PHILADELPHIA – The exterior of the building is a sand-shaded stucco. The street number is scrawled on a rectangle of white paper and taped to the door. Open it and step into the lobby of this former dance studio and you’ll find cases of water bottles, stacks of alternative newspapers, and envelopes addressed to “Beans for Hillary” taped to the wall. A bucket of green scarves sits on the floor.
This really isn’t where you expect to find a presidential candidate. Not even a third-party candidate – at least not one who’s grabbing national attention and commanding police escorts in her public appearances.
But for Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party’s candidate for president of the United States, this is home base in Philadelphia. Stein is borrowing the joint from Cheri Honkala, leader of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign in Philadelphia. Honkala, who’s been collecting beans for the “world’s largest fart-in” – a demonstration planned for outside the Democratic National Convention during Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech – was Stein’s presidential running mate in 2012.
That year, they didn’t quite get one-half of 1 percent of the vote.
This fall, thanks to an overflow of Berned-up angry voters, Stein is poised to do much better. Probably not well enough to impact the results of the Clinton-versus-Donald Trump election, but she’ll certainly be noticed.
That’s already happening. If you pay attention to presidential election coverage, you’ve heard her name and seen her on television. For Bernie Sanders supporters who lost their candidate when he conceded the Democratic line to Clinton, Sanders and the Green Party have become a safe haven. (Some have told me they wanted to support Stein all along, but opted for Sanders because he had a better chance of winning).
Many tenets of Stein’s Green platform overlap or match Sanders’ priorities: universal health care, free education, higher wages. Stein talks about police reform, immigrant rights, electoral reforms, a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions, and a host of other issues that mirror the passions of the thousands of protesters who’ve taken to the parks and streets here this week.
They’ve taken to Stein, too. “Jill, not Hill!” is among the most common refrains on signs and in chants here this week. When Stein spoke Wednesday afternoon at a Black Men for Bernie rally in the shadows of City Hall, hundreds of protesters pushed forward to the stage.
From a distance it looked like a rock concert, minus the music. Stein, who wore a green scarf around her neck, was the rock star.
“You got it started, and together we are going to take it all the way, until we prevail,” Stein told the crowd, pausing to allow their cheers to fill the air.
“We are a movement for people, for planet and for peace over profit,” she continued. Another pause. More woot-woots.
“And you said no to that zombie political party” – she means the Democrats – “whose days are numbered” – another cheer – “but our days have only begun.”
More cheers and, for the next 14 minutes, that’s how it went. Stein preached the Green agenda to a choir of a crowd seeking more justice and opportunity for the 99 percent. Without stating it, she addressed what must be her most commonly asked question: Isn’t a vote for you taking one away from Clinton and essentially pushing Trump to the White House?
“We say no to that lesser evil,” Stein said, tagging Clinton as a supporter of “big banks,” “the prison-industrial complex, “war profiteers” and “fossil-fuel giants.
“The lesser evil,” she said, meaning Clinton, “has actually paved the way to the greater evil.”
Cue the cheers.
The next day, I sat with Stein in her makeshift, temporary Philadelphia office as she reflected on the movement for which she’s becoming the leader, particularly as former Sanders supporters struggle with his endorsement of Clinton.
“It feels like the cause is much bigger than us; we haven’t quite gotten our hands around what it is,” said Stein, who’s 66 and a Harvard-trained physician. She became involved in political activism in the ’80s when, as a then-young mother, she began researching the effects of pollution on mothers and children.
“It would be easy to sort of seize on ‘Star Wars’ analogies – the Force and the evil Empire,” she said. “But that kind of is where we are: we do have very entrenched, very dark and malicious forces now, and there are very deep and enlightened human beings who are presenting themselves.”
Stein has short gray hair, a bright smile and styles herself professionally, much in the mold of the Ivy Leaguer she is. She doesn’t look like a political renegade or revolutionary. But she is one. This is Stein’s eighth political race since 2000, when the Green Party recruited her. Along with her two national races, that includes several in Massachusetts: a pair of runs for governor (she lost both), state representative (she lost), secretary of state (another loss) and two races for town meeting representative (she won both).
“This is what I do,” Stein said, launching into her elevator pitch: “I help build coalitions around a broad vision for people, planet and peace over profit in order to engage the power of democracy, or the power of democracy to create an America and a world that works for all of us. It’s the only way we’re going to get out of here alive.”
Notice the paradox: We’re all going to get out of this life – and it’s not going to be alive. But Stein wants our experience, straight up to our exit, to be a little more equal.
She has her critics, and if her notoriety keeps rising, so will their volume.
“Stein is encouraging voters to let the perfect be the enemy of the sane,” Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote this week, adding: “Stein can’t honestly argue Trump and Clinton are equally harmful to the causes she holds dear. Doing so advances her own political fortunes at the country’s expense.”
Set the specifics of the criticism aside, though, and note this: Stein is warranting coverage in national newspapers and on networks, including the website of the conservative Fox News.
Her media coverage and her crowds are growing. So is the frenzy. After her speech to Black Men for Bernie, Stein required a police escort of nearly a dozen officers to cross the plaza and descend a set of stairs. They weren’t protecting her from antagonizers; they were simply making sure she could move.
“For me, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience, and I’m trying to process it and I don’t understand it,” Stein said. “This is the first time I’ve had a chance to sit down and talk about it. The campaign hasn’t even sort of had a chance to process what this is. I sort of understand it more in metaphysical terms right now. It feels much larger than me, larger than the campaign. I sort of feel like this very powerful force is coming through us right now.”
She compares it, lightheartedly, to “Star Wars: the Force” versus the evil Empire. Stein also says the experience is “like this different physical universe or something. It’s like being at the center of this black hole.”
When she’s mobbed by crowds, she also finds herself wondering what it looks like from the outside. How do other people see her? This craze? This movement?
It depends who’s watching.
For the folks chanting “Jill, not Hill!” it’s a celebrity sighting, a hold-your-phones-up experience.
But for others, it’s just puzzling. As Stein and her police escort left the plaza earlier this week, a middle-aged couple noticed the ruckus and asked, innocently, “Who is that?”
It’s Jill Stein, they were told, the Green Party candidate for president.
“Who’s Jill Stein?” the man asked, his face blank.
She may be a force, but there’s work left to do.