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US Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democratic side of the McCain-Feingold juggernaut that is on the verge of winning Senate approval of the most significant campaign finance reform initiative
VOTE FOR THE UNION LABEL While plotting his campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa said, "We will only succeed if we can pull together the broadest possible progressive coalition--labor, environmentalists, women, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, community activists." It was a tall order for a former Service Employees union organizer who entered politics only in 1994 and who faced a half-dozen prominent opponents for the top job in America's second-largest city. But as the April 10 primary approaches, Villaraigosa is building the coalition he envisioned. Early backing came from the National Organization for Women, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club, United Teachers of Los Angeles, the Stonewall Democratic Club--the largest gay and lesbian Democratic club in the United States--and such progressive leaders as State Representative Jackie Goldberg, US Representative Hilda Solis and the Rev. William Campbell of LA's historic Second Baptist Church. Then Villaraigosa was endorsed by the powerful Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose commitment to activist politics is being watched closely as a possible model by national AFL-CIO officials. "We won't settle anymore for politicians who simply vote right; we want committed, activist leaders who march with us on the picket lines, who see themselves as part of a movement for justice for workers," says secretary treasurer Miguel Contreras, who helped engineer critical labor support for Solis and Goldberg in the 2000 Democratic primaries. He adds, "We have a chance to make history by electing the first union mayor in the history of Los Angeles."
BLUE-GREEN ALLIANCE If Villaraigosa wins in LA, he won't be the only labor-backed activist mayor in southern California. Mike Feinstein, a key player in the California Green Party, has parlayed a big November win for an at-large Santa Monica City Council seat into selection by the council as mayor. With solid backing from Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights--one of the nation's savviest local political groups--Feinstein placed first among thirteen candidates for four council seats. Feinstein ran especially well in low-income neighborhoods, where the Greens touted his record of support for organizing drives at the city's oceanfront hotels and an endorsement from Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 814. Feinstein is using the largely ceremonial mayor's post as a bully pulpit to advocate a living-wage ordinance establishing a mandatory $10.69-an-hour pay rate in the city's tourist district. "In Europe, there are a lot of examples of Greens and unions working together," says Feinstein. "I think we're providing an American model that's good for Santa Monica and useful for the whole country."
GETTING A JOB FOR LABOR AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has long argued that the best way to give working people a voice at the local, state and national levels is for union members to run for and win elected office. That's exactly what Paul Plesha did after LTV Steel announced that the taconite mine on Minnesota's Iron Range, where he had worked for twenty-eight years, would shut down. A United Steelworkers of America activist, the soon-to-be-unemployed millwright entered a nonpartisan race for a seat on the St. Louis County Commission and topped a field of twelve candidates in February voting. Plesha, a Democrat, beat his closest challenger, an aide to Senator Paul Wellstone, with a campaign that emphasized his blue-collar roots. "I know what it's like to carry a lunch pail to work," he said. Though he sought a local office, Plesha did not hesitate to address national and international trade issues--no surprise, since his union sent one of the largest grassroots delegations to the anti-WTO protests in Seattle. "I cut my teeth on the fight against NAFTA, and I've recognized ever since then that the pain we're feeling in these parts has everything to do with these trade deals," says Plesha. "I realized when we lost that fight that what's been missing from our politics for too long--at every level--is the voice of labor." Along with 1,400 other LTV Steel workers who lost their jobs, Plesha will be collecting unemployment until he is sworn in on March 13.
REAL PAYCHECK PROTECTION Ever since labor stepped up its political education and mobilization efforts in 1996, business lobbies have pushed for so-called paycheck-protection measures that would impose on unions complex administrative burdens designed to make it difficult to use union funds for political purposes. California voters rejected the scheme in 1998, and Oregon voters did the same in 1998 and 2000. But the fight goes on in legislatures across the country. In South Dakota AFL-CIO unions, rallied outside the state Capitol in Pierre on a blustery February day and succeeded in convincing the Republican-controlled House to reject "paycheck deception," 44 to 25. Labor has also beaten back similar proposals in North Dakota and Mississippi but lost a legislative fight in Utah (a court challenge is expected). The Montana AFL-CIO continues to battle a determined Republican effort to keep the legislation alive in that state. A frustrated Montana AFL-CIO president Don Judge bemoans the fact that "good ideas have gone by the wayside" as unions have been forced to defend "labor's ability to represent our members."
