The Green Party's McKinney on the 'Spoiler' Question

Controversy has always been Cynthia McKinney's trademark. This election season, she may have finally found her perfect political home. Last weekend, the 53-year-old former Georgia congresswoman clinched the Green Party's presidential nomination; 35-year-old hip-hop activist and activist Rosa Clemente will be her running mate.

A firebrand politician best known for her impolitic statements during her more than 20 years in public life, McKinney has had a mixed electoral record as a Democrat in her district in recent years. After 10 years in office, she was upset in 2002 by fellow Democrat Denise Majette, re-elected in 2004, and ousted again in 2006 by the 4th District's current Democratic congressman, Rep. Hank Johnson. Most commentators point to her altercation with a U.S. Capitol police officer and her accusations that the Bush administration covered up its role in the 9/11 attacks to explain the losses, but McKinney cites voting irregularities like those highlighted in "American Blackout," a 2006 documentary that focuses on her career.

McKinney's nomination brings some name recognition to the Green Party, but it's unclear how far that will take them this election cycle. The Green Party barely made a dent in the 2004 election, picking up only 119,859 votes, or 0.1 percent of the total. The specter of Ralph Nader's more successful 2.8 million vote bid in 2000 looms large for Democrats determined to prevent another third party spoiler. McKinney is joined as a non-major-party contender this year by both Nader, running as an independent, and another former U.S. House member from Georgia, Bob Barr, the Libertarian nominee. The troika may increase the number of votes that go to "spoiler" candidates--or merely splinter it.

McKinney's goal: a full 5 percent of the vote. Checking in with her just before she won the nomination, NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul spoke with McKinney about her reasons for running and how her campaign might affect the election season. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Is there a story behind your campaign website's name, RunCynthiaRun?
Cynthia McKinney: It came from California supporters who really, really wanted me to run. I was inclined not to. I had delayed my personal aspirations for so long, but the RunCynthiaRun group just wouldn't take no for an answer. There's been a long-standing relationship between me and individual members of the Green Party. They were interested in me in 2000 and again in 2004. I have been requested several times to run as a member of the Green Party. The Greens have never been on the ballot in Georgia because of restrictive ballot access laws. So while I understood that their ideals were in the places that public policy ought to be, people in Georgia just didn't really know who they were.

You stayed with the Democratic Party until last year. Why the decision to go with the Green Party route now?
The Greens have always been supportive of my political aspirations. My very first political friend was a member of the Green Party. If you view the Youtube clip [of my announcement that I was leaving the Democratic Party], it's really clear.

What kind of strategy are you employing for the campaign?
There are currently about 200 members of the Green Party who are elected officials. These are mostly local elections. The Green Party does not yet have representation on the federal level, but it's quite a successful "minor" party. With 5 percent of the electorate, it can move from minor party status to major party status [and qualify the Green Party for federal funds]. So our goal is to get onto as many ballots as we can, since then achieving a 5 percent goal becomes possible. When I got to Washington D.C., I realized that public policy was made around the table. The 5 percent puts another seat at the table.

Tell me about your prospects for getting this 5 percent, since polls are showing that all the third parties combined are only at about 1 percent. That's a pretty big gap.
Yes, we have our work cut out for us. But I think the fact that Congress has failed to stop funding the war and is aiding and abetting in the illegal spying against American citizens, combined with the fact that we don't have a livable wage, don't have single-payer health care system, are not subsidizing higher education as we should be, have not seen a cogent energy policy come through Congress, are seeing people losing their homes in a record foreclosure mortgage crisis -- and predatory lending has not been tamed -- the Bush tax cuts have not been rolled back, then we certainly can't trust those who created the problems to solve them.

A lot of those issues sound similar to the Democratic Party platform.
I don't think that assessment is accurate. The Democrats stand for what we've been given now. While many Democratic activists may want a single-payer health care system, neither one of the final two Democratic candidates who were able to garner so many delegate votes were supportive of a single-payer health care system. They have also taken impeachment off the table.

There are quite a few prominent third-party candidates running this year, including your former fellow Congressman from Georgia, Bob Barr, over at the Libertarian Party. Is he basically the conservative version of you?
The only thing I would say about Bob is that it's interesting that Georgia is so well-represented in the non-major party lineup. Of course, I worked in the Congress for a long time with Bob Barr and, in fact, members of the Libertarian Party have reached out to me on several occasions this year and I expect there will be more mutual reaching.

So you might actually be working together on some issues?
I didn't say that.

What does mutual reaching mean then?
It means that where there is the possibility of having discussions, then I wouldn't turn down discussions. There's nothing afoot, if that's what you mean. I would take it issue by issue, and see what the future brings.

Of course, there's the perennial third-party candidate question: What do you make of arguments that you'll pull votes away from the Democrats, thereby ushering into office a Republican who shares even fewer of your views?
That's not grounded in the facts. As the film "American Blackout" points out very well, there were numerous instruments used in the 2000 and 2004 elections to disfranchise voters. Voter caging and voter ID laws exist to disfranchise voters. The question I believe Newsweek ought to be asking is how can we ensure that people who have the right to vote also have the opportunity to vote. And after their vote is cast, how can we ensure their votes are counted. How can an environment that does not ensure election integrity ensure us that the will of the voter is reflected in the announced outcome?

So it doesn't concern you that taking even 1 percent away from a major political party could result in four more years of policies that differ even more drastically from those of the Green Party?
That's your language, not my language. I gave you my take, but you haven't accepted my take. Maybe you would feel differently if your vote wasn't counted. In an environment where people vote their values, we must have election integrity where every vote is counted. We didn't have that in 2000 and 2004 and neither the Democrats nor the Republicans did anything about it. But in 2004, the Green Party did something about it.

The last time you made big headlines was in 2006, with the incident involving the Capitol Police, and that was far from the only controversy that's come up in your political career. Has that been a problem for you during this campaign?
People care first and foremost that their votes are counted, people want the United States out of war and occupation, people want to have access to healthcare, people don't want to have to sleep in their cars because they've lost their homes. I think the fact that former GAO comptroller David Walker is making a comment that our fiscal house is not in order-those are the issues weighing heavily on people's minds and those are the issues that I talk about.

If you were to be elected, what would be item number one on the McKinney agenda?
Is it OK if I do several things simultaneously [laughs]? First of all, we have to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up an orderly withdrawal process for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We would also begin work immediately on a budget to submit to Congress that satisfies human needs and doesn't reflect corporate greed as the current budget does. I would also remind the members of Congress swept into office with me as the New Broom Coalition that we could initiate impeachment proceedings. Also, I would make public the papers pertaining to certain tragedies in the life of our country, like the JKF assassination, Martin Luther King Jr., and the 9/11 Truth Movement-I would release everything the Bush administration knew about September 11. One more thing I would do is begin the process of putting into place a Department of Peace. It would be wonderful to rename the Department of State as the Department of Peace and have our ambassadors go around the world with a mission…to begin their engagement in the world based on human rights and peace.

You were earning your Ph.D. at Berkeley recently, right?
Let's put it this way; I've deferred one time too many. But I'm hoping to enroll in some institution once again in January.

In January? That's not very optimistic [about the election outcome], is it?
Well, I might have to take another deferral in that case.