Sunday, June 7, 2009

Interview with David Cobb (2004 Green Party Presidential Candidate)

If I'm being honest, this is probably my favorite interview of all time. One day I was off and got a phone call from Carey Miller, our editor-in-chief. He asked if I wanted to interview David Cobb, the Green candidate. I said I would. He asked if I could do it an hour and a half. I agreed to do it, did a fast bit of research and met Carey, Mr. Cobb, and Mr. Fleitas at a tiny old cafe on Farish Street in downtown Jackson. Planet Weekly had long given space to candidates of the smaller parties, and we had a longstanding relationship with the state's Greens. As such, I was lucky to already have a good background of Green politics and Mr. Cobb proved to be a very knowledgable interviewee. I didn't go easy on him, which prompted an off-record interruption in the middle to ask how many words we were going to use. I told them we were going to do 1500 words in print and 2500 online (our issue was already planned - and this was a bonus we had to squeeze in there). When we were finished, Mr. Cobb thanked us and said he was used to getting a thorough interview in New England, or Washington State, or California, but not anyplace like Mississippi. I won't lie and say I voted for the man; in fact, I told him I wasn't going to. But I will say I understood him and think the world of him.

David Cobb is the Green Party candidate for President of the United States this year. Unlike four years ago, when Ralph Nader ran, Cobb’s candidacy has been below the radar, relying on the Greens’ own grassroots efforts and many stops around the country to get out his name. Cobb, a Houston native, knows he has no viable chance to win, but he stands tall in his belief that, though other parties might stop on November 2, he will continue to campaign – not so much for the possession of a single, vital office, but for increased numbers of extremely valuable members across the country.

On Monday, October 11, when Cobb was in town to speak at Millsaps College and Jackson State, Planet Weekly was invited to sit down and interview the candidate. Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Sherman Lee Dillon said the offer was made because Planet Weekly was the only newspaper “to give a fair shake” to the other parties.

It’s often said that one of the best ways to decide whom to vote for is to decide with whom you would rather sit down and have a drink. It’s almost unheard to be given that opportunity, but we were, meeting candidate Cobb, Dillon, and Victor I. Fleitas – a Green running for Election Commission in Lee County – at Fields CafĂ© on Farish Street. Mr. Cobb had bottled water, but we felt the opportunity to have a beer with a presidential candidate was too good to pass up.

Planet Weekly: You were a lawyer…

David Cobb: I was a community organizer, a lawyer, a dishwasher, a shrimp boat deckhand, and a construction worker.

PW: What kind of legal work did you do?

DC: I was an insurance defense lawyer, a trial lawyer. I represented clients at the courthouse.

PW: How did you get out of corporate law?

DC: In 2000, Ralph Nader asked me to manage his presidential campaign in the state of Texas. I asked for a leave of absence from my corporate employer. They refused to give it to me, so I quit on the spot and I have dedicated my entire practice and professional life to growing and building the Green Party ever since.

PW: Did that friction lead you to the position you hold regarding the “corporitization” of America?

DC: No. To tell you the truth, I had known – like so many others – that corporations were hijacking our government for many years. But like so many others, I felt tied to it; I had to make money. You know, I worked on the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1984 and 1988, and I worked on the Jerry Brown campaign in 1992 before I quit the Democratic Party, because I realized that corporate money had hijacked that party and you couldn’t do real progressive politics in that party. So I realized that corporations were a fundamental problem, but that moment in 2000 was the push I needed to say, “Instead of just continuing to make money, I’m going to dedicate my life to trying to build a society that I think we deserve.”

PW: That was a point of no return?

DC: It certainly was.

PW: You won’t return to the corporate world is someone offered you large sums of money to do so?

DC: No, sir. For the past four years – going on five years – I have sustained myself as a community organizer. I use my law degree and my experience as I travel around the country, organizing people and helping them develop strategies and tactics for local grassroots groups that are trying to challenge corporate harm and abuse, and to build a movement that will be sufficient to actually challenge the legal doctrines that underpin a legal system that protects corporate harm and abuse in the first place.

PW: What sort of grassroots events do you get involved in?