GREEN GIANT KILLER Back in the early days of the Clinton Administration, then-North Dakota Agriculture Secretary Sarah Vogel was touted as a potential US Secretary of Agriculture. But her challenges to corporate agribusiness and her outspoken opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement scuttled that idea. Too bad; as her subsequent career as a lawyer in her home state shows, she would have been a hell of a fighter for family farmers. With associate Courtney Koebele, Vogel recently won a $41 million settlement for 8,000 wheat farmers who faced financial ruin when the USDA and finance corporations shifted crop insurance formulas to pay farmers far less than had been promised. Her clients were activist farmers like Paul and Tom Wiley, who drove through North Dakota blizzards to deliver court documents before key deadlines. Vogel and her legal team are also taking on factory farms that spoil the environment, agribusiness corporations accused of selling farmers bad seeds and insurance companies that fail to cover crop damage. She's even going after the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who say BIA policies threaten Native American farmers. In farm country, Vogel has earned a reputation as "a giant killer in ag law." The fiery lawyer--who is using some of her fees to reopen Bismarck's natural-food restaurant, the Green Earth Cafe--says, "Corporate agriculture would have farmers be serfs." A third-generation rural activist, she says she'll keep using the courts until Washington enacts "farm policy from a farmer perspective"--including restrictions on agribusiness monopolies, fair-trade provisions and limits on genetic modification of food.
IN THE FDA WE DISTRUST Academics and agribusiness leaders who gathered on the University of Minnesota campus in early February dutifully sang the praises of Food and Drug Administration policies on genetically engineered foods. There was even a chorus of endorsements of FDA plans to implement voluntary guidelines for labeling altered foods. "The public trusts the FDA on this issue," intoned panelist Thomas Hoban. Outside in the Minneapolis cold, however, the public wasn't following the script. Police were called to disperse a crowd of several dozen activists from Genetically Engineered Food Alert, who raised a ruckus about what protester Matt Rand labeled the FDA's "very weak industry-backed policy." Food safety activists across the country are stepping up the campaign to get the United States to regulate the marketing of foods that are genetically engineered or that include GE ingredients--which now make up two-thirds of products on supermarket shelves. The Center for Food Safety and the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods are among those urging consumers to write to the FDA during a comment period that ends April 3, opposing the voluntary labeling plan and calling for tighter regulation. On Capitol Hill, Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is stepping up a drive for Congressional action on his Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act. He's working with the Organic Consumers Association and other groups to get constituents to push House members to endorse the bill--which had fifty-six co-sponsors in the last Congress. "If you ask the average American whether they want a label telling them the food they're buying has been genetically modified, they will answer, 'Absolutely,'" says Kucinich, who has developed a GE Food Action Center on his website, www.house.gov/kucinich. "By putting some organization behind that sentiment, we can make this into so big an issue that the industry lobbyists will have to get out of the way."
POLITICAL HEAT FROM THE KITCHEN "Eating is a political act," says Alice Waters, whose pioneering Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has inspired dozens of organic eateries to reject the processed foods of agribusiness and buy produce from small farmers in neighboring communities. Top cooks from many of these restaurants have formed the Chefs Collaborative (chefnet.com), a network that promotes "sustainable cuisine" by supporting local farmers and educating children about healthy eating. Recently, they've stepped up efforts to educate chefs and consumers about threats to endangered species and ecosystems posed by corporate agribusiness. Chez Panisse, Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and Chicago's Frontera Grill have launched high-profile initiatives to eliminate GE foods from their menus. "It is critical for us, as chefs, to lead in this public debate and to field questions in our dining rooms and in our kitchens," says Frontera's Rick Bayless. "We're still cooking, but we're also entering the public debate as people who work with food and who want Americans to start asking the questions we do about how food is produced," adds Ann Cooper, author of Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (Routledge) Now that even TV networks are reporting on mad cow disease, activist-authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are feeling a certain amount of satisfaction. "For years, when consumers should have been told about the risks they were taking when they bought beef, there was a blackout on the issue," says Stauber, who with Rampton wrote Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (now available free at www.prwatch.com). Stauber and Rampton are back with a new book, Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future (Putnam).
