The Illinois Green Party began as a fluke. In 2006, plenty of Democrats didn’t want to vote for Rod Blagojevich, and plenty of Republicans didn’t want to vote for Judy Baar Topinka. So a Carbondale lawyer named Rich Whitney won 10 percent of the vote.
It was the best showing by a third-party candidate for governor anywhere in the country that year, It also ensured that the Greens would be around as either an annoyance to the Democrats and Republicans or a foil to those who’ve made Illinois synonymous with corruption, depending on how you look at it.
This year, the Greens don’t have Rod Blagojevich to kick around. But now that they have a foot in the door, they’re not going away. Whitney is polling at 9 percent. The party’s Senate candidate, LeAlan Jones, is at 14 percent. Part of that is due to the fact that the Republicans and Democrats are once again running lackluster candidates.
“Look at the state of Illinois government today,” Whitney says, referring to Gov. Pat Quinn’s inability to close the $13 billion budget gap. “What’s the word that first comes to mind? It’s ‘dysfunctional.’”
But the other part is the psychological advantage of being an established party. The 10 percent who voted for Whitney in 2006 are likely to do it again.
“One of the biggest problems we always face is that of the reflexive voter, people who say, ‘I always vote Democratic,’” Whitney says. “But that’s breaking down.”
Whitney had one of his poorest showings in Chicago, where he won only 7 percent of the vote, as opposed to the double-digit numbers he rang up in rural counties, especially in his home base of Southern Illinois. The Greens were seen as a Downstate party, he admits. Blagojevich hit them hard on the gun issue: the party favors allowing qualified gun owners to carry concealed weapons.
“We respect local autonomy,” Whitney says. “Local counties should be allowed to opt out on conceal and carry. Cook County can go its own way.”
Running South Sider LeAlan Jones for Senate may help the Greens improve their showing in Cook, though.
Traditionally, third parties bring up issues that the major parties are forced to adopt. The Greens have a historic analogue in the populist movement of the late 19-th century, which led to such innovations as the income tax, the direct election of senators and unemployment insurance. In Illinois, the Greens have been pushing Quinn to improve his environmental record.
“Pat Quinn has been considered environmentally friendly,” Whitney says. “You’re seeing that played up from the Quinn campaign. I think he also brought in Sheila Simon as lieutenant governor to negate my base vote in Southern Illinois. As far as Sen. Brady, I don’t think he’s been concerned about my influence on his campaign. He’s following the conventional wisdom that I’m hurting Quinn. They should look at the results from ’06. Our vote in 2006 was also a result of Republican dissatisfaction with Judy Baar Topinka. In fact, we got slightly more votes from people who normally vote Republican.”
So what does Whitney want? He wants a progressive state income tax, an idea plenty of Democrats already favor. He wants a publically-owned bank to hold the state’s money, which could generate billions of dollars and prevent politicians from shaking down investment firms who want a piece of the pension funds. And he wants a “minuscule” tax on transactions at the Options Exchange and the Merc.