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The way things could be: Mark Dunlea. Photo by: Teri Currie

If You Write It
Activist Mark Dunlea put his hard-earned political knowledge into Madame President, a novel he hopes will have a positive impact on the system

By Shawn Stone

‘Imagine if we had a Green Party President on September 11, 2001.”

That probably got your attention, didn’t it? It’s the tagline for Madame President, the debut novel by longtime local political organizer Mark Dunlea. How in the world, you may wonder, could a Green Party candidate end up in the White House?

Using the disastrous 2000 election as a template, Dunlea cleverly works it all out to the last vote in the electoral college. In this alternate universe, the Greens’ party-building in the late 1990s makes it a national political factor, thanks to their presidential candidate, Barry Frost (think Ralph Nader). The debacle in Florida happens, and—with the Greens on hand to counter Republican shenanigans in a way the real-life Democrats never tried—the election is decided according to the Constitution. When the Greens are accused of being spoilers, the future Ms. President tartly replies: “You can’t spoil anything that’s already rotten.”

The Greens horse-trade their way into the vice-presidential slot. The new administration takes office, the Democratic president croaks and—voila—Madame President.

Needless to say, Rachel Moreno is not a typical president. Her reactions to every problem, foreign and domestic, are from a Green perspective. The citizens are actually consulted. Corporations are not coddled. Wars are not declared.

Mark Dunlea is more than just a well-known local figure in progressive politics. He’s an institution. Over the last 30 years, from his student days at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Albany Law through his political activities with the Citizen’s and Green parties, he helped found the New York Public Interest Research Group, the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, organized “the first statewide meeting of the Green Party of New York State,” and most recently has been involved with the creation of the Hudson-Mohawk Independent Media Center. He hosts a weekly show on WRPI, and, oh, still holds down his day job with the Hunger Action Network of New York State. A detailed listing of his CV would likely take up the entire space allotted for this article; what made him want to write a novel?

“There are a number of reasons,” he explains. “One was that I wanted to help educate young people starting off on their careers as organizers. I’ve been doing organizing for 30 years, and wanted to share my experiences and insights—so they don’t have to repeat all the mistakes I made.”

Thus, the novel charts Rachel Moreno’s career as political activist and environmental organizer in a way that is intended to be instructive, not instructional.

“The second reason,” he continues, “was to give people a better understanding of what Green philosophy was, and a sense that they might be more willing to read it if it was a novel, with a least some humor to it and not just a dry treatise or that sort of thing.”

Dunlea was still only halfway through the novel in 2001 when he realized he had to deal with the issue of violence, to answer the question of how a Green president would react to an attack on the United States from outside. Late on the evening of Sept. 10, Dunlea remembers discussing this touchy plot problem with a former campaign manager, and asking him: “How many people could we realistically kill in the United States through a terrorist attack?”

“And six hours later,” he recalls, “these planes [crash] into the World Trade Center.”

Again, truth is proved stranger than fiction.

Dunlea enjoyed the writing process, especially considering the political climate of the last few years, as the Bush administration ignored mass protests and went to war in Iraq. It was, he remembers, “much more enjoyable to come home and talk about how Rachel was responding to this, rather than deal with the reality of how Congress was not listening to what we had to say.”

Once finished—and it took a few drafts, along with some friendly literary advice from his editor—Dunlea self-published it under the Big Toad Books impint in the spring of 2004. He couldn’t find a mainstream publishing house interested in a progressive political novel; conversely, most progressive publishers focus on nonfiction.

The timing of the book was no accident—the book was also intended to influence Green Party politics and policies going into this election year.

So what does Dunlea think about the Greens’ place in the 2004 elections? The Greens, you may have read, spurned gadfly Ralph Nader, nominated lawyer David Cobb for president and adopted a Safe States strategy—Cobb will campaign only in electorally “safe states” (safe, that is, for Democratic nominee John Kerry), but avoid states in which the presidential race is close.

“I think it’s a mistake, but it’s understandable,” Dunlea says. “People are very confused and very frightened at this point.”

Fear, he contends, is why many progressives have not only deserted Nader, but also, to a lesser extent, the Green Party; more importantly, it explains why they are saying nothing while the Democrats actively work to keep Nader off the ballot in states across the country.

Dunlea is not alone in this view. As lawyer and Nader supporter Carl Mayer recently told The New York Times, “It’s an unprecedented assault. The bellyaching and whining by the Democrats about how Ralph supposedly cost them the election in 2000 is relentless.”

“We have such a messed-up electoral system, and the only response for maybe 95 percent of progressives is ‘stand down, shut up, and don’t challenge the two corporate parties,’ ” he laments. “This is such a retreat, such a loss of democracy, and so many people of the left are participating in it.”

The problem, Dunlea says, is that too many people believe that George W. Bush is “a more radical and dangerous” president than Ronald Reagan was. And, Dunlea argues, he is not.

“It makes you wonder if people were asleep (in the ’80s). . . . People have this collective amnesia—as time goes on, they forget how bad things were.”

“Reagan,” he continues, “was a much more radical transformation of the political process than Bush is.”

Though no longer New York state chairman, Dunlea is still active in the Green Party, serving on one of their national committees. He has also been busy with the drive—which ended Tuesday, Aug. 17—to collect enough signatures to get Green U.S. Senate candidate David McReynolds on the New York state ballot. With that effort over, Dunlea is going to concentrate on Madame President. (He has a number of speaking engagements lined up for the fall.)

“At this point,” he notes with some satisfaction, “I’ve broken even on the book. . . . I control it, I own it.” Because of this, he feels he can now take it to the bookstore chains and online booksellers; they take such a big percentage of each sale, Dunlea explains, that it wouldn’t have made sense to work with them before making the break-even point.

As for visibility, Madame President, he recounts, has been discussed on National Public Radio and the liberal Air America radio network; it has also received some local and national press. It’s available in one area bookstore so far (the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza), and Dunlea just put it on, a move he had resisted. “It costs so much money,” he laughs, as Amazon considers itself both a bookstore and distributor—and, accordingly, takes two bites out of the sales of each book.

Dunlea seems to genuinely enjoy promoting the novel; he’s done it well enough to break even, after all. At a recent noontime appearance at the Albany Public Library, Dunlea answered questions, signed books and read from his work with a seasoned campaigner’s enthusiasm. (Every politician, whatever their party, has something of the actor in them.)

Dunlea’s thinking reflects a mix of realism and optimism. At one point in this interview, he reminisced about his early-’90s tenure as an elected member of the Postenkill Town Board: “I thought I was cynical about electoral politics until I got elected to office, then I became far, far more cynical having actually experienced it.”

The book, however, eschews cynicism in favor of hope. At the library, Dunlea read with a convincing seriousness and passion an excerpt from President Moreno’s Sept. 11 memorial speech, which concludes with a sentiment that runs through Dunlea’s political beliefs: “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.”

Madame President: The political novel as field of dreams.

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