After a barrage of television ads asking whether Illinoisans have “had enough” of Governor Rod Blagojevich or can fathom what Republican challenger Judy Baar Topinka is thinking, a slight majority of voters polled by the Tribune this month concluded that they’re not happy with either candidate.

That’s good news for Rich Whitney. A 51-year-old civil rights and employment attorney from Carbondale, he’s running for governor on the Green Party ticket, and though only a third of the voters told the Trib they’d heard of him, 9 percent said they’d vote for him. That’s surprisingly high for an unknown candidate from a party running its first statewide slate in Illinois. “We refer to it as the perfect storm for the Green Party,” says Whitney.

The centerpiece of Whitney’s campaign is a plan to make the state income tax more progressive and broaden the sales tax to include services, using the new revenue to eliminate the state’s persistent budget deficit (which is forecast to continue even with a strong economy), increase funding for education, and reduce local property taxes. The rest of Whitney’s platform is equally ambitious; it includes typical progressive planks like developing a sustainable energy strategy, adopting a statewide single-payer health insurance system, and enacting living wage legislation. But some of his proposals appeal in particular to conservatives: he’d permit gun owners to carry their guns, oppose government powers to take property for commercial developments, and reject more state-sanctioned gambling.

The election will be a success for the Green Party if Whitney wins 5 percent of the vote for governor: that’ll earn the Greens the status of an established party in Illinois–like the Democrats and Republicans–making it vastly easier for Green candidates to run for local and statewide offices in the future. For example, this time Whitney needed 25,000 valid signatures on his petitions to get on the ballot; next time he’d need 5,000.

Could Whitney do even better? A recent poll by the Glengarrif Group, a Chicago research firm, reported that he’s supported by 6 percent of both Democrats and Republicans, as well as by 15 percent of independent voters. “I think he could go up to 15 percent, if there’s a halfway serious push,” says political consultant Don Rose. “A lot of people don’t know he’s out there as an alternative.” But there’s no money for a last-minute push; in mid-October Whitney had only $8,000 in the bank. For candidates like Whitney, victory is a lot less likely than a spoiler label like the one that dogged Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2000. Wouldn’t a vote for Whitney, many Illinois Democrats might be wondering, simply help Topinka?

Whitney argues that despite some progressive accomplishments, Blagojevich’s record, especially on budget and state-hiring issues, suggests that if his moderate Republican opponent beats him “you’re not going to be appreciably worse off with Judy Baar Topinka.” But most of the state’s unions and many progressive organizations such as the Sierra Club have decided there’s enough difference between Blagojevich and Topinka to back the governor. Democrats who contested the petitions that got the Greens on this ballot don’t want the party around threatening to peel off voters in future elections.

But if Whitney does draw votes evenly from across the political spectrum he won’t be spoiling the election for either Blagojevich or Topinka. Progressives tempted to vote for him will have to decide for themselves if in the long run there’s more to gain by voting Green–sending Blagojevich a message, advancing the Greens as a progressive alternative–than there is to lose.

Whitney hopes voters will vote their principles, not their calculations. “Vote for what you want,” he pleads. “Show a little courage.”