Long before presidential recounts crossed her mind, trash dumping and mercury contamination pushed Jill Stein into politics.
Stein, a physician, joined a 1990s movement to shut down or better regulate mercury-polluting incinerators in Massachusetts. She authored papers on child neurological damage and spoke at public gatherings. She testified at hearings as a medical expert.
Massachusetts eventually enacted strict limits on mercury emissions, and a few incinerators closed. But Stein had begun to see the system as set up to block change, and when the Green Party recruited her to run for governor in 2002, she took the chance.
“I was part of a very frustrated public health initiative, and then the Green Party came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you run for office?'” Stein said in an October interview with The Associated Press. “I said, ‘Everything else is failing, I might as well try electoral politics.'”
She’s been trying ever since, running for president in 2012 and again this year, earning roughly 1.5 million votes. She lost the 2002 bid, as well as another run for governor in 2010, state representative in 2004 and Massachusetts secretary of state in 2006.
Stein is now gaining arguably more attention than she ever did on the campaign trail by pushing for recounts of the presidential contest in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. She has claimed, without concrete evidence, that the voting systems there are vulnerable to tampering and that a recount would reassure voters.
A judge in Michigan ended the recount this week, ruling Stein lacked standing. A recount is underway in Wisconsin, and a judge is set to rule Monday on whether one can begin in Pennsylvania. Stein said efforts to stop the recounts will only increase voters’ distrust in the system.
Her critics, including President-elect Donald Trump, charge she is running a scam to raise her profile and rake in money for another presidential run. She has raised more than $7 million to help cover the costs of the recounts, double what she raised for her presidential campaign.
Democrats have painted her as a spoiler stealing their votes. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton would have won all three states, and the presidency, if all of Stein’s votes had gone to her instead. But Stein argues most of her voters would not have supported Clinton.
Stein denies she’s trying to boost her profile. Her website says donors will be surveyed to determine how to spend any leftover recount money.
“If I was thinking about me, I’m not sure I would be doing this now,” Stein told the AP this week. “Election integrity is a big Green value.”
Those who know Stein say she is sincerely passionate about her issues. But few believe being a perennial candidate is the best route, given her lack of electoral success and inability to form an organized campaign.
“She certainly would’ve been, in my mind, more effective staying in the arena of being an advocate for health issues,” said Joan Kulash, an activist with Stein on the incinerator campaigns.
When the Green Party recruited Stein for 2002, co-chairman Jonathan Leavitt thought he had found a winner. He believed Stein’s medical background and articulation made her perfect to woo voters fed up with the status quo but wary of supporting a third party.
Massachusetts had just passed a law that allowed candidates to qualify for public funds. But campaigns were required to show 6,000 small contributions in order to qualify, and Stein came up short. Leavitt, serving as a campaign manager, eventually left because he felt too many people were trying to direct the campaign.
A Boston news poll showed Stein performed strongly in a televised debate against Republican Mitt Romney, Democrat Shannon O’Brien and two other third-party candidates. Ultimately, she captured just 3.5 percent of the vote; Romney won.
“If we had stayed focused on the mechanics of the campaign, then we would’ve had a third-party campaign with a big budget,” Leavitt said. “We would’ve won that campaign with Jill Stein in Massachusetts.”
Stein, 66, argues winning isn’t the only mark of success. She describes Democrats and Republicans as driving America toward an existential crisis, and sees the Green Party’s struggle against powerful interests as a battle designed for her to lose. She argues that the media deliberately locks third-party candidates out of coverage and debates and that the two major parties practice fearmongering to maintain allegiances.
Her presidential platform centered on erasing student debt, reaching 100 percent clean energy by 2030 and cutting back U.S. involvement in international conflicts.
Stein received nearly 1 million more votes in 2016 than she did in 2012, which she considers a sign of growing displeasure with the status quo. She said she’s not sure whether she’ll run again.
“This is a David and Goliath struggle,” Stein told the AP this week. “David doesn’t get Goliath on the first shot.”