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Being Green: Rich Whitney Leads His Third-Party Ticket

Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney says no single event or aha moment solidified his desire to get involved in politics. Rather, he says, it began with a series of questions he started asking himself about issues that are often seen as intractable problems in modern society.

“Since a very young age, I have always been curious as to why a modern and presumably intelligent human society is unable to solve problems like poverty, lack of opportunity, poisoning of our environment and other chronic problems that seem to be hounding us,” he says. Whitney adds that his curiosity was spurred by “feelings about the fact that human suffering seems to be so unnecessary at a time that we have so much productive capacity.” 

When asked if he had begun to find any answers to some of these challenges, Whitney quipped, “I’m running on them.” 

Whitney believes that big campaign donations from corporate interests are causing irreparable damage to both major parties and destroying politicians’ ability to make the best choices for the state. But a candidate winning a bid for governor without millions in the war chest is unheard of in Illinois. Whitney believes his platform presents specific strategies to address some of the state’s big problems, such as the budget crisis, could spell success for him in November. Voter dissatisfaction in both the major parties and possibly some backing from labor unions may play a role, as well. 

A civil rights lawyer from Carbondale, Whitney founded the Illinois Green Party and won it official standing during his first bid for governor in the 2006 election. In the race against Judy Baar Topinka and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Whitney pulled in 361,336 votes, 10.4 percent of the statewide total. A statewide candidate can gain established status for his or her party by collecting more than 5 percent of the vote. After that happens, party members are only required 5,000 signatures to get on the ballot for the next election, far fewer than the daunting 25,000 for parties that haven’t crossed the establishment threshold. 

That showing drew Whitney and the party some recognition. As well as Whitney’s bid for governor, Illinois Green Party candidates are competing this year for the U.S. Senate, five statewide offices and several races for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the General Assembly. 

Whitney’s “answers” come in the shape of a platform that includes a state-run bank, support for same-sex marriage, protection of gun owners’ rights, the legalization and taxation of marijuana and a “green,” environmentally friendly capital construction bill. 

He says Illinois voters are ready for proposals that would traditionally be labeled as progressive, but the Democratic Party is to blame for many of those ideas failing to become reality in Illinois.

Most people think of Democrats as being champions of progressive policy, but in reality, they are just as beholden to business interests as their opponents, Whitney says. “We’re looking at a much bigger institutional problem known as the Democratic Party. … Just like the Republican Party, the Democratic Party is a corporate-sponsored party.” 

Whitney has long sought answers outside the two major political parties, joining the Socialist Labor Party in the 1970s. Whitney no longer identifies as a socialist but says he draws from the experience. “I don’t consider myself a socialist anymore, although some of the best ideas of socialism play a role. … Good ideas are good ideas, no matter where they come from.”

He accuses Democrats of “occasionally putting on a show for progressive forces” of their voter base while failing to push any major policy changes. He says the base is growing frustrated with this inaction. “Now, with the Green Party, they do have somewhere else to go.”

Not everyone agrees, however, that the majority of Illinois citizens are ready to support all of Whitney’s ideas. “He thinks government needs to play a major role in our lives. He also favors legalization of marijuana,” says Mike Lawrence, the former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. 

“I give him credit for taking positions that may not be generally popular, but they will — those positions will — become more of a factor if people begin looking at him as somebody who might win or get close to winning,” Lawrence says.

Whitney does support a strong public sector. While other candidates are pushing administrative cuts, he is calling for more state jobs and opposes a recently created two-tier pension system, which rolls back some benefits for workers hired after the new rules were created.

He says revenue from his proposed state bank would help pay down Illinois’ pension obligation at an accelerated pace. Under the plan, instead of hiring investment firms to handle the state’s money, the state treasurer would cut out the middleman and invest it through the state bank. “Instead of private banks making money off our money, we make money off our money.”

The bank, modeled after the Bank of North Dakota, also could provide low-interest loans to students, farmers, small businesses and renewable energy developers, Whitney says, helping to stabilize Illinois’ economy in times of recession by keeping lines of credit flowing. “It seems to me that a good part of the answer [to many institutional problems] has to be in what we do with our public sector, not only to create jobs directly but in allowing real free enterprise to flourish.”

Whitney is also calling for a state income tax increase, which he says would bring in up to $7 billion. The plan is along the lines of House Bill 174 — previously known as Senate Bill 750 and long championed by state Sen. James Meeks — which passed in the Senate last year. That version includes increasing the state income tax by 2 percentage points, bringing the individual income tax up to 5 percent. It also would expand sales taxes on some services. The plan would be paired with relief for middle- and lower-income families. The proposal is geared at taxing based on ability to pay and moving the funding mechanism for K-12 education away from property taxes, a system that many believe creates inequity among Illinois public schools.

Whitney says Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn did not do a thorough job of selling such a tax increase and explaining how all of the components would work together. “I think part of the problem is that when Quinn advocated it, he just talked about an income tax increase in a vacuum, not the kind of comprehensive package that we’ve had with [SB750,” Whitney says. “I think the people are ready for it if it’s presented as a complete package.”

