WASHINGTON ― You may have seen Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein appear on your television long enough to make a windy soundbite about “our sick political system.” Maybe you saw her crash the Democratic National Convention in the hopes of attracting the Bernie-or-Bust crowd. Maybe you saw some jokes on Twitter about her ‘90s attempt to make it as a folk singer (yes, she has a song about crystals).
The one thing the retired physician excels at is barely making an impression. Despite Americans loathing the two major party candidates, national polls show Stein in the very, very low single digits ― barely a footnote in our national obsession with the presidential election. Stein’s inability to make her mark in the political arena can’t be completely blamed on the mainstream media’s allergy to third parties. Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, the vice presidential nominee on the Libertarian Party’s ticket, has generated more air time ― and appeared more thoughtful in his denouncing of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
But even when Stein has held elected office, she hardly registered.
In 2005 and 2008, Stein won two terms in Lexington, Massachusetts, as a member of town meeting, an elected legislative body that hashes out issues like zoning and capital budgets. It’s a low-to-the-ground post. The vast majority of town meetings in Massachusetts are not elected positions at all. In those meetings, any registered voter can participate. In Lexington, roughly 300 votes can seal a victory to become a member. It’s not an office people typically use to launch a presidential campaign.
Still, Lexington officials and town meeting members only have hazy recollections of her time in office.
I can’t recall her speaking on any of the issues or being active in any of the activities of town meeting.” Barry Orenstein, who served in local government with Stein
Dan Fenn, who has been a member of town meeting for 53 years and worked in the Kennedy administration, had little to say about Stein. “I know her name,” he said. “But she’s not been particularly active around town. She certainly hasn’t at least been in my memory a big player in town at all.”
For Barry Orenstein, another town meeting member, Stein is also just a flicker in his memory. “She was there,” he said. “She was in my precinct. I have a very vague recollection of her. I don’t think she was active. I can’t recall her speaking on any of the issues or being active in any of the activities of town meeting.”
Orenstein is surprised she’s gotten any traction on the national level. “She never left any footprints in the sand when she was here in town meeting,” he said. “It was an opportunity for her to make an impression or affect some outcome and I don’t recall that happening. All the sudden she’s on the national scene. It’s surprising to me.”
The current Deputy Town Manager Linda Vine only recalled meeting Stein once about an issue involving children’s health. But she added: “I don’t have any knowledge of her.”
On her campaign’s website, Stein notes zero accomplishments while in office except that she founded and once co-chaired a local recycling committee. The Huffington Post reached out to the Stein campaign asking if she had any achievements while in elected office. The campaign responded by noting her activism concerning a land auction law.
Stein has perhaps the greatest name recognition with elections officials who have had to put her name on ballots for some office or another for more than a dozen years. She has run for office unsuccessfully five times, including runs for governor of Massachusetts in 2002 and 2010, and president in 2012. Stein still insists she is not a politician.
Shannon O’Brien, the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts governor in 2002 who lost to Mitt Romney, said Stein was a non-factor in the race.
“She was not really on our radar screen,” O’Brien explained in an email. “We did not expend any resources on her as it did not make sense for us to do so. We needed to figure out how to try to appeal to her supporters with me as a more progressive alternative, able to get elected, rather than trying to have any examination of her non existent track record.”
In her 2012 run for president, Stein tried to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street movement. Her Green Party attempted to erect an Occupy-style “Romneyville” in Tampa during the Republican National Convention. It amounted to a few shabby tents with people who appeared bewildered and in need of proper housing, not an ill-conceived protest. When I visited, the encampment seemed unprepared for the rain. One man living in the tent city was arrested for getting in a fight over stolen cardboard. It was a depressing sight. Stein got less than one-half of 1 percent of the vote in November 2012.
Four years later, Stein is trying to co-opt supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). The progressive icon turned down Stein’s invitation to join the Green Party ticket (Stein erroneously referred to Sanders as a “lifelong Democrat”). Sanders endorsed Clinton ― a wise move considering the record of Stein’s ineptitude on the campaign trail. Her own convention was a disorganized, paranoid mess. In interviews, Stein has come across as maybe qualified to manage the bulk grains at a food co-op or, say, sell folk-rock CDs from the trunk of her car.
