SAN FRANCISCO -- Jim Eimers had been a registered Democrat for 22 years, his disillusionment growing as the years passed: anger at 1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, "who didn't stand up for what he believed in," and frustration with Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in the recent Clarence Thomas hearings because "I didn't see any backbone there."
So when a law school classmate gave a talk about the newly emerging Green Party of California, espousing a brazenly progressive platform of environmental protection, anti-war sentiment and gay rights, Mr. Eimers followed him into the student lounge and signed up, albeit with few false hopes.
"I know they're not going to win," said Mr. Eimers, 43. "But I think they can make a difference by getting politicians scared enough so they start paying attention."
So far, the Democrats, at least, appear to be paying close attention to the Green Party, which earlier this month officially qualified for the state ballot here. It is the first alternative party to qualify in California in more than a decade.
Preliminary reports show that the party succeeded in registering about 90,000 voters, 11,000 more than the 78,992 needed by Dec. 31, 1991.
Of California's registered voters, 48.97 percent are Democrats -- a number that recently declined by a half-percent because of Green registration, said Bob Mulholland, political director of the California Democratic Party.
Although the decline is small, the Democrats aren't taking it lightly. They have skirmished with the Greens at voter registration tables by standing next to potential Green registrants and urging them not to register with the new party.
In a more aggressive move, the Democrats sent more than 15,000 first-class postcards to registered Greens in an effort, the Greens say, to identify those who had moved and whose registrations therefore might be declared invalid. (If sent first-class, the cards would be returned if the residents had moved.)
The Greens were prepared to argue that even those people who had moved were registered, but ultimately "we didn't hear a peep from the Democrats," said Greg Jan, co-chairman of the Green Party state finance committee.
The Democrats also admitted to wrongdoing, according to John Mott-Smith, director of voter outreach at the Secretary of State's office. When some people stopped at Democratic voter registration tables, checked "other," and registered Green, the Democrats sent their cards back and asked them to change their minds and register Democrat.
"It was illegal," Mr. Jan said of the Greens. "We notified the Secretary of State, who sent us back a letter from the Democrats' political director, who promised never to do it again."
The Democrats are most afraid that the Greens will siphon off votes in close elections and give victories to Republicans. Former U.S. Representative Doug Bosco of Northern California lost by 1 percentage point in 1990 when a Peace and Freedom Party candidate took 15 percent of the vote.
"You have a choice, Greens," Mr. Mulholland of the state Democratic Party said. "Either help us beat Bush and his allies or work with the Republicans."
The Greens will meet today and tomorrow in Sacramento to forge a statewide platform, a process that is likely to be long on debate. By design, the party has no leadership, working instead by consensus.
Eight Greens in the state have been successful in races for city councils and in appointments to water boards and planning commissions. The party is active in pockets across the country, including the District of Columbia, Chicago, North Carolina, Hawaii and Montana.
Greens are found as well in 50 nations, including Australia, where they wield considerable power. The model once was the Greens of West Germany, who came to parliamentary power in 1983 and won 8.3 percent of the vote in 1987. That party self-destructed in part because it opposed re-unification and alienated female members.
Third parties "usually don't hurt" the system much, commented Nelson Polsby, professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. But, he added, "their ideas are occasionally adopted by major parties after a while."