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A Few Good Candidates

From likely winners to long shots, here are 10 to watch in 2002.

BY John Nichols
Rarely in recent history has the political landscape been so ill-defined in the summer before an election. America is at war, sort of, in Afghanistan and a half-dozen other backwaters—and the lone superpower is rattling its sabers in Iraq’s direction. The domestic economy has a cold that might turn out to be pneumonia. George W. Bush has high approval ratings, yet almost half the Americans polled say his laxness toward corporate corruption is threatening the nation’s stability.

There’s an opening here for the sort of upheavals seen in 1966, 1974, 1982 and 1994, when opposition parties grabbed substantial ground from a president and his party. That is certainly the hope of Democrats, who dream of expanding their control over the Senate, retaking the House, and grabbing a majority of statehouses for the first time in a decade. But there are no guarantees that will happen—nor is there any certainty that Democratic control of federal or state positions will open the door to a new progressive era.

The question of whether liberal Democrats or progressive third-party activists prevail in this November’s midterm elections, and whether their successes will have significant meaning from a policy standpoint, comes down to hundreds of individual races across the country. Every election brings out a crop of new candidates who have the potential not just to improve the election statistics for their party, but to shift the discourse in a dramatically different direction. Think Paul Wellstone and Bernie Sanders in 1990, Russ Feingold and Cynthia McKinney in 1992, or Dennis Kucinich in 1996.

Here are 10 of the progressive contenders worth watching as the 2002 campaign gears up:

KENDRICK MEEK, FLORIDA

Rarely does the decision by the child of a prominent elected official to seek the position being vacated by his retiring parent cause much excitement. But like his mother, U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, a pioneering civil rights activist and African-American political leader, Kendrick Meek has a track record as a fierce fighter for social and economic justice causes.

A key player in protests that challenged Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s attempts to eliminate affirmative action in that state, Kendrick Meek put together a massive African-American voter registration drive that won the state for Al Gore. And while most Democrats failed to aggressively challenge the Republican theft of that election, the Meeks were in the forefront of the movement to get every vote counted. Young, smart and courageous, Kendrick Meek has emerged as a genuine leader for progressive principles as a senator in the Florida legislature, and there is little doubt that he would do the same in Congress.

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BILL CURRY, CONNECTICUT

Eight years ago, populist Bill Curry came within a whisker of being elected governor of Connecticut. Only the national Republican landslide prevented him from becoming the most progressive governor in the nation. Now Curry is back to “prosecute the case” against conservative Republican Gov. John Rowland, the man who beat him by three percentage points in 1994. Curry is out front on the issues, pushing environmental protection, progressive tax policies and reform of a scandal-plagued state government.

Perhaps more important, Curry convinced a likely primary foe, state Senate Majority Leader George Jensen, to join the Democratic ticket as the candidate for lieutenant governor. The Curry-Jensen ticket is “the best Democratic gubernatorial tandem in recent memory,” says Hartford Courant columnist Stan Simpson. The Connecticut Democrats still face an uphill race against the popular Rowland, who Simpson notes “will paint Curry as a wild-eyed, free-spending liberal.” But if Democrats are to claim a clear majority of statehouses, the heavily Democratic states of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts present them with precisely the sort of races they must win.

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MARTHA FULLER CLARK, NEW HAMPSHIRE

A veteran Democratic state legislator, Martha Fuller Clark got little support from the political gurus in Washington when she ran for Congress two years ago. Yet she still pulled together a remarkable campaign that held popular incumbent John Sununu to just 53 percent of the vote. This year, with Sununu running for the Senate, and with Democratic leaders and labor groups fully on board, Clark is waging a smart, progressive campaign that is way ahead of the national Democrats when it comes to taking tough stands on controversial issues.

Even before the recent round of corporate scandals put business ethics in the spotlight, Clark was a noisy advocate for corporate responsibility. One of her priorities if elected will be the fight to end corporate tax evasion: “The honest taxpayer is paying more each year in taxes than he or she should to pay for the taxes that these corporations are avoiding.” Clark also wants to close loopholes that have hindered efforts to secure equal pay for women. “Women are taxed at the same rate as men,” she points out, promising to make paycheck fairness an issue in Congress. “Clearly, they deserve to be paid at the same rate as men.”

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CHELLIE PINGREE, MAINE

The loss of just one Democratic seat in the Senate would effectively give control of the chamber back to the Republicans. With several Democratic incumbents showing vulnerabilities, Democrats must get serious about picking up seats if they want to maintain the ability to block at least some of the Bush agenda. Tom Daschle calls former state Senate President Chellie Pingree’s challenge to uninspiring Republican incumbent Susan Collins the sleeper race of 2002.

He’s right. Pingree played a critical role in her state’s challenge to drug company price-gouging and in moves to dramatically increase the minimum wage. She’s also a sharp political strategist who outmaneuvered other Democrats to secure her party’s nomination without a primary fight. If she wins this one, she would not only shore up the majority, but also energize the progressive wing of the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

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JONATHAN CARTER, MAINE

Maine voters are among the most independent in the country—they gave Ross Perot some of his best showings in 1992 and 1996 and provided Ralph Nader with a high level of support in 2000. More significantly, the state elected independent governors in the ’70s and ’90s. That gives gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Carter plenty of ammunition to argue that Maine should be the breakthrough state for the Green Party this year.

