A Party of One in Maine
Just as the legislative session was winding to a close, John Eder managed to get his first bill passed. For a moment, the freshman representative reveled in a round of back-slapping and high-fives from his Capitol colleagues.
Then he slipped off to write a thank-you note to the committee chairman who helped him.
In a statehouse where Democrats hold a slim margin, the only Green Party candidate elected to a legislature in a general election quickly learned how such subtleties of political etiquette shape the craft of deal-making.
“There is the party stuff, there are issues and then there are relationships,” Eder said. “The last one, relationships, that’s really the only neighborhood I have to work in. I have no party power. It is just me.”
Eder is Augusta’s one-person party. The 33-year-old house painter and massage therapist won an open House seat from Portland in November by a two-thirds majority -- making him at once a national beacon of emerging third-party activity and a lonely testimony to the eccentricity of Down East politics. Eder’s struggle to make a mark in Maine also shows how hard it is for any outsider to function in a fierce two-party system.
Eder had not passed a single bill until his measure to limit pesticide use near schools won approval last month. Though he has more working space than most of his colleagues, he toils in a 6-by-8 cubicle that is crowded with one desk, one chair, one phone and one computer. When his eight-hour-a-week legislative aide is on duty, Eder stands so his assistant can sit.
He has no car, no cell phone, no college degree -- and almost no bank account. He buys his suits at Goodwill. His $5,000 campaign was fueled by shoe leather and financed by state clean election funds.
Yet Eder’s popularity so unnerved Democrats that as soon as he took office, they remapped the boundaries of his district, forcing him to run against a Democratic incumbent in 2004 or move to run from another district. Eder and the Green Party retaliated by suing.
“The Democrats look at the Greens -- and John Eder -- as a threat,” said Mal Leary, a Maine political reporter. “They are really worried that the Greens could manipulate that House seat into a Senate seat -- and after that, who knows what.”
Eder sees the Democrats’ discomfort as a compliment.
“Somehow all of this shows that we’re worth sweating over, and I think that’s great,” he said. “The bottom line is, we do have the power to move the agenda.”
Right from the start, however, Democrats in the part-time Legislature froze Eder out. When committee assignments were handed out, the lawmaker from Portland -- a city with no farms or forests -- found himself on agriculture.
Many of his legislative efforts -- from a bill to reduce mercury use to one advocating alternative fuels -- have been repackaged by Democrats, who then guided the bills to passage. Eder said he voted with the Democrats “99.9% of the time.”
Two years ago, Audie Bock faced a similar situation when she won a special-election spot as a Green in the California Assembly. Bock, who failed to win reelection, left the Greens to become an independent and now is a Democrat.
Bock said in a phone interview from her home in California that she faced such an uphill battle as a third-party legislator that she told her staffers: “Don’t expect doors are going to open to you. You’re really going to have to beat your head against the wall every day.”
Herb Adams, a longtime Democratic representative from another Portland district, offered much the same assessment. Maine traditionally has embraced unconventional politics, Adams noted, from the Temperance Party to Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party.
Still, he cautioned, “when you don’t have a party to back you up, you’re left to rely on the three Ps: personality, platform and persistence.”
Eder scored high in all three categories with voters in Portland’s West End last year, when the Greens picked him to run for the open seat. The waterfront district of 8,000 voters is among the state’s most diverse constituencies, populated by many new immigrants who hold low-income jobs and live in multiple-family dwellings. But the area also is home to grand residences owned by doctors, judges and executives.
Eder’s work painting houses offered flexibility for campaigning. He spent a year knocking on every door in his district. Sometimes he sat for hours while potential voters poured out their problems.
Adams marveled that “with no party structure to tutor him,” Eder instinctively found his pace at corner stores and Saturday-night bean suppers.
“I know people whose door he knocked on three times. He knew the names of their dogs,” Adams said.
Eder came up with this strategy on his own: “I thought, maybe this is what you need to do to be a politician. You need to listen.”
Eder was raised in Brooklyn but left home at 15 1/2 after disputes with his parents. He said he lived first in a friend’s closet and then -- after the friend’s mother discovered him -- landed in a home for troubled boys. As he approached 18, the priest who ran the home told him, “College, or get out.”
The priest vetoed his plan to study fashion design, so Eder packed off to college in Buffalo to explore philosophy. His career as an activist was born when he spotted “this really cute girl” escorting patients at an abortion clinic. He quickly signed up as a clinic escort himself.
But Eder grew restless and dropped out of college. He traveled to Texas and Mexico. In Maine, another “cute girl” picked him up hitchhiking. They married two months later.
