The Portland branch of the Maine Green Independent Party was riding a wave of momentum heading into the 2015 elections, having reclaimed three seats on the School Board and playing a role in the passage of two citywide referendums – one in support of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in 2013, and another reversing the sale of Congress Square Plaza to developers and adding protections to other city parks in 2014.

This year, members set their sights on a referendum to establish a citywide minimum wage of $15 an hour – twice the state minimum and well above the $10.10 minimum approved by the City Council. The party’s mayoral candidate, Tom MacMillan, made the wage fight central to his campaign.

Instead of resulting in more victories, however, the Nov. 3 election proved to be a disappointing capstone to a divisive year for the Greens. Only one of the party’s six candidates on the 2015 municipal ballot was elected, and that was in an uncontested race. MacMillan placed a distant third in the voting for mayor. And the party’s signature initiative – the citizens referendum to raise the minimum wage – also was rejected at the polls.

Meanwhile, infighting ahead of the electoral losses – with members questioning one another’s loyalty to the party’s ideals and principles – made its way into the public through blog posts and social media.

Now that the votes have been counted, the party remains divided about whether it should embrace its outsider, activist status by focusing on campaigns and referendum efforts on philosophic issues, even if they have little chance of passing, or whether it should be more practical and focus on winning seats on elected boards, where members can work from the inside to implement its policy goals.

In short, it’s a battle for the soul of the Green Party.

“I think there is an internal power struggle in the Greens,” said City Councilor David Marshall, a Green Party member who decided not to seek re-election to his District 2 seat representing the western half of the peninsula. “Greens tend to be very stubborn people by character. They don’t give up easily or disappear.”

That division among Green activists became apparent Wednesday, when a new party chairwoman was elected by an 11-10 vote.

“It was the most competitive race in all my time in the Portland party,” said School Board member John Eder, who joined the Portland Greens in 2000. “We go through these cycles of philosophical differences of being an electoral party and being more of an activist party. I’ve seen that go up and down over the years, but it’s definitely more pronounced after November.”

But Crystal Cron, who was elected chairwoman over School Board member Holly Seeliger, downplayed the party divisions.

“I don’t really see it as much of a divide as a need to regroup and refocus on our Green Party values,” Cron said. “Any party has its ups and downs. I think we can definitely move forward.”

New party chairwoman Crystal Cron downplays rifts and sees a need to “regroup and refocus on our Green Party values.”

New party chairwoman Crystal Cron downplays rifts and sees a need to “regroup and refocus on our Green Party values.”

Also last week, Rob Korobkin, a computer programmer, was elected the party’s new secretary, while David Foster, media marketing manager at The Great Lost Bear, was elected treasurer. Both Korobkin and Foster ran unsuccessfully for council seats this past year.

The rift began this summer over presidential politics, when local Green Party members began publicly expressing support for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist who is seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, over the presumed Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.

Party members also were divided about whether to pursue the minimum wage referendum this year, or next year during the presidential election, when there is higher voter turnout, especially among younger, more progressive voters.

A SPLIT ON ENDORSEMENTS

Divisions within the party came to a head in the Portland mayoral race and other local elections. Three Green members of the School Board – Eder, Seeliger and Anna Trevorrow – and City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, a longtime Green who recently unenrolled, publicly supported Democrat Ethan Strimling’s campaign to be Portland’s mayor over MacMillan, the Green Party chairman.

After the endorsements, Eder said the three School Board members were essentially cut out of the campaigns by the party hardliners. Party officials also sought to deny Seeliger an endorsement in her District 2 School Board race, even though she was running unopposed.

“It’s like a Green purity test that I failed,” Seeliger said. “I think it’s about the party trying to keep the elected officials in line and to control what they do once they’re in office.”

At the Greens’ most recent meeting, members rehashed what one Green Party member called a “betrayal” by party officials, according to attendees, rather than focusing on the party’s future.

That lingering resentment didn’t stop Seeliger from seeking the party chairmanship. But she was edged out by Cron, MacMillan’s fiancee, by one vote, primarily because Seeliger backed a Democrat over MacMillan.

