Through the eyes of John Keenan Green

The Green Party is running a New York fireman for Congress in Long Island. But his campaign is more concerned with coming up with a theme song than victory in November.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published September 7, 2002 7:59PM (EDT)

The Green Party got lucky with John Keenan, its candidate for the 2nd Congressional District on Long Island. A lieutenant in the New York City Fire Department, Keenan was at ground zero on Sept. 11 and the days following searching for survivors, and now he wants to tell the world that George W. Bush does not represent all of New York's heroes. In the aftermath of the attacks, he says, "I wept for the loss of my brothers, but I also wept at what I saw on TV of George Bush the next day. I'm here to say that not everyone is behind the war, not everyone likes George Bush."

But the party seems intent on squandering Keenan's potential appeal. Run properly, a Keenan campaign could have drawn attention to the hypocrisy of linking working-class heroism to plutocratic policies. It could have done a tiny bit to repair the horribly eroded links between leftists and the people whose interests they claim to represent.

Instead, the Greens running Keenan's campaign are talking about Rep.Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., oil conspiracies and folk songs. "Will apologies be paid to Rep. Cynthia McKinney , after the harsh criticism and derision she received from Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.), and others for demanding an investigation into possible White House foreknowledge of the attacks?" says his campaign's first press release, written by campaign coordinator Ron Stanchfield. "Did insider trading occur on Wall Street based on knowledge of an impending attack? Did plans for the trans-Afghanistan pipeline to transport oil from Turkmenistan motivate Bush to block intelligence gathering on al-Qaida in early and mid 2001?"

So much for salt-of-the-earth populism.

Keenan, a married father of two, is a self-proclaimed union man and regular guy. He's a 41-year-old life-long Long Islander who grew up with what he describes as Rush Limbaugh-like prejudices until, as he says, "public radio opened my eyes" about 20 years ago.

He's also a great foil to Joe Finley, a New York fireman running for the same seat on the Republican ticket. Both are challenging popular first-term incumbent Steve Israel, a centrist New Democrat. Though Israel's still the overwhelming favorite in the race -- a recent Cooper and Secrest poll shows Israel with 59 percent of the vote, compared to Finley's 21 percent and Keenan's 3 percent -- his campaign is in the unenviable position of having to offer encomiums to both his opponents. "You've got two men who absolutely should be honored and respected for what they've done around the horrible event of 9/11," says James Harris, Israel's campaign spokesman, though he adds, "It doesn't impact us."

Actually, Keenan didn't intend to have much impact at all. If he hasn't articulated a grass-roots message to replace generic lefty boilerplate, perhaps it's because the 13-year veteran of the FDNY never really planned to campaign. Unlike many other small parties who endorse mainstream candidates when they don't have people of their own, the Greens have a policy of putting a name on the ballot for every race they can in order to "show the voter that you're a growing organization" and to give the Greens electoral experience, Stanchfield says. Before Sept. 11, Keenan agreed to let the Greens use his name, just as he had just as he had in the 2000 race for Islip, Long Island's Town Council, where he won 0.9 percent of the vote. "I didn't realize people were going to want to talk to me," he says.

Then Sept. 11 happened, and the Greens realized that Keenan could be a powerful progressive voice. " Ron Stanchfield said, 'I think we could really do something,'" Keenan recalls. "'If you let me, I'll pursue it.'" Keenan, who says he's not an "issue man" and wants to keep a fairly low profile, agreed to be more than just a placeholder. "I know the only reason I'm getting noticed is because I'm a New York City fireman," he says.

Keenan seems shy and uncomfortable with public speaking. When the Christian Science Monitor called him for an interview, he thought, "What the hell did I get into?" Yet his appeal is obvious. A soft-spoken blond with big blue eyes, the creases in his face hardly detract from his sweet boyishness. His experiences on Sept. 11 means he can talk about peace without sounding like a wimp, and he has a has a warm, unpretentious charm that bourgeois progressives have had a hard time generating.

He's also a die-hard Naderite. "I believe in the ten key values and "four pillars", that make up Green Party philosophy, he says simply. "The Democratic party is a sinking ship."

Though he finds it perverse that "working union men are registered Republicans," he also empathizes. "They think Democrats will take their hard-earned tax dollars and give them away to people who don't, in their eyes, deserve it. I know a guy, it pisses him off that he works hard for his money and wants to send his boys to college but can't get financial assistance, while people with less money than him go to school for free."

"These guys who vote Republican even though they have a socialist job, they really want the same things I do," he says.

As Keenan explains says over a veggie burger at a Manhattan diner, the challenge for progressives is to convince people like his friends to stop "looking down and fighting for crumbs" while Bush's patrons enrich themselves. "Democracy shouldn't be sold to the highest bidder," he says.

His colleagues teasingly call him a commie and hippie, but his bonds with them transcend politics. "They would risk everything to save my life, just as I would theirs," he says.

The Greens have chosen an odd way to leverage that connection. Asked what the ideal outcome of this election would be, Stanchfield says, "The dream is this. The idea was to do a song based on the 10 key values titled, "Through the Eyes of John Keenan Green."

The song, apparently, is intended as a kind of corrective to the pugilistic rowdiness of cops and firemen at a benefit concert last October that left Stanchfield appalled. "Back after 9/11, Madison Square Garden filled up with a tribute to the firemen and policemen of New York City," Stanchfield recalls. "It was an embarrassment to me. They got absolutely drunk. It was a result of weeks of high emotion, so I guess you can excuse what they did, but it showed the fireman and the cops as being ready for war."

The uncouth men in uniform were singing Irish fighting songs, and Stanchfield thought there needed to be a "peace song to undermine that myth of the wailing Irish fighting song and in turn show that there's been a transformation, where a fireman and a cop can also be for peace." Right now, the Greens are looking for a group to record such a song. "If we can have a real good song that deals with Green issues and also has some real good melody and harmony, that's one of the good things that can come from the campaign," Stanchfield says.

Of course, a song isn't all the Greens want from Keenan. Stanchfield imagines grooming him for more serious races, and he hopes that this time Keenan garners at least as many votes as separate Israel and Finley. "What we do care about is that we make the difference," says Stanchfield. "Once you get more than the difference between the two majors, you become a spoiler."

Keenan puts it more simply. "I'm not an articulate guy and I don't have soundbites. This is not about me. It's about the Green Party."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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