In 1996, nearly 5,600 people in Vermont voted for Green nominee Ralph Nader for president. I was one of them.
Inspired by the Burlington city politics that surrounded me at the University of Vermont, I was a fervent 21-year-old, ready and willing at any time to recite the Greens’ 10 Key Values, and an ardent admirer of storied Bowdoin College professor John Rensenbrink and his fellow founders of the Green Party in the United States.
(And Bernie Sanders, of course – the wild-haired independent congressman who sat a few booths over at Henry’s Diner and supported all the things we did: universal health care, reductions in greenhouse gases to stave off the worst effects of climate change, an end to war and the military-industrial complex, undoing the Reagan tax cuts on corporations and the wealthy.)
We hoped desperately that Rensenbrink would win his run for Senate just a couple states over in Maine, but we were of course disappointed. (Still, 4 percent.)
After coming here to Maine, though, and getting excited about Jonathan Carter and Pat LaMarche’s gubernatorial campaigns, and the victories by John Eder that I endorsed as managing editor of this paper, my enthusiasm eventually faded. What was the point? Citizens United, the Obama presidency, and the need – as I then saw it – to sell out in order to feed one’s family had turned me into a cynic.
And then Rensenbrink invited me to have coffee in 2017. We met at the Freeport Inn, halfway between his home in Topsham and mine in Gray. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I wasn’t going to say no to coffee with a legend.
You read about people with a twinkle in their eye, but John was maybe the only one where I’ve seen it in person. Pulling into the parking lot in his little Prius, he radiated kindness; a rumpled, tall, and spindly philosophy professor straight out of central casting, with a handshake that swallowed you up and a penchant for black coffee. And when he got excited about something he had this “whoo-hoo!” thing he did that infected me with whatever cockamamie idea he’d cooked up.
Sure, he talked me into being on the Maine Greens press committee, which meant about 10,000 more emails being added to my pile, but mostly he talked me into caring again. He had so many ideas for how the Green story could resonate with the Maine press and beyond, could catch fire as people got disillusioned with Trumpism and spiraling medical costs, and the increasingly severe climate.
Just look what he’d been able to do in conserving land and reforming government in his little town. If this guy could have this much enthusiasm and joy after nearly 90 years on this earth and a lifetime of butting his head against corporate behemoths, surely I could muster up some hope and at least see what I could do on the local school board.
I ended up giving a year of my life to the Lisa Savage campaign in 2020 partly because Rensenbrink started beating the drum for ranked-choice voting and the opportunity to beat U.S. Sen. Susan Collins in a way he couldn’t back in 1996. He just cared so much. The passion that came through in his writing, in his support for Lisa, in his love of Maine and its people, would be the envy of most undergraduate idealists. To see him do it at 90-plus, and with such clear-headedness, practicality, and compassion, was a well of energy I drew on all the time.
When news of his July 30 death at age 93 reached me this week, it seemed a little impossible. How could a man like that be stopped? In my mind, he’ll always be standing before me with a big, loopy smile on his face, as he does in the 1996 Rensenbrink campaign poster that hangs on my wall, saying, “Green means go!”
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].