A Viable Alternative?

Of all the candidates running for political office in the United States, it is a safe bet there is only one who:

* was named by People magazine as “one of the 50 most beautiful people in the galaxy” and dubbed The Hunk on the Hill while serving as U.S. congressman;

* read Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” in the original German; and

* is a Jew with a Muslim woman as his running mate.

Meet Dan (Daniel Eugene) Hamburg, candidate for governor of the state of California on the Green Party ticket.

Whatever one’s political allegiance, in an era of carefully packaged, poll-driven politicians backed by multimillion-dollar campaign chests, it’s refreshing to meet a candidate who doesn’t have to trim his sails, though it’s a given that his boat won’t cross the finish line first.

Hamburg was born in 1948, the same year as the state of Israel, he notes, and grew up in a Jewish, but not particularly observant, home in St. Louis.

Judaism exerted little influence until he enrolled in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University.

He first feasted on the writing of the Christian liberation theologists, until he discovered Martin Buber, first in the philosopher’s “Tales of the Hasidim,” and then in his most famous work, “I and Thou,” which Hamburg read in German while an exchange student in Austria.

At Stanford, he minored in anti-Vietnam war protests, and then embarked on a somewhat erratic career, steadied by a consistent outlook that stood “at the intersection of spirituality and social action.”

His role models, then as now, were such men as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, whose examples he sought to follow during two years teaching in China, and later in Johannesburg, as political consultant to Mandela’s post-apartheid government.

In between, he earned a master’s degree in the philosophy of religion, and, at age 31, was elected to his first office as county supervisor in the Northern California town of Mendocino.

In 1992, running as a Democrat, Hamburg was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from California’s huge, sparsely populated first congressional district, which stretches for 350 miles from the Oregon border to just north of the San Francisco Bay area.

During his two-year term, Hamburg managed to alienate the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition and the influential timber and oil companies.

Even the widespread publicity he garnered as the handsomest solon in Washington didn’t help, and he lost his bid for re-election in 1994.

Two years later, Hamburg resigned from the Democratic Party, convinced that “it no longer was a vehicle for social change” and that our existing “duopoly represents one party with two heads.”

He did not remain long in the political wilderness. In the fall of 1996, when consumer advocate Ralph Nader, another of Hamburg’s exemplars, ran for the presidency as a Green, the ex-Democrat joined the campaign.

Nudged by Nader, Hamburg entered the governor’s race this year. Joining him as candidate for lieutenant governor is Sara Amir, born in Iran into a Muslim family, whose women’s rights activities did not please the ayatollahs. She is now a scientist with the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The Greens’ main platform planks go directly counter to the politics of most Californians, as expressed in recent referendums. The platform includes reinstatement of affirmative action, strengthening bilingual education, an “end to anti-immigrant bashing” and abolition of the death penalty.

The Hamburg-Amir ticket also advocates universal health care, ending subsidies to corporations, a living wage for all Californians, full recognition of Native American sovereignty and the “teaching of non-violence in schools.”

Surprisingly, the platform does not stress defense of the environment, the one issue most people associate with Green politics.

Hamburg, though an ardent environmentalist, says he wants to get beyond the stereotype of Greens as tree-huggers.

“We are really as much about justice as we’re about the environment,” he says. “Injustice to people and despoilment of the environment are two sides of the same coin.”