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Talking to Nader | The Nation

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Talking to Nader

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Ralph Nader announced his selection of San Francisco lawyer and activist Matt Gonzalez as his running mate on February 28. Like Nader, Gonzalez--a former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who narrowly lost his 2003 bid to be the first Green Party mayor of a major US city--clearly wants to influence the political debate this election season. Given the chilly media climate for any independent run, that's not going to be easy. The DC reporters at the National Press Club last week were predictably disdainful. The reception in the "alternative" media hasn't been much warmer. In their first live interview together on talk radio, Gonzalez and Nader spoke with me for an hour on Air America Radio on February 29 and took listeners' calls. Among the topics: organizing, parties and what the two men think of Obama/Clinton. Take a read.

About the Author

Laura Flanders
Laura Flanders
Contributing writer Laura Flanders is the host and founder of GRITtv with Laura Flanders, a daily talk show for people...

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A conversation with the two-time Green Party vice presidential candidate.

Still mourning Chokwe Lumumba, progressives gather to push his vision for worker-owned co-ops.

LF:

Let's start with you, Matt. Why are you running as Ralph Nader's running mate?

Ralph Nader:

I think it's imperative that we not sit on the sideline when we are seeing the political parties struggling over what we think are fundamental issues. In my own personal experience I've been a crusader for election reform and I thought I could contribute to this campaign by talking about it and making it clear to people out there that we've fought for election reform, we've fought for ways to demand majority outcomes--you know, I've done it through legislation, I've visited members of Congress etc., etc. And that's an important component of the campaign. But also the point that you've just been talking about, which is, I think we have to be careful that we not just accept some of the rhetoric of the candidates but look at what they're saying and being very careful about. And I think the fact that Senator Obama, the Democratic frontrunner, is really talking about having a standing army in Iraq without giving us a timetable to have everybody out is troubling. And I think those who want to hear him be a candidate of withdrawal are not listening to some of the specifics that he points out about fighting Al Qaeda and striking Al Qaeda and keeping a force there for counterterrorism etc.

LF:

Ralph, to you. I voted for you twice. I don't accept that you had anything to do with Gore's "defeat" in 2000. (I think he won.) And I don't think the way you've been treated by the Democratic Party is right. However, in connection with my last book Blue Grit, I've grown huge respect for the effective political organizing that is surging in the states, and this election I've been encouraged by the mobilization around Barack Obama. His voting record isn't all that reassuring but I believe that he pushes open a door that movements can shove against, in part because he's an organizer and he's validated a lot of organizers around the country as well as training more. I was surprised to see you run this year. Talk about it?

RN:

Well, I take my charge not from the candidates of the major parties. I fought for years to deal with occupational disease and trauma and helped start OSHA in 1970. Under both Democrats and Republicans OSHA has been essentially turned into a consulting agency. And 58,000 people in this country die every year from work place related disease and trauma.

I take my charge from the almost 100,000 people who the Harvard School of Public Health say lose their lives due to malpractice in hospitals. The Democrats and Republicans have done nothing on that. The Republicans have been worse. They even want to block the courtroom door and the civil justice system under tort law to legitimate full days in court, opportunities for injured people. I take my charge from the millions of consumers that are ripped off by the oil companies, by the drug companies, by the banks, by the credit card companies that both parties in Congress have not done anything about. They leave people defenseless against these rapacious corporations. So you know I can give you chapter and verse and it's on our website votenader.org.

We already start with twelve major subject areas that affect the daily lives and futures of the American people that are off the table by both Obama, Clinton and McCain. Whether it's single payer health insurance, reducing that enormously wasteful military budget that's taken money out of public works repair and jobs all over the country, dealing with stopping nuclear power--none of these major candidates are opposed to nuclear power--cracking down on corporate crime, fraud and abuse. Where's their law and order position here?

LF:

Let me come back to you, MG. You ran a very people-powered, movement-building campaign in SF when you ran for mayor in 2003, a campaign that brought a lot of new activists into politics. Again, assessing the stakes right now and where the potential for building movement lies, explain your commitment to run against the Democratic Party?

