THIS MUCH IS CLEAR: Ralph Nader is having fun. When the Green Party's presidential candidate returned to Seattle last weekend on one of the most unusual campaign tours in recent history, the man rumored to have no sense of humor proved quite the contrary. "By the way, I think it may be unconstitutional for George W. to run for president, " he told a worshipful paying crowd of up to 10,000 at Key Arena. "George W. is a giant corporation running for president disguised as a human being."
Sure, he's going as negative as a scorpion. But it's great to see this earnest god of citizen action enjoying himself. Why shouldn't he be? He's touring the country like a rock star, thanks to the chutzpah of two Portland lawyers who talked the DC Nader organization into taking a huge risk.
A month ago, legal partners Greg Kafoury and Mark McDougal came up with the idea of having Nader speak in Portland's Memorial Coliseum, which has a daunting capacity of 10,500. More scary yet, attendees would have to cover the substantial cost by buying tickets, a practice unheard of in political circles. Nader's staff "feared financial disaster and tremendous humiliation," Kafoury says. But the lawyers got a wary green light from Nader himself. "I'm relying entirely on your judgment in this matter," Kafoury recalls Nader telling him.
Portland's coliseum sold out. The next day "Ralph was walking on air," Kafoury says, and he asked the lawyers to plan similar events in four more cities, maybe more if their success holds up. Last weekend brought the first test since then, with a rally on Friday night in Minneapolis, then another on Saturday in Seattle. By continuing to show that Nader can draw the largest crowds in the race, his supporters hope to crack open the exclusive presidential debates to him and maybe the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan as well.
On Friday, momentum started building at Nader's Central Area headquarters. Local union branches of the Teamsters and American Postal Workers announced that they are breaking with their national unions and endorsing Nader rather than Gore. "On the issues alone, when you compare what the candidates will do for working people, there's no contest," says postal worker spokesperson Lou Truskoff.
As Truskoff and others note, Nader ardently supports labor's opposition to free trade. Gore, like most politicians, ardently does not. If you're looking for a figure of stature to carry on the movement that rose up against the World Trade Organization, as many are, Nader is not only a logical choice but about the only choice.
THE NEXT DAY, Nader hit town and held a press conference in a subterranean room of Key Arena. Last night in Minneapolis, he announced, he drew 11,500 people, more even than in Portland. "This evening, I think we will break that record."
He then drilled through "a few local points." Nader urged an outright ban on commercial logging in national forests and the removal of Snake River dams for the benefit of salmon. Reaching into more obscure local politics, he gave a thumbs up to the monorail initiative, rationalizing simply that public transportation is good.
Nader saved his sharpest local comments for last, weighing in on the Democratic primary results in the race between populist state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn and onetime congresswoman and high-tech millionaire Maria Cantwell. He called the race "exhibit number one" in demonstrating the evils of big money. A longtime fan of Senn, Nader claimed she lost because of Cantwell's dough. He further characterized the victor's former tenure in Congress as "distinctly mediocre."
And that's only what he had to say about local politics. In the scant national press Nader's campaign has received, his message has come across as a frustratingly vague rant against the power of corporations. In person, Nader is full of endless specifics.
He outlined an 8-point program for reforming big-money politics, including public financing of campaigns and free TV and radio time for candidates. Campaign literature and organizers detailed many more concrete stands: a $10-an-hour minimum wage, a single payer system of universal health care, withdrawal of the US from the World Trade Organization, and an end to the death penalty except for a new "corporate death penalty" that would put the kibosh on companies that misbehave.
His platform is united, for one thing, by its remoteness from current political debate. For Nader, that's precisely the point. Without him in the debates, he argues, these "taboo" subjects will never be heard. Still, one can't help but wonder if the man responsible for an astonishing array of focused victories—from seat belt legislation to the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—has deviated from realism.
Is a viable, progressive third party really on the rise, as Nader claims? His candidacy is the most visible sign of it, and a recent poll shows him with only 5 percent support in Washington state, one of the Western states where he's expected to do best.
Nader, however, contends that rallies like the one here show that his support is growing. If so, Seattle was not the best proving ground. When Saturday night came, the turnout was lower than expected, estimated at between eight and 10 thousand. It was a huge crowd nonetheless, and an adoring one, waving signs that read "Let Ralph Debate."
The three and a half hour event had moments of righteousness, as when African American pastor Robert Jeffrey nearly screamed in his raspy voice, "We will vote Green because voting white just isn't good enough any more." And it had moments of lightness, like the performance by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who sang a softly beautiful number he wrote about our neighbors Paul and Bill ("He counts his money every morning, it's the only thing that keeps him horny"), and who told the audience they have a "certain look," like "people who give a shit."
But one of most revealing moments came not during Nader's speech, which largely elaborated on themes from earlier in the day, but during one by the Texas author and former state agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower—a hilariously funny guy. "Yeah, Wall Street's whizzing," he said at one point. "It's whizzing on you and me."
Hightower's message, however, was dead serious. "I think we need to call it what it is—class war." He quoted remarks made to The New York Times by three working-class Florida women about the dreary sameness of the two major party candidates. "Neither has lived in a two-room trailer," said one.
Suddenly, the tenor of the evening changed. For the first time, there were words from someone's own bitter experience. But more importantly, it highlighted the makeup of the crowd—professionals, artists, and activists—not angry working-class people like the Florida women. The Nader campaign would be a different phenomenon if it were made up of the latter.
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