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At Convention, Texas Greens Welcome Bernie Sanders Voters

Much of the programming at the Green Party National Convention in Houston this weekend seemed calculated to appeal to disaffected Democrats.

Texas delegate Herb Gonzales, Jr. announces the state's votes for president at the Green Party's national convention in Houston on Saturday, August 6, 2016.

HOUSTON — Like most of those who cast a ballot in the Texas Democratic Primary in March, Sheereen Ibtesam voted for Hillary Clinton. But last month’s Wikileaks release of emails that showed Democratic National Committee officials strategizing about how to weaken the candidacy of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders made her regret her vote and question the process she had participated in.

“I was kind of hurt,” said Ibtesam, a graduate student in Geospatial Information Sciences at UT-Dallas. “I felt so bad for the Bernie supporters. I felt like I was mistreated. Now I’m going to do whatever I can to promote the Green Party.”

Ibtesam had never attended a Green Party event before she arrived at the party’s national convention in Houston this weekend, but she said she felt right at home.

Much of the programming seemed calculated to appeal to disaffected Democrats, ranging from former Clinton supporters to Bernie-or-Busters. The event kicked off with a reception that included a special welcome for Sanders supporters. The most buzzed-about speaker Saturday morning was not the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Jill Stein, but Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who addressed the convention via a video feed from the Ecuadoran embassy in London. And Stein made a point of thanking Sanders supporters, “who helped launch a revolutionary political movement and refused to let that movement die in the Democratic Party.”

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks via internet at the Green Party's national convention.Michael Stravato

For third parties like the Greens, presidential-year conventions lack the slick production value and precise choreography on display at the major party events. With minimal television coverage and hundreds of attendees instead of thousands, the Greens don’t speculate about a post-convention bounce in the polls.

But in Texas, the party is hoping that holding the convention on home turf will translate into more connections between local party groups, more interest in the party across Texas and, especially, Green votes from former Sanders supporters.

The stakes are high this year because the Green Party of Texas risks losing automatic access to the ballot for 2018 unless it can win at least 5 percent of the vote in one of the seven statewide races they’re contesting: the presidency, railroad commissioner, three Supreme Court places and two Court of Criminal Appeals spots.

For the first time since 2010, when the Green Party gained ballot access, the Democrats are fielding a candidate in every judicial race — contests in which the Green Party has historically cleared the 5 percent hurdle where there is no Democrat. If the Greens lose ballot access, they’ll have to undertake an expensive petition campaign to regain it for 2018. 

That prospect leaves them counting on the convention to energize long-time supporters and win new ones, particularly among disappointed Democrats.

Party organizers at the county and state level say they’ve seen a dramatic increase this election cycle in the number of people attending local Green Party meetings, volunteering for campaigns and donating money.

“There’s been a definite uptick in interest since 2010, but it was kind of a trickle,” said Katija Gruene, secretary of the Green Party of Texas and an active member since its founding in 1999. “This year, honestly as soon as Bernie endorsed Hillary, it was like flood city.”

Laura Palmer, co-chair of the state party’s executive committee and active in the Harris County Green Party, said that in the past two months 40 people have attended county meetings, up from the more typical 25.

Kevin McCormick, co-chair of the Dallas County Green Party, said he had seen a similar trend in his area. He attributes the increase to Democrats who voted for Bernie Sanders seeking an alternative to Hillary Clinton.

“This whole notion of the Democratic Party as progressive has been cleared up,” McCormick said.

More than 500 people attended the Green Party National Convention, according to national party co-chair Tamar Yager, compared to 300 in 2012. Close to 175 Texans attended the convention, many of whom said they had never been involved with the Green Party before.

Alison Bittick, a 26 year-old from Denton County, and Jade Moore, a 22 year-old kinesiology major at the University of Houston, were Sanders delegates to the state party convention in June. They said the primary process left them disillusioned with the Democratic Party and unwilling to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Bittick, attending her first Green Party event, said Assange’s address was “perfect.” She had met other former Sanders delegates now supporting Stein and a few Democrats who were on the fence about supporting Clinton.

“I think we’re going to have a huge boost to the Green Party in Texas because of this convention,” Bittick said. “It’s so important to go to the South, to places where the Democratic Party doesn’t go because they’re scared.”

Though dozens of Bernie-or-Busters-turned-Green-Party supporters traveled to Houston to see Stein officially win her party’s nomination, they were likely not representative of Democrats as a whole. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll showed Stein with support of 5 percent of the electorate, indicating that Sanders supporters have not yet flocked to her in droves.

Gloria Mattera, chair of the national campaign, said Stein was still developing her campaign schedule for the fall but planned to do a push in right-leaning states in the South, where Democrats don't often campaign, perhaps including Texas.

Stein faces tough electoral math in Texas, where she won just 0.3 percent of the vote in 2012, slightly worse than her national showing of 0.36 percent. Meleiza Figueroa, press director for the campaign, said Stein has raised $80,000 in Texas so far this election cycle.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein.Michael Stravato

 But inside the University of Houston Student Center, where convention attendees frequently broke out into chants of “Jill not Hill” and “We are the 99 percent” and Stein delivered a passionate acceptance speech pledging to eliminate student debt, end police violence and enact a "Green New Deal" to provide jobs and clean energy, it was easy to forget the Green Party’s tiny national support and challenging future in Texas.

One attendee had an especially big dream. Alex Sherwood, a Sanders voter turned Green Party supporter from Harris County, said he thinks Stein could win much more than 5 percent of the vote.

“The goal is that Texas will vote for Jill instead of Trump,” Sherwood said. 

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