“I was pretty surprised and hurt with how it went,” Seeliger said.

Greens in elected office believe the focus should be placed on winning open seats on elected boards. They think the party should have focused on the open District 1 and District 2 City Council races. Instead, the chairman ran for mayor and pursued a citywide referendum. The Greens were vastly outspent by opponents. More than $100,000 was raised by the winning sides in each race.

“The party spread itself thin with too few resources,” Seeliger said. “People want to run seats and referendums for philosophical reasons. I’m more interested in running to win.”

Adam Marletta, the former secretary, said he feels bad that Seeliger took the vote personally, but he defended the group’s purist stance, saying that loyalty is critical to building the party. Endorsing Democrats sends the wrong message to voters that the two parties are the same, he said.

“There was a lot of concern about her commitment to the party,” said Marletta, calling the Strimling endorsement “a betrayal.”

“I still think she, Anna (Trevorrow) and John (Eder) can be great allies to us and our party, but not if they continue throwing their weight behind Democrats,” he said. “There are at least a few of us that want to make that very clear as a party.”

NURTURING LOYALTY TO PARTY

MacMillan, the former chairman, said Greens can lose elections and still be successful, as long as they stay true to the party’s ideals of shunning corporate interests, advocating for social justice and standing up for the poor. Likewise, Greens can lose by winning elections, if they compromise their ideals.

“My race was a big win for the party,” MacMillan said, noting that his campaign was firmly grounded in party ideals. “Ten percent was a good showing for us.”

Cron said the party needs to do a better job of sticking together. In the future, the party may have its candidates agree to support only other party members.

“We need to have a stronger training period when we know people are going to run and a set of agreements so a divide doesn’t happen,” Cron said. “We want to win seats, but we also want to make sure when (candidates) win, they don’t forget about the Green Party.”

The Portland Greens make up the smallest voting block in the city, at less than 6 percent of the 52,000 registered voters, compared with the 46 percent who are registered as Democrats, the 34 percent who are not enrolled in a party, and the 13 percent who are Republicans. Green Party enrollments have been trending upward modestly since 2008, when enrollment was just under 5 percent.

Statewide, Greens account for about 4 percent of the 978,000 registered voters.

Portland has proved to be a power center for the Greens, who have repeatedly shown they can run winning campaigns for municipal offices and citywide referendums.

The Portland Greens began a string of wins in 2002, when Eder was elected a state representative. He was re-elected two years later, surviving a redistricting effort that removed him from his progressive base and pitted him against a Democratic incumbent, Rep. Edward Suslovic.

Although Eder lost in 2006, Marshall and Donoghue were elected to the City Council and Greens occupied three seats on the School Board.

The Greens suffered setbacks around 2007. A School Board member was forced to resign after getting arrested for skipping out on a $4.65 cab fare following a drunken fight in the Old Port. Ben Meiklejohn, a former party chairman and School Board finance chairman, lost his board race after the school district overspent its budget by $2 million and he was accused of driving without a license, although the charge was later dropped. The third Green on the board did not seek re-election.

The Greens surged again in 2012, when Seeliger was elected to the School Board representing District 2. The following year, the Greens led a successful city referendum endorsing the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Last year, the party helped reverse the controversial sale of Congress Square Plaza and add further protections on public parks through a citywide referendum in June. That fall, Eder and Trevorrow were also elected to the board.

TIME TO RETHINK STRATEGY?

But even with their renewed success in winning seats and referendums, some are questioning whether the Greens are compromising their values in order to win elections.

Marshall, who hasn’t been very active in the party over the past year, believes the Greens need to rethink their strategy, especially around fundraising and citywide referendums. The party at least needs enough to maintain an office and hire a staff to run day-to-day operations, rather than relying exclusively on volunteers who need training.

But the party refuses to take money from corporate interests.

“The Green Party is never going to take money from corporations, their officers or PACs,” MacMillan said. “That’s a hard line in the party. But we can still be very successful.”