DC: For example, I’ve helped write ordinances that forbid corporations from being able to own farmland in local communities. I’ve helped draft ordinances that actually attempt to nullify several provisions in the Patriot Act. In fact it’s true, the first-ever binding ordinance that makes it illegal for the police department, library, or city clerk to comply with the federal Patriot Act has been passed in Arcata, California, thanks to Green Party elected officials. I have also helped write ordinances that forbid corporations from participating in politics by making campaign contributions to the political process. I have traveled around the country doing workshops on the social, legal, and historical context of what a corporation is, how it’s hijacked our government and our culture to become the dominant institution of our times, and how, under the law, we have a legal system that protects the property rights of the wealthy elite and their corporations rather than the human rights of ordinary citizens. So you see, I have actually for the past going-on-five years, been even busier than I was as a practicing trial lawyer, using my legal knowledge and background, but helping be a movement lawyer and a people’s lawyer.

PW: Because of the election in 2000, how much grief do you get from the Democratic Party?

DC: A lot. Let’s put it this way. In 1996 when I joined, there were only 10 state Green Parties in the country. Only five of those states had a ballot line and there were 40 elected Green office holders at the time. In 2000, brick by brick, step by step, we had grown to 21 organized state Green Parties, 10 of them had a guaranteed state ballot line, and there were 87 elected Green office holders at the start of the campaign. In 2000…let’s be clear what happened. Al Gore won a presidential election. Not just the majority of the popular vote, he won Florida if all the votes had been counted in Florida. Al Gore won the presidential election; George Bush stole the presidential election. And Al Gore and the Democratic Party, instead of fighting to secure the election they won, harassed and harangued the Green Party incessantly, calling us “spoilers” and gnashing their teeth. In 2004, in that hostile environment, we grew to 44 organized state Green Parties, we started this campaign with 23 guaranteed ballot lines, and there are currently 207 elected Green officeholders.

You ask me do I get a lot of grief for 2000. Yes, constantly. And here is my response, calmly but repeatedly: what others call spoiling, Greens call participating. We’re going to exercise our democratic right to participate in elections. If anybody really believes our participation is a problem, the solution cannot be to squelch the Green Party voice or to restrict voter choice. We desperately need more voices and more choices. The solution is to change the voter system, so people don’t feel like they have to vote against what they hate.

PW: Away from the two-party system?

DC: Come out of the two-party system. Instant runoff voting is a preferential voting system that empowers the voters to rank order their preferences – my first choice, my second choice, my third choice. We like to say it’s as easy as 1-2-3, because voters just rank order their preference. It’s a super easy system used all over the world.

PW: Not in this country.

DC: Well, it’s used in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be used in November in San Francisco, thanks to the Green Party, and it’s currently used by the Utah Republican Party, because the Utah Republican Party wanted a voting system that would guarantee a majority winner in only one election. We’re saying to the Democratic Party, if you think this is a problem, you’d better get behind instant runoff voting because that’s the solution to the real problem.

PW: You started the campaign with 23 states with Green Party ballot lines. Do you have more now?

DC: Right now we have 29 certified, with one more in court: Utah. Here’s something else interesting: of those 207 people, they come from 21 different states. The Greens are growing against all odds.

PW: Is it true that you are practicing a “safe states strategy,” where you avoid campaigning in the swing states?

DC: Actually that’s not true. I’ve been very clear from the get-go that my goals are to grow and build the Green Party, to register more people into the Green Party, to help local Greens get elected, and to run a campaign that articulates the Green Party’s progressive agenda of peace, racial and social justice, real democracy, and environmental protection. Some people have called this the “safe states strategy” because I tell the truth, and here’s the truth: John Kerry is a corporatist, militarist sellout who voted for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Kerry voted for the Patriot Act, assaulting our civil liberties. John Kerry voted for NAFTA, which is destroying our economy. John Kerry voted for No Child Left Behind, which is destroying public education in this country. John Kerry is opposed to universal health care and opposed to raising the minimum wage to a living wage. That’s the truth, but here’s another truth: as bad as John Kerry is, from my perspective, George W. Bush is qualitatively worse. The American people need much better. George W. Bush is a dangerous threat to the planet, but at the end of the day, he is a very big problem, but not the problem. The core problem is a social, political, and economic system that we know is literally destroying the planet and creating a racist, sexist oppressive world order. That’s the problem, and the Green Party has to figure out a way to navigate this very dangerous election cycle, where so many of our people, people who share progressive values are caught up with this Anybody But Bush virus, where they can’t see anything past that.

PW: So that would be an unqualified “no,” then?

DC: It’s an unqualified “no” for the “safe states strategy,” but it’s also a willingness to say, “Yes, Bush is worse than Kerry.” What kind of moron would not admit that?