AGAINST FORGETTING George W. Bush's inauguration went less smoothly than the GOP would have liked, as thousands of activists filled the streets of Washington to protest Bush's disputed election "victory." NAACP chapters from as far away as Detroit dispatched busloads of activists for a demonstration that surrounded the Supreme Court building. Protests organized by the National Organization for Women, the National Action Network and other groups made dissent the order of the day, though a huge police presence blocked several marches and prevented the use of giant puppets and other tools of post-Seattle protest. The Kensington Welfare Rights Union built a tent city, "Bushville USA," on the lawn of the Health and Human Services Department, only to see it dismantled within minutes and its 200 occupants removed by security officials. Alexis Baden-Meyer, an organizer of the DC-based Arts in Action Working Group, said police restrictions violated freedom of expression. But the protests were still heard--and seen. The most high-profile challenge came along the inaugural parade route, where protesters took over bleachers reserved for Bush supporters and jeered "Jail to the Thief" as the Bush motorcade raced by. Dozens of protests occurred elsewhere on January 20; NAACP president Kweisi Mfume told 1,000 people at an electoral reform rally in Tallahassee, "While the eyes of the nation are on Washington and on this inauguration, we've come back to Florida to say that we remember and we must not ever forget."
TAKING BACK DEMOCRACY On the day before the inaugural, voting rights activists from across the country gathered in Washington to plot a legislative and political crusade to reform the political system. "The Bush people, the Republicans, the Supreme Court--they do not yet fully understand the mistake they made when they decided to steal the election," declared Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Senator Paul Wellstone and Representatives Dennis Kucinich, Bernie Sanders, Jan Schakowsky, Barbara Lee, Eleanor Holmes Norton and McKinney, joined academics and activists for seminars, workshops and discussions organized by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Progressive Challenge network, the Nation Institute and the Center for Voting and Democracy. The forum was the first of several planned to link grassroots activists with members of the 107th Congress who are pushing reform legislation on issues ranging from the healthcare crisis to the wealth gap. McKinney said the Florida election dispute and anticipated fights over Congressional redistricting created a rare opening for reform. "In 1965, civil rights activism that seemed undoable suddenly became doable after Bloody Sunday," she said. "After Florida 2000, voting reforms that seemed undoable suddenly seem doable. Voting rights is an issue--not just a civil rights issue, but an American issue."
NOT A FAVORITE SON The grilling of Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft by Senators Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden during the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearings benefited substantially from information provided by one of the nation's most ambitious grassroots organizations, Missouri Pro-Vote, a coalition of labor, pro-choice, gay and lesbian, and community activist groups. Soon after Ashcroft's nomination was announced, Pro-Vote officials began working with Pacifica's Democracy Now! radio program, the Institute for Public Accuracy and USAction--the national network of state-based progressive groups with which Pro-Vote is affiliated--to spread the word about Ashcroft's extremist views and his record of racial insensitivity. Much of the information had been gathered as part of a five-year monitoring project of the Pro-Vote-linked Missouri Citizen Education Fund. Pro-Vote's work to expand African-American voter registration in St. Louis last year--when Ashcroft was narrowly defeated for re-election to the Senate--was honored by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists as part of that city's Martin Luther King Day festivities.
MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRIC "You can't always get what you want," crooned activist-musician Doug Hartnett, as his band the Oxymorons ripped into the Rolling Stones classic and a set of equally appropriate tunes for dissenters on the first night of the George W. Bush Administration. Rocking a crowd of more than 800 at the Americans for Democratic Action Counter-Inaugural Gala, Hartnett, who works by day as a lawyer for the whistleblowing Government Accountability Project, and the Oxymorons had no trouble filling the dance floor at Washington's Mayflower hotel with a multigenerational crowd that answered the call to "party liberally." Grand Old Partyers arriving to celebrate in another wing of the hotel did double takes when they encountered revelers like Baltimore's Sarah McClintock, whose green brocade gown was accented with gold glitter slogans that read, "Reject the Republicans" and "Jail to the Thief." "I wanted to make a fashion statement that no one would misinterpret," announced a grinning McClintock.
