Minnesota's Bernie voters turning Green: Jill Stein courts progressive voters in an uncommonly independent-friendly state

“I’m officially exiting the Democratic Party," JoAnn Norheim, a retired nurse, told Salon

Published August 17, 2016 6:17PM (EDT)

 (AP/Erik Kabik)
(AP/Erik Kabik)

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein swooped into Minnesota on Tuesday, speaking at two events in Minneapolis to make a case for voting green. Promising to abolish student debt, Stein urged a crowd at the First Universalist Church to “forget the lesser evil, fight for the greater good” in her pitch for voters to say no to politics as usual.

One way she plans to win votes is to woo the 43 million people with student loan debt. “The average student debt is something like $35,000,” she said at a press conference before her first speaking event in south Minneapolis. “It’s a very disabling debt in the current economy.” Stein is calling for a $1.3 trillion bailout to cancel student debt. She hopes to get the word out to millennial voters, encouraging them to use social media to spread her message about student debt and other issues. 

“The good news is that 43 million people locked in debt is a winning plurality of a presidential race in a three-way vote, ” she said. “Forty-three million is more than enough to win the election.” 

Promising a New Green Deal that would create jobs in renewable energy, Stein also pledged to bring about a “peace offensive” in the Middle East to end terrorism by placing arms embargoes on countries like Saudi Arabia that supply terrorist groups with weapons. And like Bernie Sanders, Stein vowed to take money out of politics, touting her candidacy as rejecting any money for super PACs.

While Minnesota has long been known as a blue state, it also has a history of welcoming third parties. Minneapolis had a socialist mayor, Thomas Van Lear, from 1917 to 1919, for example. The state’s chapter of the Democratic Party, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, resulted from the 1944 merger of two different parties: the left-leaning Farmer-Labor Party (which has been home to three governors, four senators and several members of Congress) and the Democratic Party. Minnesota has also had a third-party governor with Jesse Ventura and recently elected four Green Party candidates as local officials, including Cam Gordon, a Minneapolis City Council member. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won 5.2 percent of the state's vote.

Some Minnesotans, like Chicana studies scholar and activist Jessica Lopez Lyman, vote third party as par for the course. “I vote Green or Socialist [Party], depending on who’s on the ticket,” she said. “For me, it’s a political vote to not play the game of lesser of two evils and really try to dismantle the two-party system.”

Bernie Sanders won big in Minnesota (61.6 percent to Clinton’s 38.4 percent) during the Democratic caucuses earlier this year, and both Stein and the Green Party are hoping to cash in on the momentum of the Sanders campaign during the primaries.

“We are so happy there are former Berners out there,” Brandon Long, the chair of Green Party of Minnesota, said at the First Universalist Church. "We are thrilled to be working with you. We welcome you with open arms.” Already the Green Party has submitted 6,700 signatures (three times the requirement) to put Stein on the ballot in Minnesota in November.

And while Bernie Sanders received unfair media coverage, the coverage of Jill Stein has been even worse, Long said: “If you thought the Bernie Sanders blackout was bad, it was was nothing compared to this.”

Nearly 200 people showed up for the first event at the First Universalist Church in south Minneapolis's Uptown, with about half of them raising their hands when Stein asked for a showing of Sanders supporters. There were young millennials considering voting for the Green Party for the first time, activists and progressives drawn to its platform and longtime Democrats who felt betrayed by what transpired during the primary season.

JoAnn Norheim, a 62-year-old retired nurse, said she was “coming out” for the Green Party in this election, after spending a lifetime in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. “I’m officially exiting the Democratic Party,” she said. “I was torn between trying to reform the party from within, because I’m nobody, or go green.”

James Farnsworth who just turned 18 is now deciding whom to vote for in this election. He and his friend, Madeline Rice, also a first-time voter, carried a sign declaring, “Abolish Student Debt.” Said Farnsworth: “As a person my age, that’s really important and something my demographic cares about,”

Pepper Branstner has voted for a Green Party candidate before — for Ralph Nader in 2000. Jill Stein’s platform more closely aligns with Branstner’s beliefs than the positions of Sanders, whom she previously supported. But Branstner’s current support for the Green Party hasn’t made her any friends, with people now shaming her on social media, she said. 

Tess, 28, also came out to see Stein. Inspired by Sanders, she donated $5 twice to his campaign. She hasn’t decided whom to vote for now but is not comfortable with either the Democratic Party nominee, Hillary Clinton, or the Republican choice, Donald Trump. “I feel confident that Minnesota will go to Clinton,” she said. “We’re a very blue state, but I would vote for Clinton if I thought it was going to be close between her and Trump.” Still, she said she’d prefer to vote for someone who truly excites her about what the future can be. 

After concluding her south Minneapolis speech, Stein headed to north Minneapolis for a forum on black America hosted by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. Speaking before an audience that was predominantly people of color (the opposite was true at the earlier event), Stein called for reparations to African-Americans for slavery as well as building political power within communities.

“I am the only presidential candidate out there that is advocating for reparations,” Stein said. Calling the current issue of police violence just “the tip of the iceberg,” Stein said in order to fix it, the surrounding issues of racism and white supremacy should be addressed.

Advocating for civilian review boards and independent investigators to keep police accountable, Stein also decried inequity in schools, saying that more needs to be done to counteract the "school-to-prison pipeline.” She would put an end to high-stakes tests, bringing in more social workers and art as well as take care of health care and housing disparities.

“The president and vice president need to play a role here in sharing a vision and helping to drive that vision towards a new society founded on racial justice,” she said. “That means having a very outspoken advocate in the White House so that the president isn’t just the commander in chief, but the president is the organizer in chief to help lift up that vision and how we achieve that vision.”

Bryan Bevell, a Minnesotan Sanders supporter reached by phone, said he doesn’t believe Stein will win but is considering casting a vote for her as a form of protest. “The only circumstance where I could bring myself to vote for Hillary is if Trump had a chance to win,” he said. “I really can’t go there again with these neoliberal Democrats,” said Bevell, who voted for Bill Clinton in his first presidential bid. “As candidates they don’t represent my interest or the majority of the American people’s interests.”

Another Minnesotan Sanders supporter reached by phone, Russ Forga, will be opting for the Green Party for the first time in November. Forga said he doesn't trust Hillary Clinton right now. “When Bernie stepped down, all of a sudden she’s going after the top 1 percent," Forga said.

Forga briefly considered Gary Johnson but after researching Jill Stein, he made his choice. “I thought, holy crap! She represents me more than any other candidate.” While he's been told this will be a waste of his vote, he doesn’t think that’s necessarily true: “Jill Stein has a very solid chance in Minnesota,” he said.

By Sheila Regan

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2016 Hillary Clinton 2016 Bernie Sanders 2016 Jill Stein #bernieblackout Green Party