For ten years Mark Green was a writer and consumer advocate with our citizen groups in Washington. Now, he just won a stunning upset against multimillionaire John Dyson for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate from New York state. Outspent ten to one ($6 million to $600,000), Green’s victory (by a margin of 53 to 47 percent) should remind the national and state Democratic Party of some forgotten old-fashioned political virtues and strategies.
On paper, Green was not supposed to be in the ballpark with Dyson. The Democratic State Committee endorsed Dyson. Big business liked Dyson’s policies when he was in state government. New York City Mayor Edward Koch openly backed Dyson, while Governor Mario Cuomo quietly indicated he preferred Dyson because he, not Green, had the greenbacks to marshall against Senator D’Amato in the general election. Dyson says he is worth $30 million in inherited wealth; his father is reported to be one of the richest men in the country.
The Dyson television campaign perfectly illustrates both the arrogance and complacency of money in politics. He scarcely campaigned personally, had almost no campaign staff, no storefronts and no issues other than that he would be good for business and jobs in New York and that he was responsible for the “I Love New York” phrase.
Green, on the other hand, campaigned from dawn to night all over the state, had a gung ho young campaign staff, issued reams of position papers, including fifty one-a-day ‘solutions” to the state and nation’s problems. His proposals for campaign finance reform, consumer protection, nuclear arms control, easier voter registration, better education and safer environment were specific and reasoned. Throughout the primary campaign Green had Dyson on the defensive, whether during their debates or in the free media which he was successful in generating.
Granted, Green did have some windfall advantages. Dyson’s campaign managers underestimated their opponent and a light voter turnout usually means that liberal voters will be a larger percentage of the Democratic turnout. But Dyson’s other mistakes should be lessons for Democratic candidates nationwide who believe that mimicking Republican campaign techniques is the way to go. Dyson’s overwhelming reliance on electronic campaigning(television) fell before Green’s overwhelming reliance on grass roots campaigning at housing projects, subways, shopping malls and retired citizens’ centers. Dyson’s dependence on slogans fell before Green’s deployment of substance — what should be the core of political contests. Dyson had a commitment of wealth; Green had a wealth of commitment. Enough voters sense the difference.
If the Democrats want to win control of the Senate this year, they are well advised to talk about the issues of fairness, corruption, abuses of power and other subjects that are on people’s minds. Polls are showing a rising swell of anti‑corporate abuse sentiment — from resentment against utilities to toxic waste dumpers to the incessant blackmail of companies threatening to pull out of communities or not write insurance unless they get unconditional surrender from consumers, taxpayers, or governmental officials to their demands.
More local precinct organization, storefronts, volunteers, local rallies and gatherings to enlist voters directly in their campaigns make for favorable contrast with the 30 second, plastic-slick political advertisements that the Republicans specialize in extruding.
The Green-D’Amato race for the U.S. Senate will test these principles. D’Amato can raise all the money he wants. As a ceremonial ribbon-cutting champion, the “Alderman” Senator, as he is called, specializes in telling special interest groups what they want to hear. He is presently the odds-on favorite to win, according to the political matchmakers.
However, D’Amato has never really been challenged. He won a three-cornered race against two Democrats — Elizabeth Holtzman and Jacob Javits in 1980, the year Reagan won big against Carter. Now it is Green who has a popular politician heading his ticket in Governor Cuomo. D’Amato’s reactionary record contrasts sharply with the positions Green has taken over his years as a citizen advocate and author or editor of twelve books.
A Green victory may show the way for the Democratic Party to recover its soul, to play a formidable opposition Party role to Ronald Reagan’s brand of Miller Time Politics, to empower and fight for the interests and participation of the people for a change. It will be an interesting autumn in New York politics.