John Nichols's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
The fierce farm crisis that is ravaging rural America garnered scant attention during the 2000 presidential campaign, so it came as no surprise that President-elect George W. Bush's nominaton of Ann Veneman for the post of Agriculture Secretary received far less attention than those of several others. Yet, because of the broad authority she would be handed and because of her extreme politics, Veneman merits every bit as much scrutiny as that directed at Bush's more high-profile appointments. Veneman's track record leaves little doubt that if confirmed she will use her position as head of a powerful agency with 100,000 employees, an $82 billion budget and responsibility for implementing federal farm policy, protecting food safety and defending public lands, to advance what farm activist Mark Ritchie describes as "strictly pro-agribusiness, pro-pesticide company, pro-pharmaceutical company positions."
As a key member of the Reagan and Bush farm teams, as former California Governor Pete Wilson's Food and Agriculture Department director, as an agribusiness lawyer and as a member of the national steering committee of Farmers and Ranchers for Bush, Veneman has rarely missed an opportunity to advance the interests of food-production and -processing conglomerates, to encourage policies that lead to the displacement of family farms by huge factory farms, to open public lands for mineral extraction and timbering, to support genetic modification of food and to defend biotech experimentation with agriculture. Indeed, Veneman served on the board of Calgene, the corporation that in 1994 launched the first genetically engineered food, and she declared last year that "we simply will not be able to feed the world without biotechnology."
With Veneman's encouragement, California developed an increasingly conglomerated, big-farm, chemically enhanced version of food production that Iowa Farmers Union president John Whitaker describes as "an entirely different face of agriculture" from that practiced or desired by most working farmers. "I don't want to see that face transferred to Iowa," says Whitaker. But with Veneman at the reins of the USDA as Congress prepares to rewrite the dismally flawed Freedom to Farm Act, the transfer would likely be unavoidable.
Veneman would not merely be hustling to deliver for Bush's corporate contributors on domestic farm policy and public-land-use issues; she'd also be working for them on the international stage. A militant free-trader, Veneman helped negotiate the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which led to the World Trade Organization) and NAFTA. Even as family farmers were marching in Seattle to protest WTO interference with agricultural supports and food-safety standards, Veneman was there to tell the WTO to be more aggressive in removing so-called technical barriers to trade. So determined is Veneman to advance the free-trade agenda that Bush transition-team aides briefly considered her as a candidate for the position of US Trade Representative.
Veneman "seems to be coming in with the notion that her job is to be as extreme as possible in parroting the agribusiness line," says Ritchie, president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. "The problem is that that line is completely out of sync with what farmers want, what consumers want and what we know to be scientifically, ecologically and economically right."
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The danger: He might sell the idea, and his agenda, with the help of a few Democrats.
BEYOND SEATTLE The one-year anniversary of the "Battle in Seattle" saw embattled World Trade Organization chief Michael Moore peddling the argument that the WTO had weathered the storm of protest that derailed its "millennium round" session in Seattle. But the word from the streets was that the resistance continues. At least 2,000 people joined anniversary demonstrations in Seattle, where a day of peaceful protest--including a march that saw Sea Turtles dancing with Santa Claus and the Lesbian Avengers--gave way to a tense evening in which Seattle police fired pepper spray and pellets at crowds of demonstrators before arresting 140. Many anniversary celebrations featured a pair of documentaries on the Seattle protests: This Is What Democracy Looks Like, with footage from more than 100 Independent Media Center activists, narration by Susan Sarandon and music from Rage Against the Machine; and Shaya Mercer's Trade Off, which won best documentary honors at the 2000 Seattle International Film Festival and has been selected for inclusion in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. A Washington, DC, reception honoring Trade Off drew together Public Citizen, the United Steelworkers of America and other key players in the "Seattle Coalition," which was badly shaken by this fall's split between backers of Democrat Al Gore and Green Ralph Nader. "I'm glad to see the Seattle Coalition is still together," said Teamsters president James Hoffa. Notably absent from the sponsor list for the event, however, were the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club, which released a joint statement recognizing the anniversary and announcing plans to hold town meetings on globalization.
