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First Green elected in 2006
Twenty-nine-year-old Cara Jennings became the first Green Party member to win elected office in 2006, sweeping to victory with 61.7 percent of the votes in a March 28th run-off City Council election in the South Florida oceanside city of Lake Worth.
A part-time mentor of high school students who believes decision-making should come from a community of equals, not from "top-down authoritative government," she beat out a 50-year-old former head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce who was backed by big business.
Not only was Jennings' grassroots campaign supported by the Sarasota Green Party and local chapters of The National Organization for Women, the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club, but she also garnered the endorsements of the local South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
"As chairwoman of the city-appointed Stakeholder Advisory Committee, she's helped draft a master plan for the city's development, and she has championed the need for affordable housing well before it became a common cry."
"She also helped the Guatemalan community in hurricane relief efforts and was instrumental in developing a community garden as an educational tool for area youth."
"If elected, Jennings has strong ideas on the hot button issues. She wants to see the utilities task force become a permanent fixture, and to bring down power bills, she'd like Lake Worth to use alternative energy resources and "time of day metering" that rewards consumption during off-peak hours. She'd also push for a community center to address the long-term issues presented by day laborers."
"But Jennings' key strength is in raising awareness for other critical issues that get too easily overshadowed in the city's preoccupation with its electricity woes. She sees more after-school activities, recreational programs and counseling as key to combating youth gang activity and the crime it breeds. She'd also advocate for a slumlord accountability policy that targets negligent landlords and for historic designation for neighborhoods on the west end."
Jennings-who took no money from developers or large companies-raised and spent approximately $9,000 in her campaign, raised primarily from friends and family. Her Republican opponent, who was financed and backed by the Hispanic community, developers and big sugar companies, spent almost three times as much, including on negative attack 'hit' pieces against Jennings, calling her an 'unqualified anarchist'.
In reality, 'anarchist' is a label that Jennings and her two sisters Amiee and Coleen wear proudly. Back in 1996, while on their way to the 1996 Youth Liberation Conference in Sarasota, they founded what today has become a worldwide political theatre movement-the "Radical Cheerleaders."
Her subsequent work on building community gardens embodied that same self-empowerment vision, helping local low-income families and non-profit agencies educate inner city children on environmental issues and providing land and resources for families to grow some of their own food and medicine. This experience helped Jennings gain direct experience working with some of the most severely under-represented communities in her local area-historic black neighborhoods in West Palm Beach, Delray and Boynton, immigrant communities in Lake Worth, and homeless women and children in transition at the local Lord's Place shelter-and helped inspire her to run.
Embodying that same grassroots philosophy, Jennings and over twenty supporters walked door-to-door to over 3,000 Lake Worth households, including 1,000 by Jennings herself. Even her parents joined in, with her father going door-to-door every day of the campaign's last week. Jennings also sent out a campaign post-card to voters in the district during the first round, and then followed it up with both a post card, and then a hand-signed letter in the run-off.
Combating her opponents' charge of being 'unqualified', Jennings focused on showing a command of a wide range of personal issues in the candidate debates, that together with the door-to-door contact she made with voters.
"I felt it was really important to give voters a sense of who I am and how I would govern. For example, I didn't just say what people wanted to hear, just to get elected, but instead focused on what I thought the true priorities of the entire community should be. So for example, during the debate in one of our upscale neighborhoods, I told them that I did not support doing further landscaping on their neighborhood streets, because there were blighted, lower-income part of the community that needed our attention first. Maybe some of the people at that debate didn't agree, but they knew that I would be straightforward and honest as a council member for having said it."
On the issue of being an anarchist itself, Jennings said that she did not go into the campaign attempting to publicize it, or even focus on her Green Party membership, in what was ostensibly a non-partisan race. Rather, she said, she hoped to simply work on community issues that she felt were being neglected. But when her opponent sent out thousands of post cards attacking Jennings as an anarchist (two of her opponents six direct mail pieces focused exclusively on this), it became a public issue. This gave Jennings a chance to turn this to her advantage.
"Hierarchy in government is something to be challenged. Initially my stance on this may have been confusing to people, especially when they were receiving the negative direct mail pieces. But I believe very strongly in making decisions based upon public input, and I communicated that every chance I could." This approach built support for the campaign, such that the bigger, more establisment Palm Beach Post, which had not endorsed Jennings in the race's first round, joined the Sun Sentinel and endorsed her in the run-off. "People endorsed me knowing who I was, not in spite of it."
Despite being outspent almost three-to-one, Jennings also felt her history of community involvement compared to her opponent's came through as the campaign wore on. Her votes in the run-off (1,589 out of 2,574 cast) more than doubled the 741 she received in the first round (out of 2,550 cast), when she finished second out of four candidates, trailing the candidate she ultimately defeated in the run-off 43.6 percent to 29.1 percent.
One of five children who grew up in a working-class Irish Catholic family, first in New York City then in South Florida, Jennings left Florida State University after two years to travel the country, hitchhiking to progressive events and rallies, and immersing herself in anarchist philosophy and practice.
In 1998, she lived for three months on the 20-acre organic, vegan, permaculture-oriented Gandhi Farm in Queens County, Nova Scotia, with no electricity, running water or combustible engines. Then in 2002, Jennings was named by Utne Reader as one of their "30 under 30" most influential young future leaders to watch across the United States. In 2003, she was at the forefront of the mobilization against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) November 2003 meeting in Miami, with her knowledge of the region's activist communities making her instrumental in building a coalition of labor unions, environmentalists, immigrants, students, religious leaders and human rights organizations.
"I believe very strongly in people working outside of the system," said Jennings' after her election. "My endeavor to work inside the city is a personal experiment. We need outside agitators as well as people on the side. I knew all along that some day I would run for office. But I wasn't sure when the time came how hard I would run to win."
When Jennings originally entered the race-after years of prodding by local Greens, including state Green Party organizer Echo Steiner-the other viable candidate among the four running shared views similar to Jennings, so that if either advanced to the run-off, that would have been fine with her. But after Jennings made the run-off, the race became her versus her conservative, developer-backed Republican opponent. This focused her mind and brought out the best inside her, leading her to win. Now she will continue this dynamic personal and political experiment, as she attempts to help govern a community of 35,000. Stay tuned.
More information at www.carajennings.com
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