PW: You don’t seriously expect to win, but you’ve stated that your campaign goes far beyond November 2.

DC: Absolutely. The Green Party is getting larger, stronger and better organized with every election cycle and I absolutely believe we will continue to grow. We’re already registering more into the Green Party than ever before.

PW: What sort of numbers are you talking about nationwide?

DC: You can only register Green in about 20 states. In those states, we have 300,000 registered Greens right now. If you count all the other states – memberships and participation – our best guess is we have about half a million people who are actively self-identified as Greens, and that number is growing. On the issue, we’re the only political party calling for universal health care, publicly funded elections – to get the corporate fat cats out of our government, calling to raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and we join the Libertarian Party in calling for an end to war in Iraq and for a repeal of the Patriot Act. Our progressive agenda is drawing more and more people in. Most who join aren’t former Democratic or Republican Party operatives; they’re ordinary people who have never participated before, who say, “Here is a party I can get behind.”

PW: Were you arrested in St. Louis for civil disobedience at the presidential debate?

DC: I’m proud to say this is not my first time. I’ve gone to jail for justice, and I’ll go to jail for justice again. You don’t get social change just by asking for it. Power concedes nothing without a demand; never has, never will. “You show me the exact amount of injustice that a people are willing to tolerate, and I’ll show you the exact amount of injustice that a people will be subjected to.” That was Frederick Douglass who said that, but it was true then and it’s true now. Yeah, I’ve been to jail for justice and I’ll go again if I have to. The real crime wasn’t me crossing police barricades in order to participate in a presidential debate as a legally registered candidate – or even being refused a place in the crowd to ask a question – the real crime was the corporate takeover of the debate process and that sham that is perpetrated on the American people. That Commission on Presidential Debates is a corporation controlled by the Democratic and Republican Parties. They control everything. Those were infomercials, not really debates.

PW: Your running mate, Patricia LaMarche, has an arrest record that doesn’t involve civil disobedience, doesn’t she?

DC: She does.

PW: Does this cause you trouble?

DC: Media folks who do their homework know about it. It doesn’t come up all the time. But she has an arrest for driving while intoxicated.

PW: And she spent four days in jail.

DC: That’s exactly right. She’s not perfect. Neither am I perfect. It’s been several years; it was a mistake. She acknowledges it as a mistake. I think if we want to start digging into anybody else’s past, I think George Bush’s clear drug abuse ought to be talked about and I think—

PW: It has been.

DC: No, no, I know. The thing is, it doesn’t really seem to be an issue now. It’s been brought up and brushed aside. Pat has a DWI – not proud of it, but there it is. But let’s also talk about her record as an advocate for homeless issues, abused women and children’s issues. She’s been a tireless advocate for those issues and she’s a very powerful woman. You’re right, it occasionally gets brought up by people who do their homework, but it’s not something that caused me any problems. It doesn’t cause me any embarrassment at all, because I don’t expect perfection.

PW: What do you say to inform people who think of the Green Party as a far-left organization?

DC: We’re not left or right. We’re really out in front, in thinking about government, politics, and economics. For example, how else to square the circle that says the Green Party agrees with Pat Buchanan on opposition to NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, the Green Party agrees with the Libertarians on the Patriot Act as a violation of our constitutional civil liberties, and the Green Party agrees with local control, which is typically considered to be a conservative position – which, by the way, is anathema to the No Child Left Behind act, which imposes national testing on local controls? We really are not easily categorized in a two-dimensional left-right dichotomy; we are a kind of third dimensional way of looking at politics. On some issues, we’re taking positions that are typically liberal and we take some positions that are considered conservative. At the end of the day, what we are doing is taking positions that we think are in keeping with our core principles and values. It’s important to recognize this: on many issues, we already represent the majority view. The majority want universal health care, the majority want to see the minimum wage raised, and the majority want out of Iraq. We already have majoritarian positions there. But we’re also taking genuinely visionary positions. Our support of the right of same-sex couples to marry is, in fact, a visionary position, but damn it, it’s the right position. Just like 25 years ago, it was a visionary position to fight against Jim Crow segregationist laws and it was the right thing to do. We had to create a movement and some people had to provide leadership. I’m proud that the Green Party takes some issues that are majoritarian and other issues that are genuinely visionary and provide leadership of them, because we know it’s the right position to take.

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