NORTHERN EXPOSURE Canada got an introduction to American-style right-wing politics with the candidacy of Alliance Party chief Stockwell Day in the country's November 27 parliamentary elections. But after a strong start, Day, a flashy populist whose antiabortion, antigay and antigovernment views earned him the title "Canada's Jesse Helms," fell far short of his US contemporaries, with the Alliance winning only sixty-six parliamentary seats to 172 for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal Party. Activists who weren't necessarily pro-Chrétien mobilized across Canada to stop Day, while Day's plan to allow citizens to force national referendums on issues like abortion led Canada's satirical television news program This Hour Has 22 Minutes to launch a petition demanding a national referendum on the question of whether Day should change his first name to Doris. Canada's New Democratic Party, a democratic socialist group, won 8.5 percent of the vote. But the party, which moved toward the political center prior to the election, lost six seats, provoking calls from top backers for a leftward shift. "We have a crisis, and it's going to require the rebirth of a democratic socialist left party," says Buzz Hargrove, president of the powerful Canadian Auto Workers union.
COMING OUT GREEN After the November 7 election, not many Democrats were embracing the Green Party banner. But San Francisco Board of Supervisors candidate Matt Gonzalez has done just that, announcing his decision in the midst of an intense campaign leading up to a December 12 runoff election. Gonzalez, who ran a strong race for district attorney last year, said he was angered by Democratic candidates' refusal to debate Greens running at the state and national levels, and he expressed his distaste for the support by top Democrats of the death penalty and anti-gay marriage rules. "Many in my campaign urged me not to change parties or at least to wait until I had won the election,'' explains Gonzalez, who as a result of his announcement drew rebukes from local Democrats and saw a fundraiser that had been scheduled on his behalf canceled. "But why should I? What kind of impression would I be making on voters when I'm asking them to trust me if I can't even be honest about my party affiliation?'' Gonzalez has the support of tenant groups, local unions (which announced their support after his party switch), the Bay Guardian newspaper and Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano. He's running as part of a loose-knit slate of candidates challenging the pro-business policies of Mayor Willie Brown.
BACK TO THE BADLANDS In the bleak midwinter of 1981-82, Bruce Springsteen read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and reflected on hard times in Ronald Reagan's land of plenty. Retreating to a rented house with only a tape deck and a guitar, Springsteen recorded Nebraska, an album critic Patrick Humphries called "as compelling and poignant a comment on the Reagan years as any in print or on film.'' Said Springsteen, "A bunch of people wrote about it as a response to the Reagan era, and it obviously had that connection.'' Now, with another Republican poised to assume the presidency, Chrissie Hynde, Ben Harper, Ani DiFranco, Johnny Cash and other artists have contributed tracks to Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Sub Pop), sales of which aid Doctors Without Borders. Dar Williams's gender-twirling take on "Highway Patrolman" is brilliant, as is her new solo album, The Green World, which includes a moving tribute to Daniel and Philip Berrigan.
John Nichols's e-mail is email@example.com.
It wasn't exactly a reversal of 1994, but in this year's Senate races Democrats erased much of the Republican majority that was established in that year of Grand Old Party hegemony. Democrats picked up at least five and perhaps six Republican-held seats, while losing just two. In several cases, the shifts were dramatic, replacing staunch conservatives with far more progressive legislators.
For example, Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton, a liberal department store heir, displaced Republican incumbent Rod Grams, a conservative hundred-percenter famous for dismissing Senator Paul Wellstone's attempt to lodge a criticism of Chinese human rights abuses as "demagoguery." Missouri Republican John Ashcroft, perhaps the Senate's most outspoken advocate of the Christian-right agenda, will be replaced by Jean Carnahan, the widow of liberal Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan (although the threat of a legal challenge remains). Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, a House member whose strong labor record won her passionate support from the powerful United Auto Workers union, beat Republican incumbent Spencer Abraham, a former aide to Dan Quayle who frequently zeroed out on labor's voting-record ratings. One immediate change could come in the area of campaign finance reform: Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin says he now believes there will be sufficient support in the Senate to get the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform bill passed. "The question now is whether we'll have a Democratic President, who will sign the bill, or a Republican, who will veto it," says Feingold.