Under Maine’s Clean Elections Act, Carter collected a sufficient number of citizen signatures and $5 contributions to qualify for as much as $900,000 in public financing. Running against conservative Republican Peter Cianchette and centrist Democrat John Baldacci, Carter is positioning himself as the clear progressive in the multi-candidate race—pushing not just an environmental agenda, but innovative economic strategies to promote sustainable development. Carter’s serious, issue-oriented and well-financed campaign is “not about making a statement,” he says—he’s in the race to win.

Even with public financing money, that’ll be a tall order. Democrats, who fear Carter will take just enough votes to tip the election to the Republicans, tried to block his access to the Clean Elections money. But that move appears to have backfired. Says Bowdoin College political scientist Christian Potholm: “You don’t have to be a Green or a left-wing Democrat to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, one of the big parties is picking on this person who went out and got these signatures.’ ”

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DARIO HERRERA, NEVADA

First elected to the Nevada legislature at age 23 and chairman of the powerful Clark County (Las Vegas) Board of Commissioners by 27, Dario Herrera, now 29, is well positioned to win what will be one of this year’s hardest fought congressional races. As a state legislator, Herrera sponsored a number of initiatives to expand access to health care and provide more funding for education, and he now enjoys strong backing from unions, progressive groups such as Americans for Democratic Action and Latino activists. If he wins the open seat in Nevada’s Third District, he will be well-placed to emerge as one of the most prominent “next generation” leaders within the national Democratic Party.

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JOHN NORRIS, IOWA

The former director of the rabble-rousing Iowa Farm Unity Coalition and co-founder of the Stop the Arms Race Political Action Committee (STARPAC), John Norris is mounting an impressive grassroots campaign that has a very real chance of displacing a vulnerable Republican incumbent. He’s pushing a lot of this year’s standard Democratic agenda—preserve Social Security, develop a genuine prescription drug benefit, protect the environment—but he’s also talking tough about the need to prevent corporate agribusiness from wiping out remaining family farmers.

And at a time when many Democrats are afraid to speak up about Department of Defense boondoggles, Norris is unabashed in his criticism of President Bush’s National Missile Defense scheme. “Making the United States a safe and secure nation should be our government’s top priority,” he says, “but Star Wars leads us right back into an arms race. We have got to learn that in the race for nuclear superiority, everyone loses.”

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RON KIRK, TEXAS

No victory would be sweeter or more significant for Democrats than that of former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk in his race for the Senate seat vacated by right-wing Republican Phil Gramm. A Kirk victory would cushion the Democratic majority, add the first black face to the Senate since the defeat of U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in 1998, and embarrass Bush in his own backyard.

Several recent polls have shown Kirk leading in what promises to be one of the most expensive and hard-fought Senate races of 2002. Bush will pull out all the stops for Republican state Attorney General John Cornyn, but Kirk will benefit from an unprecedented turnout of African-American and Latino voters for a Democratic “rainbow” ticket that also includes businessman Tony Sanchez for governor. The rainbow strategy, which has been pushed by Texas AFL-CIO strategists, seeks to pump up turnout by minority, union and traditionally progressive voting blocs to offset the political power of the Bush machine and its religious-right allies. Republicans are so furious with—and frightened by—the strategy that one Cornyn aide denounced it as a “racial quota system.” But it could become a model for Democrats in states with growing African-American and Latino populations.

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STEPHANIE HERSETH, SOUTH DAKOTA

To take back the House, Democrats must post a net gain of seven seats. In a year with few genuinely competitive contests, they will need a surprise win by someone like Stephanie Herseth. The 31-year-old has proven to be an unexpectedly strong candidate for her state’s open seat. Herseth, whose grandfather served as South Dakota’s governor and whose grandmother was secretary of state, beat several senior Democrats to take the party’s nomination for an open House seat. And she appears to be holding her own in a high-stakes contest with Republican nominee Bill Janklow—who is twice her age and began his political career before she was born.

Herseth, a graduate of Georgetown Law School, is scoring points as a modern-day prairie populist willing to take on corporate agribusiness and the lobbyists who push free trade schemes like NAFTA. Where some farm-state Democrats remain unquestioning backers of free trade schemes, Herseth bluntly calls for a new direction. “Undeniably, NAFTA has had devastating effects on our state’s manufacturing and agriculture industries,” she says. “I believe that free trade must also be fair trade, and I will work hard to ensure that our federal trade negotiators effectively represent the interests of individual South Dakota workers, farmers and ranchers, not just large corporate interests.”

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ANTHONY POLLINA, VERMONT

Two years ago, Anthony Pollina was the Vermont Progressive Party’s nominee for governor. He wowed debate audiences and earned a credible 10 percent of the vote. This year, he’s skipping the high-profile, high-spending and highly partisan race to replace retiring Democratic Gov. Howard Dean. Instead, Pollina is running for the state’s No. 2 job. “I will redefine the office of Lieutenant Governor as an advocate for the people of Vermont,” he says.

Pollina wants to use the state’s second-highest elective post as a bully pulpit to push for health care for all, a statewide living wage, clean government reforms and sustainable development. Winning the No. 2 post would also help Pollina to position the Progressive Party—which currently holds four state legislative seats—as a viable alternative at the statewide level to the Democrats and Republicans. In that sense, Pollina’s candidacy may well be the savviest attempt by an independent progressive running anywhere in the country this year to win elective office—and then use that office to build a statewide progressive political movement.

John Nichols is a fellow with The Nation Institute who writes “The Beat” column and covers national politics for The Nation. He is also an associate editor for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin and a regular contributor to In These Times and The Progressive. He is the author, most recently, of Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear the One About the Theft of the American Presidency?

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