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Rosalea Baker: Peter Camejo -- Presente!

Stateside With Rosalea Baker

Peter Camejo -- Presente!

Often referred to disparagingly by the mainstream media as “the perennial candidate”—after all, he first ran for President in 1976—Peter Camejo was a huge force in progressive politics in the United States. He died on September 13, having just recently switched his treatment for a recurrence of lymphoma to an experimental drug. On November 23, at International House in Berkeley, CA, a memorial service was held in his honor.

::Camejo, the Venezuelan::
Born into a wealthy Venezuelan family, Camejo’s ties to that nation, and to Latin America in general, remained strong.

Click to enlarge

Martin Sanchez, SF Consul General of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, reads from a September 18 letter sent by the expelled Venezuelan Ambassador to the U.S.

Transcript of letter:

In the midst of all the cacophony surrounding the dramatic events that have taken place around me recently, I experienced a moment of painful silence in hearing about the passing of my friend Peter Camejo. Back in the early '90s, when I was a member of the Venezuelan Congress from a tiny party called La Causa Radical--it was so small that we used to joke the entire party could fit inside an old Volkswagen Beetle--we discovered Peter. And for me and a small group of leftist colleagues in Congress, he was a legend. We could call it a rebel with a cause.

I initially met him in one of his first adventures, the Progressive Alliance for Alameda County, a group whose mission was nothing less than to change the electoral system in the United States. The aim was to create a system that would allow for inclusion of representatives of minorities. For this, he had brought me and a companera from New Zealand to talk about our experiences, in California. Back then, we were unable to imagine that we--the Left--in Venezuala would soon be in the government.

Many years later, we reconnected in the U.S.--me as Ambassador of my country, and him as a prominent member of the Green Party. It was through Peter that I was able to connect with many progressive Hispanic leaders who are now friends, and most importantly to later connect them with each other. He was always there for us, for Venezuela--his childhood country and his parents’ land. He was critical of ?? and attentive to the progressive Venezuelan process. He was our ?? hero.

Bernardo Alvarez

::Camejo, the mentor::
A theme returned to again and again by the people who spoke at the memorial—eighteen names were listed on the program—was how much they benefited from Peter’s mentorship. Gayle McLaughlin, who is mayor of the Bay Area city of Richmond and a Green Party member, said she first heard Camejo speak to a crowd in Chicago in 1976, and that he seemed to speak directly to her of the “elevation of my role in society as a working class person.”

Matt Gonzalez, former Chair of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and VP candidate on Ralph Nader’s ticket in this year’s presidential election, said that Peter’s counsel and example had taught him not to be “concerned about [getting only] 0.5 percent or 3 percent [of the vote] because you know you’re building something for the future.... The politics I engage in will continue to be informed by Peter Camejo.”

Nader, who garnered considerable local media attention a the memorial, said that “to know Peter is never to know him fully,” and called him a “many-splendored human being.” He added that Camejo was “not a windmill (although he loved wind power); he had a compass.” Leslie Evans, the editor of Camejo’s forthcoming autobiography, added weight to Nader’s comment that Peter believed the Democratic Party was a means of repressing progressive politics, by asking for anyone with the academic credentials and knowledge to do so, to complete Peter’s unfinished book on that subject.

::The future and the past::
The future for Green politics is very near at hand. December 6, to be exact. That is when Malik Rahim is running for the 2nd Congressional District in Louisiana, which includes New Orleans. The early voting period has already been and gone. The Democratic incumbent, William Jefferson, is in some trouble with the law, but the trial for his 16-count corruption indictment was postponed until 2009 the day early voting closed. And the next day, his lawyers moved to have 14 of the charges dropped, citing constitutional issues of “exceptional importance.”

For a view into U.S. socialist politics—Camejo ran for President in 1976 as the candidate of the Socialist Workers Party—and a remembrance of Peter from someone who wasn’t at the memorial, see this commentary by Louis Proyect. In it, Proyect refers to Camejo’s Avocado Declaration, made at the beginning of the 2004 Presidential election cycle, in which he talks about the crossroads the Green Party was at, and the origins of the two-party system in the U.S.

