way things could be: Mark Dunlea. Photo by: Teri Currie
You Write It
Mark Dunlea put his hard-earned political knowledge into Madame
President, a novel he hopes will have a positive impact on
By Shawn Stone
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
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
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.
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?”
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.)
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 Amazon.com, 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
President: The political novel as field of dreams.