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Part II: Growing Pains

By Oliver Lukacs

Opened in 1999, the Pico office is packed with old lamps, armchairs and sofas covered with afghans, the walls plastered with Green party posters from across the globe -- Germany, Mexico, Australia -- bearing the images of doves, rainbows and trees. Green party paperwork, newspapers and flyers sit in stacks on the floor.

It looks like the makeshift headquarters of a 60s counterculture movement. It also looks like the inside of Michael Feinstein’s house, which is not surprising, because almost everything in it came from there.

Much of the furniture came from Feinstein’s family. Many of the posters are souvenirs from travels through Europe that became the subject of his 674-page encyclopedic book, “16 Weeks With European Greens,” which took him two years to compile in the pre-internet early 90s.

In fact, for a decade before the Pico office opened in 1999, Feinstein’s rent-controlled house in Ocean Park was the informal headquarters for Green party activity. It served as a media center, a meeting room for the LA county Greens and as a lodge for international Green delegates crashing on couches and in guestrooms.

“Eighty percent of the house was used, except for maybe the kitchen and his bedroom,” said 13-year Green veteran Genevieve Marcus. “There were always two or three people there from all over the world. All the meetings were held at his house. It went on for years.

“His life has been the party," said Marcus. "There really is nothing else, except maybe Santa Monica."

"If you woke him up from a dream, he’d say ‘Green Party,’" said Bob Smith, an 18-year-veteran and cofounder of the state party. "The party is his life.”

Hoping to move the fledgling party to the next level of professionalism and reclaim his house, Feinstein was one of many Greens who lobbied hard to open an office in California, and was the only one to get permission from the state party, he said.

“I am also the only one who pulled off something in Southern California by setting up a functional storefront office that pays its bills,” Feinstein said, noting that other planned projects in San Francisco, Sacramento and Fresno failed.


Feinstein envisioned the new office at 2809 Pico Boulevard as an international Green Party hub and hoped the sleepy storefront nestled between a 99¢ store and a couple of neighborhood bars would headquarter statewide elections and host numerous fundraisers.

Ralph Nader, who Feinstein urged to run as a Green Party candidate for President in 2000, made an appearance at the office, which was also seen around the globe when the birth of the Green Party of the United States was announced during a press conference that drew national and international media to the sky-lit 1,400-square-foot space.
 Feinstein and McKeown are among Green Party officials who attended a press conference in the Pico office announcing the birth of the national party.

The former mayor, who has co-organized two global Green conferences and who has been instrumental in building national and international party networks, is currently working on making the storefront office the North American home to the Federation of the Green Parties of the Americas.

Feinstein was in complete charge of the office, which he leased on an oral contract from Barrios Unidos, a neighborhood non-profit for at-risk youth. To help pay the $2,500-a-month rent, he subleased space to the Westside Greens ($300), the Mexican Greens ($500) and Save the Wetlands ($500), while allowing the Green Party of Los Angeles County to use it rent free, which they had done since its opening.

Minutes from an August 2001 County Council meeting state that that Feinstein was renting and subletting the space in the name of the county party. However, his decisions, some county officials argued, were never authorized by the County Council.

Walter Sheasby, a County Council member, said the GPLAC was just one day told "de facto" by Feinstein that it had an office.

"We objected strenuously to that," Sheasby said at the county meeting in August 2001. "We have never been a part of any accounting process, we have never been able to review any treasurer reports, and this had been going on since the very beginning."

Feinstein, however, questions the accuracy of the minutes, which are taken by volunteer members of the local party. “The confused and inaccurate urban legend that gets told behind my back is what got recorded on the minutes, as opposed to what I had said,” said Feinstein.

The GPLAC never had “jurisdiction” over the office, Feinstein countered. In fact, keeping them out of the loop was all part of his plan, he said.

“The office was set up to separate it from the political swings of the County Council,” Feinstein said, noting that the party changes leadership every two years. “It was specifically set up not to be run by the county.”

At Feinstein’s urging, the county party would only be a tenant after moving out and disconnecting their phone line from his house and dropping the PO box he had opened in Santa Monica, Feinstein said.