And for my view--what follows are excerpts from Statesides written between 2002 and 2004 where I mention Peter Camejo and what he represents in contemporary U.S. politics as I see it. I never met the man, except once I was introduced to him in the street and we shook hands, and I’m not active in any political party, so these are all views from the sidelines.

::2002 CA Gubernatorial Election::
15 April, 2002

For my money the most interesting election story will be the lock-out of Peter Camejo from the media spotlight, as will inevitably be the case. He is the Green Party candidate for Governor of California. Characterised in 1968 by then-Governor Ronald Reagan as "one of the ten most dangerous people in California", perhaps because of his pro-civil rights, anti-war activism, Camejo ran for President in 1976 as a socialist, gaining ballot status in 30 states. Among other things, he has worked to defend the rights of Latino workers in the US and to free political prisoners in Latin America, and promotes socially responsible investments that also meet environmentally sound criteria. Camejo speaks fluent Spanish and English, being a first-generation Venezuelan-American.

12 August, 2002

On Tuesday evening the political editor of one of the local tv news shows did a piece about "the man the Governor doesn't want you to know about" - Green gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo. The week before, Camejo's local paper - which is widely read in the Bay Area - started a story about him with a small photo and a couple of paragraphs on the front page, then continued the story on page 8, giving him a third of that page. They did the same with a photo of Donald Rumsfeld and a story on Iraq. The other third of page 8 was ads, so the immediate impression on turning to page 8 was the juxtaposition of just two words: "Iraq" and "Green". A scare tactic perhaps? Vote Green and you'll elect a war-mongering Republican is a message that's consistently put forth in far less subtle ways, with George W. Bush as the ipso facto.

Political analysts are saying that Camejo could make a big difference to the campaign, despite having a campaign budget of only $250,000 compared with the millions that both Davis and Simon have. There is continuing worry within the Republican camp about Simon's financial dealings, and the Democrats worry that Davis comes across as being more concerned with money than with heartfelt concerns. According to Camejo in the television report, Simon wants him included in the candidate debates on NBC and Davis "threatened NBC and said he wouldn't turn up if they included me." He says Davis thinks he is a "watermelon" - which Camejo says means he's green on the outside and red on the inside because he's for the environment and social justice.

14 October, 2002

But wait! I missed something. The buzz the previous weekend had been about the forthcoming TV debate between Davis and Simon, which had been organized by the 'Los Angeles Times'. Simon asked if the Green candidate, Peter Camejo, could be included in the debate, to which Governor Davis responded that if Camejo was included, he himself would not appear. The 'LA Times' said they wouldn't invite Camejo because he hadn't reached 15 percent in the polls (the de facto standard for a candidate's inclusion in a presidential debate).

OK, said Simon, and put Peter Camejo on his guest list for the invited audience at the debate. No way, said Davis, threatening a no-show again if Camejo was even allowed in the audience. Simon again capitulated. Whatever your feelings about minority parties, there are a couple of points to note about this. The 'LA Times' debate is probably the ONLY debate Davis and Simon will have on this campaign. Davis had previously refused to be in a debate arranged by local media frontman and 'SF Chronicle' columnist Emil Guillermo, and Davis's attitude is that debates just give his opponents the opportunity to get free publicity riding on his governish coat-tails.

To someone like me, from a parliamentary democracy where televised debates are de rigeur for party leaders, the cavalier attitude of His Eminence, the Governor of California, was gob-smacking, mind-boggling, in-your-face confirmation that, indeed, voters in the US are dead in the water at election time. They are starved of debate by pollies, campaign strategists, and a media hamstrung in its efforts to fulfill its public service requirements by having to rely on the politicians being willing to participate. Even the local TV political commentator said that morning - when the debate was still uncertain - that it was evidence of a "sham democracy". There should be six or seven debates, he said.

