Elections in the United States follow a two-party pattern, but that doesn't mean there aren't third, and fourth, and fifth parties active here.
Forest Park was recently in the news when a group of tiny third parties was knocked off the Illinois ballot by the biggest third party in the state: the Illinois Green Party. One of them was based in Forest Park: the Socialist USA Party, represented by longtime local progressive Art Kazar.
A socialist? In Forest Park?
"I've been a member since Maine South High School in 1968. I went to school there with Hillary Clinton," Kazar said. "I'm just an old cranky guy now."
Kazar, a retired federal employee who formerly worked as a computer troubleshooter at the Social Security Administration, said he supported the Green Party in the past. He even ran for Green Party committeeman for Proviso, said Oak Park Green Party spokesman Bruce Samuels.
But when the Socialist Party bigwigs called and asked him to try to put the party on the Illinois ballot, he jumped at the chance.
Kazar said the major parties tightened up the national ballot process in the 1930s to make sure that Democrats and Republicans were the only viable options.
It takes 25,000 valid signatures to be placed on the Illinois ballot in a federal election, but there's a loophole: Petitions are considered valid no matter how many signatures they contain unless they're challenged. Kazar submitted a petition with one signature: his own.
But Illinois Green Party loyalist Robert Sherman and Chicago election lawyer Andy Finko challenged the Socialist Party's petition at a hearing in front of the Illinois Election Board, July 23, as well as petitions of the Constitution Party (300 signatures) and the Together Enhancing America Party (a handful of signatures). All three were thrown off the ballot, leaving only four parties in the presidential race in Illinois: Democrats, Republicans, Green Party and Libertarians. The Greens and Libertarians got more than 30,000 signatures each.
"They did the work of standing at the county fairs in the parking lots," acknowledged Kazar.
But local Oak Park Green Bruce Samuels said the Illinois Green Party has always supported ballot access for underrepresented parties. He characterized Finko and Sherman's actions as "rogue" and said other members of the Green Party, including presidential candidate Jill Stein had asked the pair to withdraw the challenges for all three independent parties.
Finko said Sherman asked if he could withdraw the challenges on the hearing date, but it was too late because the election board had already ruled.
But Finko was adamant that he did not regret knocking off the challengers. "Solidarity means working together for the common good. You have to pick a party. It's not like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth where you can be a member of both."
Finko said even though Kazar had worked in progressive politics with the Green Party before, he was stepping out of line by trying to draw "protest votes" away from the Green Party. "If you do things that are inconsistent with what the party has decided, that's treasonous to me."
Kazar acknowledged that in a two-party system, getting on the ballot was a gesture. There was not a chance of the Socialist USA party winning the election, or even receiving a statistically significant number of votes. But he said getting on the ballot gives exposure to the Socialist USA presidential candidate, Stewart Alexander, an African-American former member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, bricklayer and radio host. "That helps get the word out about Democratic Socialism."
But is socialism still relevant? Even the Russians aren't socialist anymore.
Kazar points out that Forest Park has a long history of leftist politics and is a pilgrimage site for international labor tourists who come to see the Haymarket Martyrs monument in Forest Home Cemetery.
He said his heroes are union leader Eugene V. Debbs; Norman Thomas, a Canadian Lutheran pacifist minister; and two-term Milwaukee Mayor Frank Ziedler, who served from 1948-1960. "I met him and he was a really nice guy." Kazar and his wife raised two children in Forest Park, and sent them to Walther Lutheran and Trinity High Schools.
Kazar thinks interest in Democratic Socialism is increasing.
"Socialism is in the news these days," he said. "When you hear the Tea Party people accuse Obama of being a socialist because he supports universal health care, suddenly it's made being a socialist something that's talked about. Maybe you'll say, 'I like this idea of universal health care; maybe I should look into socialism.'" He said some of the younger people in the Occupy movement developed an interest in left parties although many of them are "not political."
"I've never had a chance to vote socialist in Illinois," Kazar said. "This would have been my chance. They haven't been on the ballot since the 1940s. It's a sad thing."