“That decision was made in 1999 (by the County Council) long before almost any of the people who sat in judgement of me in 2001 were even active in the party,” he said. (The events of the 1999 meeting could not be confirmed because minutes from county meetings date back only to June 2001.)

“The county was getting a free ride but had no jurisdiction over the office,” said Feinstein.

By while the county had no jurisdiction, neither did the state party, according to top state officials. “It was never really ever a legally bonafide state office,” said John Strawn, the state party spokesman.

Strawn, however, told the County Council in August 2001 that Feinstein was authorized with “a wink and a nod” by the former state treasurer to open a “Green Party” account to run the Pico office.


So who was calling the shots?

“I was calling the shots,” Feinstein said. “I was essentially given the authority as a manager for the office.” But the state party, Feinstein added, wasn’t ready. “The state told me that it will be a state office in name and management, but the fundraising was not going to come out of the state budget.

“The office was paid for by the money that I raised on behalf of the state party to run the state office in LA County,” Feinstein said.

Some party members weren’t surprised that Feinstein believed he was calling the shots.

Feinstein, they contend, is a "prima donna" whose "lone-ranger" style is designed to cut others out of the loop in order to hog the spotlight and take all the credit. They point to Feinstein's unilateral control over the office and his continued refusal to be held accountable by the county as a perfect case in point.

State party treasurer Mike Wyman, believes the situation is an example of Feinstein’s free-wheeling style, which is common knowledge among veteran party members.

Feinstein “was acting on his own. And I think he knew that,” Wyman said, according to the minutes of a January 2003 state party conference. “But he thought that he was slick enough to get away with it. He always had gotten away with it, and he's not going to stop.”

Bill Pietz, whose anonymously donated $10,000 check to the GPLAC ended up in the "Green Party" account Feinstein opened with a “wink and a nod” from the state, told The Lookout that the former mayor took the check because he believed he is above the county party's authority.

“Mike thought he was the party, (and that) he was just doing the best for the party, however warped that is,” said Pietz, a longtime Green party member. “Mike disregarded and effectively sabotaged the respect needed for decision-making bodies, doing the lone ranger bit.”

But if some object to Feinstein’s style, many believe there would be no party without him. They point to his central role in building the state and local parties, which he kept alive in his home.

“The GPLAC hasn’t raised money for itself since 1996,” Feinstein said in his verbal report at the August 2001 county meeting, according to the minutes.

Feinstein has claimed that the controversy over the $10,000 check is all a “misunderstanding” stemming from an "honest mistake" Pietz made. The mistake -- which was not knowing there was difference between a Feinstein account that funds the office and the county account -- was due to the disorganization of the party, Feinstein said.

Dan Johnson Weinberger, a Green party member and a practicing attorney, believes the controversy over the check is the result of “a shared failure to implement a rigorous auditing scheme by the county or the locals.” It is “normal for a little party made up of all volunteers and no paid staff," he said at the August meeting.

"But to suggest that any conduct (by Feinstein) comes even close to criminal is ludicrous," said Weinberger, a member of the coordinating campaign committee of the Green Party of the United States and a staff member of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Voting and Democracy.

"I’d stake my law license that nothing comes even close to criminal conduct, and that kind of talk has no place in a Green party gathering,” Weinberger said.

Smith confirmed Feinstein’s central role in the party and attested to the disorganization that could have led to the "misunderstanding."

“He has always acted in good faith,” Smith, an 18-year Green party veteran, said at the August meeting. “I’ve sat in a lot of meetings, and I’ve seen a lot people come and go, and Mike has been the glue that’s held the Green Party together all this time. He has done things for this party that I’ve not seen anybody else do, and he has worked harder than all of us put together.”

When Pietz donated the $10,000 to the county party, he hoped to "encourage them to organize. It was a catch 22. You need money to raise funds.” But the controversy would dash Pietz’s hopes that his check would help break the cycle.

In a letter to The Lookout this year, Pietz expressed his disappointment. "I do agree that there have been 'honest mistakes' in the wretched affair,” he wrote, “but those mistakes were not made by me."

On Wednesday: Since the controversy publicly surfaced, Councilman Kevin McKeown had been placed in a tight spot. Now with his reelection looming, he had to balance political pragmatism with Green values.
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