NJ Candidate Hopes Gov's Race will Help Build Greens

Madelyn Hoffman has been around New Jersey politics a long time. As executive director for the Grass Roots Environmental Organization, she has seen first hand the effect that average people can have on the process when they become involved.

Her organization, in conjunction with a ragtag army of local groups and activists, has fought pollution across the state. It has fought the growing incinerator industry, both by attacking the construction of new burners and by fighting to prevent the use of the often toxic ash they produce. It has fought to prevent the construction of new coal-burning electric plants and the import of energy from dirty out-of-state plants. It has fought industrial dumping, water pollution, nuclear energy, and a host of other toxic practices.

But nothing prepared the 39-year-old Warren County native for the political education she has been receiving this year. Hoffman is running for governor on the state's Green Party ticket, taking on the state's stagnant two-party structure in an effort to create a party to which working people, environmentalists, consumer advocates and others ignored by the Democrats and Republicans left out of the system can turn to make their voices heard.

She has been traversing the state daily, pushing an agenda that seeks to empower working people: more money for higher education, more affordable housing, more stringent environmental rules, an end to corporate welfare and more democracy and community control.

"This campaign is very much like what (GREO) did on environmental issues," she said. "We're working with the people directly affected by (Gov. Christie Whitman's ) policies."

Hoffman's candidacy follows on the heals of Ralph Nader's national run, which may have garnered just 1 percent of the vote but seems to have energized Greens across the country. Members of state parties have been working together to form a national organization and plan to field candidates in as many state's as possible.

That's what makes her candidacy so important, says Hoffman, who was Nader's running mate in New Jersey last year. The success of the Nader campaign offers New Jersey Greens -- and Greens across the country -- an opportunity to recreate the political system, to open it up for alternative parties and progressive candidates.

"Because of the Nader campaign, we have more confidence, more momentum," she said.

Greens already have had an impact in New Mexico, where Carol Miller, a Green candidate for Congress, earned 19 percent of the vote, enough to swing a close election to the Republicans.

New Mexico progressives have criticized the Greens, saying it was irresponsible for the party to field a candidate knowing it likely could steal Democratic votes and result in a conservative Republican victory.

Hoffman, however, says that's the chance progressives must take if they want to build for the future. By sticking with the Democratic Party even when it fields conservative or mediocre candidates, progressives are guaranteeing their voices will not be heard.

"The Democrats now have to look at the Greens," she said of the New Mexico race. "If they don't listen to what they have to say, then maybe the Greens will get 32 percent of the vote. Not only will the party gain more prominence, but the issues we believe in will gain more prominence."

It is this challenge to the political status quo that has left New Jersey's major environmental groups on the fence. Do they back one of their own, someone who has fought by their side for more than 15 years, even though they do not believe she has a chance to win? Or do they back one of the two major party candidates, a pair they have little love for, in an effort to gain access should their endorsement prove a deciding factor in the race?

Hoffman says the choice is clear.

Gov. Christie Whitman has been a disaster for the state's environment. She has scaled back pollution prevention and clean-water programs. She has cut back on right-to-know reporting requirements for industry, making it more difficult for workers, community members and rescue workers to find out what kinds of chemicals are being used. She's made it easier for companies to obtain permits allowing them to fill wetlands and dump toxins. And she has cut state Department of Environmental Protection spending by 13 percent since she has taken office, increasing the workload on individual inspectors and making it more difficult for them to monitor the environment.

Her challenger, state Sen. James McGreevey, mayor of the Woodbridge, the state's fifth largest municipality, is not viewed as a much better alternative. During the Democratic primary, the Vote Environment committee of the New Jersey Environmental Federation endorsed U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews over McGreevey, despite Andrews' less-than-stellar record, and has attacked McGreevey for working on behalf of polluters prior to winning his senate seat.

"If (my candidacy) was solely as an individual candidate who would walk away in November, (environmental groups) could look at the campaign and say it's not viable," she said. "But because of my long track record, because there is some recognition of the work that GREO has done and my work in particular, the environmental political action committees have to seriously consider my candidacy."

Hoffman wants to make it clear, however, that she is not a one-issue candidate. She has taken to the stump on a host of other issues important to working people.

"One of the reasons I did this is that as director of a non-profit environmental group I've had to stay focused on environmental issues," she said. "There was a frustration at not being able to build a broader-based coalition that addressed other issues. I decided to see if a campaign and candidacy could do that."

To that end, she has been meeting with a variety of groups across the state to find out their concerns and has attended rallies on a wide range of issues. She is hoping that by doing so, she is laying the ground work for a progressive resurgence in the state.

"Organizing is a slow process, but sometimes having a vehicle like this can give organizing a boost," she says. "We're hoping to facilitate the organizing, to help the people affected take action. One of our campaign planks is to increase grass-roots democracy. People have to become public citizens.

"A lot of the time, people are afraid. They feel they can't do it. One of the goals of my campaign is to show people that they can."

Hank Kalet is a writer in New Jersey.

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