He adds that Illinois’ tax system is one of the most regressive in the country and contributes to its budget woes. “It’s no wonder the state is having trouble paying its bills when we have such a backwards system.” 

Whitney says an additional small tax, likely pennies or less per transaction, on what he calls “speculative trading,” such as on futures and derivatives, could potentially bring in more than $4 billion. That tax would not apply to bank transactions or the purchase of traditional stocks. Whitney calls it “kind of a variation of a tax on gambling.”

Energy policy is another area that Whitney believes could be reformed, not just to benefit the environment but also to balance out the state’s regressive tax policy. He backs a “fee and dividend” policy over the better-known cap-and-trade approach to regulating carbon emissions. Whitney says cap-and-trade is difficult to administer, and the system is easy to game. “You see polluters getting credit for not building something that might have caused carbon pollution … or for exporting carbon pollution to a Third World country.”

Instead, he says, those creating carbon emissions should be charged fees based on output. Whitney admits that would cause short-term increases in energy costs until more Earth-friendly alternatives are sought out. His plan calls for the government to take the money from fees and give most of it back to consumers to cushion the blow of the higher energy costs. Lower-income residents, who would presumably have a more difficult time paying their power bills, would get higher dividends.

Consumers also might put some of the money back into the economy, creating a stimulus. Whitney says he hopes the plan would encourage people to make some energy efficient purchases, such as home insulation, new appliances or more fuel-efficient cars. “You create incentives at all levels, both at the producer and the consumers.”

Government cuts are part of Whitney’s platform, as well. He is calling for a forensic audit and $2 billion in cuts to trim what he calls pork from the state budget. He admits it is sometimes difficult to determine what is a valuable project and what might amount to a political favor or pure pandering to voters. He says that is why the origin of each project should be traced and its merit assessed. 

Lawrence says Whitney has presented a far more specific budget plan than his opponents. 

“We don’t see that kind of candor from the major party candidates.” In his Ends and Means column Charles N. Wheeler III wrote: “Whitney’s ideas may strike one as unconventional; certainly they’re controversial. But unlike Quinn’s half-measures and the GOP’s sound bites, the Green candidate’s platform squarely addresses the state’s deficit and proposes detailed solutions. Voters weary of the political games played by the two major parties might find that refreshing.”

But with the Whitney for Governor election committee declaring only $31,967 in campaign funds raised during the January-to-July reporting period, it will be difficult for Whitney to expose voters to his policies through traditional means. 

Lawrence, who was also press secretary to former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, says Whitney just may not have enough money to reach voters. “I think it would be very difficult. He’s still not well-known. Candidates typically build name recognition and get their message across through TV advertising.”

However, Lawrence says, Whitney’s party is gaining popularity. “Green is getting to be a better brand, a more popular brand. People, especially young people, are more environmentally conscious.”

While Whitney is against accepting backing from large corporations and business interests, he is courting an endorsement from Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as well as other labor unions. 

He says unions are different from corporations because they represent people instead of prioritizing profits over other moral considerations. “I know there is a tendency in some circles to equate the two. … Whatever their imperfections, and they do have some, [unions] are still advocates of the interests of working people.”

AFSCME does not plan to announce any endorsement for governor until its statewide meeting this month. Even then, it may opt not to endorse a candidate. The union, which is state government’s largest, did not make an endorsement in this year’s primary or the 2006 general election. 

“In the case of a third party, there are going to be obvious questions about their ability to put together a winning campaign. And a lot of those questions are the simple function of your electoral system. But they are questions that have to be answered if you are going to consider making an endorsement decision like that,” says AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. “At this time, we are looking at all the candidates. Certainly, none of them is a stranger to our members.” 

Whitney says the inaction of both parties in the face of some of the most serious problems the state has faced in recent history should prompt voters to seek out an alternative in November. “Have we hit bottom yet? … I would hope it doesn’t have to get a whole lot worse for people to wake up.”

When asked whether he is concerned that his candidacy might pull votes from Quinn, the more progressive of the two major party candidates — and whose platform aligns more closely with Green Party ideals — Whitney says: “This is the worst budget disaster in Illinois history right now, and it has come from seven years of Democratic control of our state government. People need to look at that. What are we getting from Democrats?”

Whitney brushes aside any analysis that focuses more on his effect on the other candidates’ numbers than his own bid for the office. “A vote for Rich Whitney to win is a vote for Rich Whitney to win, not a vote for Bill Brady to win. … This, of all times, is the time to vote for what you want.”

Although Whitney says he is in the race to win, long-time observers of Illinois politics speculate that his showing will be similar, or possibly a little better, than his last race for governor. 


Green Party statewide office candidates

U.S. Senator - LeAlan M. Jones
Governor - Rich Whitney
Lt. Governor - Don W. Crawford
Attorney General - David F. Black
Comptroller - R. Erika Schafer
Treasurer - Scott K. Summers


Illinois Issues, September 2010

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