29 October, 2002

(free five-minute spots on KTVU for all the candidates)
It was the first time I'd seen the Green Party's Peter Camejo speak, and he came across full of nervous energy, speaking spontaneously in sentences that sometimes started on one train of thought and ended on another. He seemed to be trying to touch on every policy platform in the five minutes, but he saved his most important message for the end. Realistic about his chances of actually becoming Governor, he simply said: "Vote Green." This Saturday he was on 'Latin Eyes', a magazine-style TV programme about the Latino/a community, and by virtue of the question and answer style of the item Camejo seemed much more focused.

7 November, 2002

And while you're there [CA SoS website of election night results] I urge you to look closely at the results for the Green candidates in all of the categories under "Statewide Contests". Let me list the percentages for you here:

Governor: Peter Camejo 5.3 (10.2) Lt. Governor: Donna J. Warren 4.2 (8.8) Secretary of State: Larry Shoup 3.9 (11.4) Controller: Laura Wells 5.8 (9.6) Treasurer: Jeanne-Marie Rosenmeier 5 (10.1) Attorney General: Glen Mowrer 3.9 (8.3) Insurance Commissioner: David Sheidlower 3.9 (11.8)

The figures in brackets are the total percentages for non-D/R candidates. Except in the case of the Attorney General, those percentages were higher - often double - the percent difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates. Averaged over the seven races, the Greens captured 4.57 percent of the vote for each statewide office; votes for all non-D/R candidates averaged 10 percent in each race.

Put simply, almost one in twenty voters in the California statewide contest voted Green, and one in ten chose to vote for neither of the two major parties.

::2003 CA Governor Recall Election::
22 September, 2003

On September 4, SVREP [Southwest Voter Registration Education Project] held a large fund-raising dinner in Oakland, where they hope to open an office. All the major gubernatorial candidates were invited to speak, but in the end only Peter Camejo, from the Green Party, attended. A Venezualan by birth, he was enthusiastically received, as were many of his party's policies - including electoral reforms to enable legislatures and local bodies to more accurately represent the demographics of their constituencies.

26 September, 2003

Well, possums. I've just been watching the much vaunted one-and-only debate between the five top candidates in the California Recall election. Decided I'd have the experience in a sports bar / focus group kind of setting, with the usual bunch of polisci and journalism students from many political persuasions and ethnic groups.

And what fun there was to be had! The debate moderator called Arianna Huffington "Ms. Camejo", and Cruz Bustamante "Governer Schwarzenegger". People talked over top of one another. At one point the moderator (Stan Statham, CEO of the California Broadcasters Association) had to remind the studio audience that they weren't watching Comedy Central, and at another that if they wanted to boo or applaud they could pay $20 to the appropriate authorities for a permit and go do it out in the carpark.
...SNIP... [The candidates were Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington, Tom McLintock (R), Cruz Bustamente, Peter Camejo (Green)

Peter Camejo pointed out that he's being excluded from the next debate, being run by the League of Women Voters, but managed to get in many of the Greens' policy platforms at every opportunity while still "treating the other candidates with respect" by not joining in the four-way shoutfest. He was probably somewhat undermined by the tags that NBC11 put up as graphics when he was talking about how to balance the state budget: "Never held elective office. Ran for president as a Socialist in 1976. Financial Investment Adviser."

All in all a most instructive little evening, particularly my newfound knowledge that all these politically savvy young people perceive of a robust debate - the type you take for granted Down Under - as something scary and unpleasant and not informative in and of itself.

6 October, 2003

It's not just the matter of Huffington withdrawing - the first question on the ballot asks if the governor should be recalled, and all the yes or no votes her supporters have already cast on that question will still be counted. It will be interesting to see if the "yes" votes outnumber the "no" votes (or vice versa) by fewer than the number of votes cast for her. And how do we know she's not in cahoots with one of the contenders still in the race?

