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Thursday, November 9, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Greens, Libertarians make third-party inroads

Seattle Times staff reporter

Washington's Greens emerged from Tuesday's election unapologetic for the potential spoiler's role played by their presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, and hoping for new legitimacy as a statewide party.

Joe Szwaja, the Green Party's lone congressional candidate in Washington, claimed 20 percent of the vote against Democrat Rep. Jim McDermott. That's the best showing ever for a U.S. Green Party candidate in an election for national office, according to party officials.

"This party was coming out of nowhere, and we consider that we won a lot," said Kara Ceriello, a Green Party statewide organizer. "The growth of this party will be very powerful."

But the Greens still can't claim to be the state's pre-eminent third party. Based on the results of Tuesday's elections, those bragging rights belong to the Libertarian Party.

In Washington state, the Libertarians ran a full slate of 61 candidates for legislative and national office. Their best showing was a 40th District House race in which Mark Leigh claimed 22 percent of the vote as the sole opponent of state Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon.

In statewide races, the Libertarians' strongest candidate was Ruth Bennett, who earned more than 7 percent of the vote in a three-way battle for lieutenant governor. Bennett's vote gained the Libertarians status as a major party with a spot on the ballots in future state races.

"We're planning on getting several legislative seats next (election) time," said Carol Miller, director of the state Libertarian Party.

Even though the Libertarians boast a presence across the state, they were often overshadowed by the high-profile campaign of the Green Party's national standard bearer, Ralph Nader.

In the weeks before the election, national and regional media focused on the prospects for Nader siphoning away support from Vice President Al Gore in closely fought states.

On Election Day, Nader won more than 90,000 votes in the cliffhanger Florida race that will determine the presidency.

At an Election Night party, Green Party loyalists were largely unmoved by Gore's plight. And some were bitter over the Democrat's efforts to persuade Nader voters to switch to the vice president.

"We do not know how many people went into the voting booths their minds confused, their souls torn," said the Rev. Robert Jeffries of the Good Hope Baptist Church. "May God have mercy on the Democratic Party. They know not what they do."

If the presidency swings to Bush, the Greens likely will continue to be the focus of Democratic anger. But Szwaja said that Green Party also has helped the Democrats by recruiting many new voters. And in the tightly fought U.S. Senate race in Washington, these Green Party voters likely favored Democrat Maria Cantwell over Republican incumbent Slade Gorton.

"We should get some credit for that," Szwaja said.

He said the Green Party now has organizers in all 39 Washington counties. The party will hold its second statewide convention Nov. 18 in Olympia and hopes to offer a much broader slate of candidates in the next election.

Szwaja said he would like to see the Green Party focus on electoral reform as well as environmental issues.

But Washington Democrats don't see Szwaja's showing in the congressional race as a big sign of support for the Green Party.

"I don't think it means too much," said Paul Berendt, state Democratic Party chairman. "Quite frankly, I think some Republicans who just didn't want to vote for Jim McDermott ended up voting for Szwaja. I think it's more of a partisan Republican vote than a Green vote."

Others said Szwaja's showing was an important step for the state Green Party.

"I think it's a base upon which to build," said David Olson, a University of Washington professor of political science. "I think that we are going to be hearing a lot more from the party in the future. Not at the national level, but at the state and local level."

Seattle Times staff reporter Catherine Tarpley contributed to this report.

Hal Bernton's phone message number is 206-464-2581. His e-mail address is hbernton@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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