Matt Gonzalez (MG:)

Well, I think there have been a lot of mass movements in politics, not all of them good. I have, certainly, in my political efforts, tried to walk in front of potential voters and even, actually what I would call other human beings, some of whom aren't even allowed to vote, and try to talk issues with them and try to win them over and see the rationality of what we're trying to accomplish and how we're trying to accomplish it. I am very impressed with the fact that Senator Obama's campaign in particular had brought many new voters into the fold. But I don't think that the effort stops there. Because I think it's important that we're dealing with intelligent voters who are willing to educate themselves on the issues. Now if a voter says I've looked at Senator Obama's record on NAFTA, I've looked at it on the WTO, I've looked at it on class action reform, I've read the fine print about the war in Iraq and I still want to vote for him, well, so be it. That's an intelligent human being making a political choice and I respect that. But I just worry that we have too much respect and excitement for the voter that's coming into the process that's kind of swept up in more of the rhetoric and less of the detail.

BREAK

LF:

Ralph Nader, you've pushed the progressive agenda your whole career and not only spoken words, you've done work that has changed our lives and made our lives safer in many ways. But this is your fifth tilt at the presidency. Tell me what you've been doing in between your presidential runs to build power?

RN:

It's very hard in this modern day of ours to build mass movements. Look how hard it is just to get people to turn out for rallies and marches. We did better dozens and dozens of years ago on this score as a nation. But we're calling our campaign an '08/'09 campaign and by that we mean that we'd like to bring together in each Congressional district about 1,000 publicly conscious citizens who will form a watchdog lobby on Congress and put before Congress about ten major redirections of the country, like single-payer health insurance etc. It's on our website votenader.org. Every Congressional district has about 600,000 people in it. Just about every Congressional district has community colleges, colleges and other institutions that can be tapped into for these 1,000 people. I can't overemphasize, as a person who's worked on the Congress for over forty years and testified and exposed it, I can't overemphasize the enormous turnaround value of a thousand people connected to one another holding accountability sessions, challenging the members of Congress putting pressure--you know, the good old-fashioned American way of lobbying, how it can change the Congress. And the Congress can pivot the entire federal government. It's the most powerful branch of government if it chooses to use its constitutional powers, and that's what we're aiming for. The more people we get in this campaign the more we'll say to them, Well, after November there's going to be a real focused movement in each Congressional district. So we're going to have the table out there for people to put their cards on in terms of mobilizing. Without that it's not going to happen.

LF:

So I hear how you plan to use this presidential run in a useful way, but my question was what have you done since '04?

RN: Well, we've had big rallies, worked with demonstrators but these are too sporadic. They don't last. You know we've tried to stop bad things in Congress, we've tried to stop bad things in the White House, we've tried to get the House Judiciary Committee to initiate impeachment proceedings. The Democrats won't touch it. A very bad precedent for future Presidents to become similar outlaws. What I'm saying is, Washington shut down on people and that's why we've got to go back into the district. But it's going to take a lot of work and people are going to have to raise their own expectations of themselves in terms of controlling the US Congress.

BREAK (Ralph Nader has to leave.)

LF:

Matt, in 2003, you ran for Mayor as a Green but now Cynthia McKinney is heading up the Green Party campaign for the presidency. Explain.

MG:

Well, you know Ralph and I discussed this before I agreed to join him on the ticket and we ultimately agreed that we would run as independents. We thought that we both respect and admire Cynthia and appreciated her good work. She joined the party recently. And we just felt like we don't need to compete against other good candidates who are trying to accomplish what we're trying to do. We thought more voices would be better than less. And it also helps underscore that this isn't just about Ralph Nader. Even if Ralph Nader had decided not to run, you're always going to have other candidates out there trying to bring reform in this political contest. So what we should focus on as a country is trying to come to terms with why do we continue to allow, you know, candidates to win the presidency without winning the majority of the vote. It's happened so many times in our history that it's simply not an accident. The system is built to keep two parties in power.

LF:

Jack in LA. Question for Matt Gonzalez.

Jack:

Hello, Mr. Gonzalez and kudos to your run. The war in Iraq... Do you think it's really about Caspian sea oil?