Well anyway, without Arnold and Arianna dominating it, the final candidate forum on telly yesterday was a pretty tame affair, but revealing. Held in San Diego, it was sponsored by the Union-Tribune, KPBS, San Diego State University and the League of Women Voters. McClintock, Bustamante and Camejo participated. A week ago it seemed that Camejo wouldn't be there because the threshold for participation was set at 5 percent support in recent polls, but the League got that lowered to 3 percent - a move that might open them up to charges that they're not as non-partisan as they say they are.

::2004 Presidential Election::
28 June, 2004

[Green Party Presidential Candidate Nominating Convention]
Well, it's now Saturday night and all has been revealed. Camejo and Nader were eliminated because they did not indicate in writing that they wanted the nomination. So David Cobb ended up with 408 of the 800-odd votes, beating "No Nominee" by only 100 votes. The Cobb/LaMarche website seems to show that there is a deep division within the Greens about whether fielding a candidate risks splitting the vote and getting GW Bush re-elected.

It would also seem that there is some bitterness between the Greens and the Nader/Camejo ticket. Peter Camejo polled a respectable 5.3 percent of the votes in the 2002 California governor's race, and impressed a lot of people in the televised debate during the recall election the following year.

It's also worth having a look at the Nader website to read the letter he sent the Green Party Convention delegates if you want to suss out the strategy that is in play here.

19 July, 2004

[Urging readers to work to get Nader/Camejo on the ballot in their state.]
This is a wartime election with a wartime president running for re-election during a time of national insecurity and economic uncertainty, and on historical precedent alone it's obvious he is going to win OR lose big time. Not by a few votes, but by a double-digit percentage. Everybody of whatever political stripe who opposes US intervention in Iraq stands only to benefit by enabling the Nader-Camejo voice to be heard, and if they feel the risk is too great to vote for them in November, then don't.

It's not like I'm asking you to collect signatures for the Pharmaceutical and Hospital Insurance Lobby Party candidates, or the Energy and Defense Contractors Lobby Party candidates, now is it?

The reason those lobby groups don't have candidates is because they don't need them. They get the legislation passed that they care about by working behind the scenes, away from where you and I can scrutinize their actions. Can you honestly say that YOU don't need candidates who are upfront about where they stand on the issues that matter to you?

20 July, 2004

[Nader-Camejo Campaign Rally in San Francisco]
Perhaps surprisingly, considering that the Nader-Camejo ticket wasn't endorsed by the Greens at their nominating convention last month, the organisers of this rally included many local Green Party leaders. Signs above the stage highlighted the concerns the candidates share with what is called the progressive left here in the States: No to the war, the draft, the Patriot Act; Yes to a living wage, universal healthcare, driver's licences for all.


The Nader-Camejo ticket, Nader said, "pulls the Democrats and Republicans back in the direction of the people," instead of leaving them to be pulled only in the direction of the corporate funders of their campaigns. Their ticket is in the tradition, he said, of the great US movements for social change that "never settled for less."

7 October, 2004

[After televised Vice Presidential debate]
One of the CSPAN channels - a cable entity that broadcasts Congress, etc - instead of a pundit-fest had three phone lines open for callers at the end of the veep debate. One line was for Cheney supporters, ditto Edwards supporters, and the third line for undecideds. I get the impression those lines are rigged in the sense that the parties have people standing by to call in, so you end up hearing some pat comment rather than the spontaneous reaction of a free-thinking individual.

One ratbag from California got on air via the undecided line and said that he still didn't like either Cheney or Edwards, but he wished he could have seen Peter Camejo up there in the debate. Camejo is Ralph Nader's vice presidential running mate, and he made an excellent showing for himself when he was included in the debates here in CA when he was running for governor on the Green Party ticket.

Nader isn't the Green Party nominee for President this time around, though he is on the ballot in most states either as an independent candidate or as the nominee of one (and in one state, two) of any number of smaller parties. But not in California, where the Democrats managed to keep the Nader-Camejo ticket off the ballot altogether. As the caller to CSPAN said, he'll be writing in Nader's name when he goes to vote.



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