“Her name was Kelynda, a very pretty name,” Eder said. “We’re not married anymore.”
Eder attended massage school in Portland in 1997. He opened, then closed, a massage studio that “probably would have been lucrative somewhere other than Maine, where about half the people made less than $10 an hour.”
He met his current companion, former park ranger Suzanne Kahn, while hiking in Acadia National Park. Kahn, who lives with Eder in Portland and works at that city’s children’s museum, schooled him in social decorum.
“She is crazy for thank-you notes and stuff -- she is really good at that,” Eder said. “I am not an organizational person at all.”
The strong ecological stance of Maine’s Green Party prompted Eder to volunteer for a U.S. Senate candidate in 1996. Eder painted campaign signs, “which were continually kicked over.” The experience only made him more committed to a party whose 2000 presidential candidate was Ralph Nader, and whose 10 “key values” include feminism, diversity and ecological wisdom.
Eder was co-chair of the local Green Party when the seat occupied by the former House speaker came open. His hearty defeat of a Democratic opponent -- no Republican joined the race -- surprised Eder and energized the Greens by lifting the party’s national presence beyond the city council level.
“My victory is something interesting for the party,” Eder said. “Now we have a measure for success.”
Greens occupy 18 local seats in Wisconsin, said national party co-chair Ben Maski. Matt Gonzalez, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, is a Green. New Jersey Assemblyman Matt Ahearn recently switched from Democrat to Green.
But Eder’s mandate qualifies him as “a trailblazer” in the party of a quarter of a million members, Maski said, adding that Eder’s rocky experience in the state Capitol also reflects the experience of a party “that has to fight every step of the way.”
Democratic representative Benjamin Dudley, who sits next to Eder in the Legislature, insists “there has been no effort to single him out or reject him because of his enrollment.”
Dudley -- who will run against Eder if the redistricting plan is upheld -- speculated that inexperience accounts for his colleague’s spotty legislative track record.
Dwayne Bickford, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, thinks Eder’s difficulties come from not having “a support system behind him to go out and shepherd his bills. Essentially he is an island unto himself.”
Bickford praised Eder for working both sides of the aisle in Augusta. “He’s a very nice guy -- reasonable and willing to discuss issues,” Bickford said.
Eder “works well with members from both parties,” Dudley said, adding that “John actually is in a superior position because he has his own staff and an office devoted uniquely to him, because he is an entire party.”
Although the Democratic and Republican parties also have headquarters in the Capitol, legislators have no private office space.
With annual salaries of $9,000 for what are officially deemed part-time jobs, legislators in Maine work in a chamber that only this year got air conditioning. Each lawmaker gets a phone -- but no voice mail or computer. Their only dedicated space is a desk that is “31 1/2 inches wide in aisles so crowded that you can’t both have your feet and your wastebasket in the same space,” said Adams.
“The truth is,” Adams said, “we look upon John’s office with pleasant jealousy.”
Leary, the political reporter, said Eder has been stymied in part by his own personal style.
“Ideologue may be too strong a word, but he tends to be not willing to engage himself in the political process, and the process is compromise,” Leary said. “As the only Green, he is saying, ‘I can’t give in because I am the symbol of my party.’ The result is that many of the things he wants to accomplish don’t go anywhere.”
On his pesticide bill, for example, Eder argued that “these chemicals are weapons, and we are using them on our city streets. They are made to kill things, and we are using them around children.” Eder said a senior legislator cast him a long look and said, “ ‘Oh John, you just want to ban all pesticides.’ ” Eder’s big grin covered his face as he recalled: “I replied, ‘That would be my goal.’ ”
After the legislative session ends this month, Eder will spend the summer painting houses, knocking on doors and hoping that a state court blocks the plan to carve up his district.
Eder said he will not defect from the Greens, who “sort of deride career politicians anyway. They think citizens should serve, do their civic duty, and then move on.”
But after six months of “learning the ropes and being the ad hoc leader of my party,” Eder said, he hopes not to vacate his tiny office in Augusta.
He has a lot on his agenda, including seeking health-care benefits for single parents and increasing wages for health-care workers.
He is interested in providing a tax break for rent payments, pointing out that 80% of his constituents are renters.
Many of these ideas come from “what’s real in my life,” Eder said. He noted this is only the second job he’s held that provided health insurance.
There are also the nagging questions of what will happen to his district and whether he will have to run against an incumbent with Democratic backing.
As he raced off to a committee hearing, Eder said he would think about those problems some other day. For now, he said, “I’m having too much fun.”