Duking It Out in the Naderhood
Gore, for his part, has spent very little time in the conservative strongholds east of the Cascade Mountains; his strength is in the more urban areas. But in many ways, the Northwest is a perfect fit for him and his message. Vast numbers of middle- and professional-class Californians have left their big cities over the past decade and flocked to the suburbs of Portland and Seattle. Socially liberal and economically conservative, they warm to Gore's emphasis on quality-of-life issues, from gun control to clean water to less sprawl. And Gore's vow to fight for a prescription drug plan is not lost on the large numbers of retired and elderly. Here, just a short drive from Canada, there's an acute awareness of how much cheaper those prescriptions are just across the border.
In Oregon Gore is benefiting from the fact that a number of hot-button conservative issues, including two proposals that would strip unions of their ability to use membership funds for political action, are on the ballot. These have inspired unions to gear up for what might be their most serious election-time field mobilization ever. "Al Gore is not at all a hard sell to our membership," says Tim Nesbitt, head of the Oregon State Labor Federation. "What we need to do is make sure people get registered and then actually vote. Sixteen percent of the state work force is unionized. But if we work hard enough, we can get the union vote up to about 25 percent of the total." Nesbitt readily recognizes that sympathy for Nader undercuts some of his efforts. "He's causing some problems on our fringes," Nesbitt says. "Nader's definitely attracting some of our members who are most active on issues of trade and corporate power. He's making it tight for us, no question."
Nader causes problems not only among the labor rank and file but also among environment-minded youth. The Gore campaign recently dispatched senior environmental adviser Katie McGinty to Portland State University with the task of bringing straying Greenish youth back into the Democratic fold, part of a Gore campaign strategy of registering 3,500 new Gore voters on the Portland State campus alone. Wisely, given the skeptical crowd, McGinty argued for Gore from a lesser-of-two-evils position. "The decisions you are about to make are not just about the next four to eight years; they are, rather, generational," she told the crowd, warning that Bush would pack the Supreme Court with "nine Antonin Scalias" and that his administration "would sell off all of the national parks."
But the audience wasn't buying the fear tactic. All but one of the questions from the floor were openly challenging and hostile: Why doesn't Gore disassociate himself from Occidental Petroleum, which is involved in drilling Indian lands in Colombia? Why does Gore dip into oil reserves to keep gas prices low instead of calling for conservation? Why have Clinton/Gore tolerated so much cutting of timber on public land?
And then one young man asked how someone like him, torn between Gore and Nader, should eventually decide his vote. "People should always vote their conscience," McGinty answered, but then went on to give a rather political definition of what conscience means. "So I ask people to really deeply examine their moral conscience," she said. "They have to ask themselves, if they like Nader, do they like him enough to want three more Scalias on the Supreme Court."
Later that day at lunch, the tough-talking vice chair of Oregon Democrats, Maria Smithson, was considerably more direct. "The Nader vote is problematic for us," she said. "We have to shave down that vote by clearly repeating our message. And that message is that the vote before us is not a vote of conscience. It's a vote of consequence. Not conscience, but consequence."
Nader supporters, for their part, argue that no vote is more consequential than precisely that: a vote of conscience. "If we want our legislators to vote their conscience," Nader says, "then we must vote our conscience."