Green Party co-founder John Rensenbrink dies

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Aug. 4—John Rensenbrink, political activist and co-founder of the Maine and national Green Party, died last week. He was 93.

A soft-spoken but energetic progressive, Rensenbrink was a professor of politics and history at Bowdoin College through the 1980s, and ran for U.S. Senate in 1996, losing to Susan Collins. He was a staunch environmental advocate and helped form the Cathance River Education Alliance in Topsham.

"In the classroom he taught generations of students how to think, and in his work off campus he was wise, bold, and truly lived his values," wrote Bowdoin President Clayton Rose in a letter to the Bowdoin community announcing Rensenbrink's death just weeks before his 94th birthday.

Rensenbrink led the effort to establish a Green Party in Maine in 1983, the first in the United States, and then helped organize it at the national level. Now known as the Maine Green Independent Party in this state, it is the fourth-largest political party by registration in the U.S.

He was also active in the international Green Party and the Global Green Network.

Rensenbrink revolutionized third-party politics in the United States, said Fred McCann, Maine Green Independent Party co-chair.

"John was our Northern Star," McCann said in a statement.

Rensenbrink had grown disillusioned with the two major political parties, and when visiting Europe in 1983, heard about a new political party known as the Greens, which had had success in the German Parliament.

He brought the idea to Maine, and then later, the rest of the country.

The Green Party operates with four core pillars: peace, ecology, social justice and democracy, supporting issues such as the Green New Deal, legal status for immigrants, single-payer universal health care and Roe v. Wade.

It represents "planet, people and peace before profit" and believes that the quality of the natural environment is intrinsic to a prosperous economy, healthy population and quality of life, the Maine Green Independent Party says on its website.

According to the national Green Party, 30 percent of all Greens who won in U.S. partisan elections have been elected in Maine, which they said is a testament to Rensenbrink's leadership.

Ralph Nader who ran for president as a Green in 1996 and 2000, said he considered himself one of Rensenbrink's closest allies.

"John Rensenbrink for decades embodied the best of American progressive politics linking thought to action, and motivating Greens from the local to the national and international levels," Nader said in a statement.

In his decades as a politician, Rensenbrink inspired some to run for office and served as a political mentor to others.

The ripple effects of his legacy will be felt for generations and well beyond Maine, said Jonathan Carter, a former gubernatorial and legislative candidate.

Rensenbrink served as campaign manager for Carter's gubernatorial campaign in 1994, after which the Maine Green Party became a qualified political party and candidates could appear on the ballot.

"He saw politics could be done better, he really believed in it," Carter said. "It wasn't just winning the office that counted, it was how you played the game that was important to him."

Carter referenced a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "It is not the length of life, but the depth."

Rensenbrink had both, he said.

Since his death July 30, tributes from friends, politicians and activists across the country, especially from within the Green Party, have poured in.

In a social media post, Global Greens, an international network of Green parties and political movements, said Rensenbrink played a key role in the international Green Party movement and is remembered fondly by members all over the planet.

He helped shape the political landscape in Maine, said state Sen. Ben Chipman, D-Cumberland.

Chipman, a former member of the Green Party, said Rensenbrink inspired him to get into politics. He also credits Rensenbrink with encouraging the Democratic Party to be more progressive on some issues.

"There are not a lot of people like John in Maine, or on Earth for that matter," Chipman said.

Anna Trevorrow, a Portland city councilor and Green Independent Party member, agreed.

"He was a throughline for generations of activists in the party," she said, adding that he was always welcoming of young people and new energy.

He was full of humor, wisdom and kindness, Trevorrow said.

Rensenbrink said at a 2019 ground-breaking for a new trail named for him at the Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham that despite all his political accomplishments, his most satisfying work had been advocating for environmental protections that led to the creation of the preserve 20 years earlier.

In a memorial tribute, the education alliance said that everything the organization does today is part of Rensenbrink's legacy.

"His vision of using the Preserve to nurture appreciation for the natural world is realized in the shrieks of delight of our summer campers immersed in outdoor discovery, the 'Wows!' and 'Look at this!' of schoolchildren learning at the Preserve, the local elementary students experiencing robust science curricula, the engagement of people introduced to startling natural wonders on guided walks, and so much more," it wrote.

Although his work with the Green Party was important, "that was more (about) changing the politics so that places like CREA can flourish," Rensenbrink told the Sun Journal.

He was also an author. In 2003, he founded Green Horizon Magazine, an environmental politics journal. He also published three books, and according to his family, was working on a collection of his writings called "60 Years of Letters to the Editor."

Originally from Minnesota, Rensenbrink moved to Maine in 1961.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Carla, their three daughters and their families.

In his obituary, his family wrote that he engaged with the world in many roles, including professor, political and environmental activist, author, community builder, husband, father and friend among others.

"There were in no way distinct roles or identities," they wrote. "They were the bundle of his singular and irrepressible energy."

Dinnertime chats were the stuff of doctoral dissertations, the family wrote, and while people listened carefully to his lectures, he listened equally carefully to others.

"John's contributions to the common good are profound and innumerable," his obituary reads.

A few days before his death, one of his daughters wrote down his final reflections on life: "Wonderful, wonderful! So marvelous!"

This story has been updated to include information about the Green Party's political ideologies