pick Jill Stein, you’re starting from zero,” says Southern Methodist University political science Professor Cal Jillson, noting that the only third-party presidential candidate to win was Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
What’s more, Jillson says, “the dominant parties write the rules for the participation of third-party candidates, and they write them in a way as to make it as difficult for them as possible to participate.”
No matter how long her odds of winning, Stein is brimming with enthusiasm after her first campaign stop. She plans to build her strength and conserve resources on upcoming trips by staying with local Green Party supporters, many of whom “tend to have really healthy foods … or organic gardens in their backyards.”
“The trip to Illinois was … the first road test,” Stein says, “and it felt great.”