MG:

Let me address it this way, and I think it's an interesting point, which is the Commission and all the inquiry about 9/11 happened was supposed to result in decision-making based on what the facts were. And most of what we learned was there was a lack of communication within intelligence agencies etc. But what was sold to the American public was this idea that we needed espionage, we needed a Patriot act, we needed a dissolution of our civil rights and civil liberties. And one of the most frustrating things about our opposition party, the Democratic Party, is that they went along with this. I mean they really put down and have helped bolster this regime that they're so quick to blame Ralph Nader for. They've been so complicit in it that it's just incredibly frustrating to have to hear these attacks of Ralph.

LF:

Ben in New Jersey.

Ben:

I think it's a very bad move for Mr. Nader to run. I think he's a great guy but I think he's not a viable candidate. I think it will only take away votes from Senator Obama, who is a viable candidate and who could really unite the country.

MG:

I would just say that there have been instances in our country's history where candidates were not viable who were talking about important issues. Eugene Debs believed that women should be allowed to vote; James Burney thought slavery should be abolished. If you had lived in their time would you have said, Well, I can't vote for them, that's throwing my vote away and I've got to go for a viable candidate. Some would say that and fine, I respect it, but you know I would have voted for them.

LF:

I have another way of looking at it. Are you concerned that young people excited about Obama who are probably to the left of him politically, may look at your run and feel alienated from the left, seeing you and Ralph as representatives of that left?

MG:

It's often the case that decisions that you make based on principle can lead to unusual outcomes like that. But I think the opposite can't be the answer. It can't be because we fear that somebody can't rationally work through the importance of having candidates stand firm on some of these issues. You know what I mean? It just seems like a slippery slope that would mean that nobody could ever run for office if they didn't agree with those two party viewpoints. In Senator Obama's case, well again, I like the enthusiasm, you know his voting record is not reassuring, it's unfortunately one that shows a lot of capitulation to Republican interests and I think it's important that we be out there calling him on that. And if people vote for him I respect that but let's do it with eyes open.

LF:

Just to hammer this one more time, you've got this multiracial, multigenerational movement with potential behind Obama. You're not concerned that the media will frame you as liberal white guy spoilers? (Even though, in fact, Gonzalez is Chicano and Nader is Lebanese-American?)

MG:

First, we're not white guys. And I think that if anything it's more the reason that we make sure that this enthusiasm is based on substance. A lot of times we get told you've gotta just run for local office, don't do this. You remember I ran for mayor of San Francisco and I had Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dianne Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi all suddenly coming into town to campaign against me, all saying the Greens shouldn't win this local office, so you know they talk a good game about why we shouldn't run but they're not consistent in how they put together this argument.

LF:

David in Seattle.

David:

Perhaps Mr. Nader can refocus the debate, but if I wanted to vote for a cranky old narcissist I'd just go ahead and vote for McCain.

LF:

You'd vote for McCain over Nader?

David:

If I wanted a cranky old narcissist, yes.

MG:

You know, Laura, this happens a lot and I've encountered this in politics, which is when you're standing up trying to do stuff, when I ran for district attorney or ran for mayor or had the gall to think I could be the president of the board, people called me a narcissist. When I finished my term in office and went off and started a progressive law practice I was a narcissist, even though we were filing suit against civil grand juries for not having enough Latino representation on them. We were filing lawsuits against entire superior courts against police brutality, against Clear Channel in speech cases. You know, we're not narcissists because we want to stand up and fight this fight. We have long histories of trying to implement election reform. And I would just say to the caller I hope that he calls a program that Senator Obama or Clinton or McCain are on and say, you guys have been in government a long time what the hell have you done to fix what happened in Florida in 2000 and if you haven't done anything then shut your mouth. You really don't have standing to continue to complain about this. We're in this awkward position where if we don't run the thing will never get fixed and we'll just be told every four years not to run and if we run and talk substantively on the issues we're told we're going to have this bad outcome. And I don't see that it can be repaired without a big discussion in this country about the problem. And I think that's what I bring to the candidacy.

LF:

Thank you, Matt Gonzalez.

For more information, go to: www.votenader.org.

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