Even Rolling Stone magazine has condemned her, with a thorough, damning piece, “The Case Against Jill Stein.” “Wanting to vote wholeheartedly for a candidate rather than merely against one is obviously ideal,” the author wrote. “But Stein’s handling of even relatively minor issues has, for some progressives, increasingly called into question her judgement and the idea that she shares their values.”
The Rolling Stone piece went on to note that she “was forced to walk back gendered criticisms of her Democratic rival. She tweeted in May, ‘I agree with Hillary, it’s time to elect a woman for President. But I want that President to reflect the values of being a mother. #MothersDay.’”
Stein had to reverse course again when she celebrated the Brexit vote before realizing her own party was against it. Also like Trump, she has been squirrely on Vladimir Putin (environmentalists in Russia criticized her for appearing to cozy up to him).
Even more alarming is her inability to answer the kinds of questions any doctor should be able to handle. When asked a straightforward question on vaccines and autism, she came close to channeling former Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann. Although she supported vaccinations, she dog-whistled to anti-vaxxer conspiracy nuts who who think the established medical community is corrupt and withholds evidence of vaccines’ dangers. Stein had to issue a statement attempting to clarify her position.
She also recently suggested that Wi-Fi is harmful for children. “We should not be exposing, especially, kids’ brains to that,” Stein said. “You know, we don’t follow that issue in this country, but in Europe where they do, they have good precautions around wireless. Maybe not good enough, because it’s very hard to study this stuff. We make guinea pigs out of whole populations and then we discover how many die.”
Stein has consistently given her critics more and more ammunition. She used the anniversary of Sept. 11 to call for a new investigation into the terrorist attacks. When asked where she would be during a presidential debate, her campaign’s response approached New Age territory.
On a recent episode of John Oliver’s HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” the comedian easily revealed Stein’s incoherent approach to issues like student debt. He made her seem as ill-informed as Trump. Months earlier, Slate wrote that she was unfit even as a protest candidate for many of the same reasons. “She’s a Harvard-trained physician who panders to pseudoscience. She mangles pet policy issues. And her cynical retelling of the past eight years has nothing to do with the reality of recorded history,” wrote Jordan Weissmann.
Even members of the Green Party who respect her political positions and think she has improved as a campaigner admit she’s made some unforced errors. Scott McLarty, the media director for the national Green Party, wished she didn’t flub the vaccination question. “I would have said, ‘Yes, I support vaccinations. I have administered vaccinations throughout my career,’” he said. “Dr. Stein sometimes answers things in an oblique way.” But any suggestion that she’s an anti-vaxxer, he said, is “entirely dishonest.”
Gil Obler, a longtime party member in Massachusetts during Stein’s rise in the party, is glad she ran but gets why Stein could have been better served winning, say, a seat in a state’s general assembly. “It would make sense for her to win a lower office,” he said. “I would like her to successfully run in Lexington or the state house.”
Obler, who now lives in New York, understands why progressives in swing states would choose Clinton. He says it was a mistake for Stein to say there was no difference between Trump and Clinton. “I don’t agree with that,” he said. “I think that was a mistake. I think she doesn’t necessarily believe that.”
Stein has only been able to get traction when she makes mistakes, like when she showed up at the wrong city in Ohio for an event. She was supposed to be in Columbus but ended up in Cincinnati. The snafu, a campaign version of “Spinal Tap,” gave Stein a rare moment of press attention.
The perennial politician reacted defensively to the rookie mistake. “I wish we had the resources of the other candidates,” Stein told reporters. “We’re the only candidate who operates like the American people.” As if it were routine for Americans to fly to the wrong destination.
Stein’s campaign high point perhaps came when she joined the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline. She now faces charges over allegations that she vandalized a bulldozer.
In an interview with Grist, a well-known environmental activist who led the efforts against the Keystone Pipeline called into question Stein’s environmental record. The activist argued that she only shows up when she’s running for office ― just like any other political hack.
“Jill Stein was not part of the leadership fighting the Keystone XL pipeline,” Jane Kleeb told Grist. “If you are running on an environmental platform, it is critical to show up during election time and more importantly not during election time.”