Momentum: THE 'SPOILER' QUESTION
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Like many people, I've been wrestling with the so-called "spoiler" question ever since the 2000 presidential election. If a vote for Ralph Nader was really a vote for candidate George W. Bush, as we were warned throughout the campaign, then shouldn't I have voted for Vice President Al Gore? Even though I didn't think very much of him?
Or should it be that, as The New York Times editorial page said last Sunday when it held its nose and recommended George Pataki for governor of New York State, "People should vote for the person they really want to see in office."
It's a serious battle of the heart, this struggle between idealism and pragmatism. Do you vote for the person who can stop a person who will clearly do damage? Or do you vote for the person you really want in office, even though he or she clearly doesn't have a chance of winning?
Do you lay the groundwork for a new vision of the future, or do you block a really bad one from the past?
Or, getting caught up in the weird ethers of the mystical political future, do you use your vote to (hypothetically) pressure the political party of your choice further to the left or the right?
As it turned out, in 2000 my opinion on the issue may have mattered, but my vote did not.
First of all, my state, Vermont, was securely in the Gore camp, so I could vote for Ralph Nader, whose political views are most closely aligned with my own, without making a ripple in the outcome of the presidential election.
And second, Gore won the presidency without my vote, only to lose it in the vicious, corrupt cat fight of a power struggle that erupted in Florida afterward.
Many people say that Gore didn't deserve to win because he couldn't even carry his home state of Tennessee. But I believe that Gore, and the national Democratic party, had become so spineless by then that they could not claim what they had rightfully won. Shakespeare could have turned those dreadful months into an excellent tragedy.
However, those people remorseless and conscienceless enough to steal the election - the far-right Republicans - have by now pressed our noses into World War III abroad and done considerable damage to our most precious institutions at home. As lame as Gore was in 2000, he looks good by comparison.
Right now in Vermont, another spoiler race is coming down to the wire. Our current Democratic governor, Howard Dean, has decided to leave office and run for president.
Vermont elects its governor every two years, and the last time Dean won, he beat a Republican and a fine, third-party Progressive, Anthony Pollina, who picked up about 10 percent of the vote.
When Dean decided to leave, two fine Democratic candidates waited to fill his slot: Peter Shumlin, President Pro Tem of the State Senate, and Lt. Gov. Douglas Racine.
In the deal-making that followed, Racine and Shumlin divided up the pie without the voters. They decided Racine would run for governor and Shumlin would run for Lt. Governor. A little later, after some polling, Pollina also decided to run for Lt. Governor.
That made Pollina the "spoiler" in the lieutenant governor's race.
The Republican who ran last time, Brian Dubie, ran on an anti-gay rights platform. He's running again.
In a stroke of irony, the Republicans also have a spoiler, but that's in the governor's race, where a Republican is running as an Independent.
This puts Racine in a race against a Republican and an Independent, and Shumlin in a race against a Republican and a Progressive.
Instead of giving the Democrats a lock on the top jobs, the whole mess might have to be decided in the Legislature. (The Vermont Constitution requires the winner to have a clear majority, or else the decision goes to the Legislature for a secret ballot vote. The implications are Orwellian.)
I've been wrestling with my conscience ever since.
Both Shumlin and Pollina are worthwhile candidates, but I certainly don't want my vote to be a vote for Dubie by default.
I started to see things more clearly when, out of the blue, our home was visited by a friendly woman named Peggy O'Toole. She turned out to be a new candidate running for state representative in my district as an Independent.
She turned out to have pretty much the same political views as I do, and I certainly respect the nerve of anyone who goes door-to-door in the woods of Vermont.
The trouble is that O'Toole is running against two Democratic incumbents who have worked long and hard to represent the people of the district. One of them, David Deen, has been a long-time champion of the environment. You have to love someone whose current job title is "Connecticut River Steward."
The other, Steve Darrow, undertook the thankless task of burrowing deep into the arcana of the electric industry a few years ago. What he learned made it clear to consumers that we were hurting ourselves if we deregulated our industry - something our governor, who likes to jump on bandwagons, was pushing.
By the time Enron had taken advantage of California's deregulation legislation to push that state to the edge of bankruptcy, Vermont's plans to deregulate its power industry were stalled, and Vermont was saved from making a terrible mistake.
So, even though I appreciated O'Toole's positions, I didn't see how I could reward Deen and Darrow for their hard work by voting them out of office.
And by extension, how could I reward Shumlin, who has also worked hard, especially in finding creative ways to lower prescription drug prices, by voting him out, too?
This may be a new way of looking at spoiler elections. Instead of using our votes to block unpleasant candidates (Bush, Dubie), or to project a new vision for the future (Nader, Pollina), maybe we should use them to reward good service in the past (Gore, Shumlin).
At the very least, that is a positive, not negative, way to use our votes. And that's what I've decided to do in this election.
Plus, there's always the hope that in the near future, newer progressive and creative people will find places to run - and win - and give us the benefit of their visions, too.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.