So, what's the point?

Kucinich activists persevere in the face of certain defeat

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

Bob Woolf has spent the last few months fervently campaigning for Rep. Dennis Kucinich, but he harbors no illusions that he might have the opportunity to vote for the Ohio Democrat at the polls in November.

"Personally, I never saw Kucinich as being a viable candidate," Woolf said.

So what's the point of spending time and energy if even Kucinich himself acknowledges that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry likely will take the Democratic nomination? Juneau's small contingent of passionate Kucinich supporters say they're spreading the message of the Democratic Party's progressive wing.

"I think a lot of people who support Kucinich, and I think Kucinich himself, will eventually strongly throw our support behind the Democratic nominee, because it's so important to beat Bush," Woolf said. "But I think a lot of his progressive views are really important."

Kucinich and Kerry are the last remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination. The Kucinich campaign's half-dozen Juneau volunteers kicked their efforts into high gear last week to prepare for the candidate's visit, rallying about 100 people for a luncheon and another 100 for a reception at the Hangar on the Wharf on Thursday.

That political activity isn't surprising for Juneau, whose citizens have a reputation around the state for being more activist on both sides of the aisle.

"It's the capital; it's a political city much more than any other city. The percentage of people that work in politics, if you take that in a derivative sense, for state government, is the largest, obviously, of any city in Alaska," said Anchorage political analyst Marc Hellenthal. "Your local news is state news politically during the session. It's right down the street from you."

Anchorage resident and former Green Party mayoral candidate Thomas Higgins said that population-wise, Juneau is disproportionately more activist than Anchorage.

"Last year there was a peace march and I was amazed that Juneau had a larger (attendance rate) than the Anchorage one did. Population-wise, percentage-wise, it didn't make much sense. I don't know if there was a tighter-knit organization that was able to get the notice out there or if the percentage was that much greater," Higgins said.

Jim Sykes, Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate and former state party co-chairman, said the party does significantly better in Southeast Alaska than in the rest of the state, even if there isn't much campaign activity.

"When you get a statewide Green candidate, in Southeast Alaska's region we see an average of 5 percent even if nobody goes to campaign there. The rest of the state generally comes in at an average closer to 3 percent," Sykes said.

He said Sitka, Haines, Petersburg and Tenakee Springs also traditionally have had higher Green Party support than other areas.

"I tend to see Juneau as a more progressive community than many other areas in the state. In Juneau, people think about the politics a little more," Sykes said.

Hellenthal said Juneau liberals are more open about their affiliation in general than those in other parts of the state.

"The new change on the Democratic side is to say, 'It's not liberal.' That's become a bad word. It's 'progressive.' But Juneau people are proud to be liberals," he said.

Perhaps that is because, in Juneau, the liberal activists tend to dominate. Outside of Juneau, self-identified conservatives outnumber liberals 2-to-1, Hellenthal said. In Juneau, the split is about 60 percent to 40 percent, and doesn't account for the number of people who identify as moderates.

Alaska Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich said the Mendenhall Valley tends to be more conservative. Juneau's only Republican delegate to the state Legislature, Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, represents the Valley. Downtown is a lot more liberal. Ruedrich said the party sees the Valley as more important than downtown in terms of campaigning, but Juneau as a whole is definitely a focus.

"Juneau is reasonably important. Its population is 5 percent of the state, and I think we spend more than 5 percent of our effort in Juneau," Ruedrich said. "The Mendenhall Valley is a very contestable territory for Republicans."

Weyhrauch said that, despite Juneau's political activity, it's not surprising that the town doesn't get many visits from major candidates for office.

"Maybe they would concentrate on other areas of the state because the bigger cities are up north, and also the military bases and places where they fly hopping around the globe are up north," Weyhrauch said. "That Kucinich was up here, it's an interesting political statement. It must be an indication of the futility of his campaign. Why would he come to Alaska?"

Weyhrauch noted that activism from both the left and right is good for Juneau.

"The Republicans in this community have done a great deal to help this community in terms of outreach to legislators, in terms of making them feel at home," he said. "It develops tremendous goodwill for Juneau."

But Hellenthal noted it may be a bit more difficult to be conservative in Juneau.

"It's the conservatives that have to hide in Juneau," he said.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, disagreed.

"I think one of the wonderful things about our community is whether you're conservative or progressive, in Juneau you're never punished for acting the way you believe, or speaking the way you believe, and that is true whether it's about politics, social issues, business, economy," Elton said.

He welcomes the activism by people such as the Kucinich volunteers, who have stuck with the race in the face of impending defeat, though he calls himself an "oatmeal Democrat" who identifies with the mainstream of the party.

"I think that diversity of opinion is wonderful for any political party. I don't want to think of my party as the kind of party that doesn't tolerate great debate, that can't work within a very diverse membership group," Elton said. "One of the wonderful things about our town is you can say something or do something and not be ostracized for it."

• Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.



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