Perhaps the biggest Senate disappointment of the night was the 51-to-48 loss of Brian Schweitzer, a Montana rancher who used his campaign to dramatize the high cost of drugs for seniors and in the final weeks closed the gap on antienvironment, antilabor incumbent Conrad Burns.
There was even more disappointment in the results in the House, where an expensive two-year Democratic drive to win the seven Republican seats needed to take back the House failed. While Clinton impeachment manager Jim Rogan went down in California, and Arkansas's Jay Dickey may have been beaten in part because of his support for removing the state's number-one homeboy, most targeted Republican incumbents withstood the challenge. At least one Democrat with a good record, Connecticut's Sam Gejdenson--a consistent liberal with a strong international affairs bent--was ousted, and several progressive newcomers, including California's Gerrie Schipske and Montana's Nancy Keenan, have been beaten. But Illinois's Lane Evans beat back a meanspirited Republican challenge, and new California Representative Mike Honda won with strong backing from labor, as did New York's Steve Israel, who won the Long Island seat vacated by Republican Rick Lazio--the man First Lady Hillary Clinton bested in the nation's highest-profile Senate contest.
At the state level, the nastiest fight was in Vermont. There, in a campaign that turned into a referendum on the question of whether gay and lesbian couples should be allowed the rights of heterosexual couples, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who signed the state's groundbreaking yet controversial "civil union" law, won a decisive victory in his campaign for a fifth term as governor. Vermont Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina surprised observers by racking up 10 percent of the vote and helping elect several Progressive Party candidates to legislative seats.
North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, the state's progressive populist attorney general, lost a race for the governorship. But Delaware Lieutenant Governor Ruth Ann Minner, who dropped out of high school at 16 to work on the family farm and returned to school after being widowed at age 32, was elected governor. Her win means there will now be five women governors--the highest number in history.
A key result of the elections at the state level will be their impact on redistricting, which will shape Congress for years to come. Democrats now control forty-nine state legislative houses of a total of ninety-eight, while Republicans control forty-five. Four legislative chambers are evenly tied. Democrats won control of the Colorado Senate and the Washington Statehouse Tuesday. But they lost the Vermont House, with thirteen incumbents being swept from office. "It was all the civil-union fight," says Kevin Mack of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "Howard Dean won up there, but a lot of good Democrats lost on the issue."
Ralph really ran. Against the record of his own faux campaign of 1996, against the expectations even of friends who said he lacked the candidate gene and against the calculations of Democratic strategists who were forced to go from dismissing him to clumsily attacking the Green monster, Ralph Nader mounted a presidential campaign that in the closing days of the election defied the pundits' tendency to consign most third party candidacies to endgame obscurity.
As political players began counting down the hours to voting day, Nader was thrust into the national spotlight by media that had long disregarded his candidacy. The man who had been prevented even from attending three dismal debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush found himself portrayed by a New York Times editorial as the "wrecking-ball" of the postdebate campaign. There was Nader, just days before an election to which he was supposed to have been an asterisk, staring ABC newsman Sam Donaldson in the eye and asking, "Do you think Gore is entitled to any votes? Do you think Bush is entitled? Am I entitled to any votes? We have to earn them. If Gore cannot beat the bumbling Texas governor with that horrific record, what good is he?"
Conscious of the Nader threat in states that had been securely married to the Democrats as far back as 1988 but began swinging in 2000, mainstream environmental and abortion rights groups diverted late-campaign energy and resources to scaring Oregon, Washington, Minnesota and Wisconsin Nader supporters into stopping Bush by abandoning the Green for the Gore. But the a-vote-for-Nader-is-a-vote-for-Bush drive ended up buying Nader millions of dollars' worth of free media attention. And what voters saw was a Nader far removed from the stiff scold who launched his Green bid last winter. After watching Nader joust with news anchors desperately seeking to get him to abandon his critique of both parties and declare some hidden sympathy for the Democrat, conservative commentator George Will was heard asking when it was that Nader evolved into so able a candidate.
Nader's focused, fact-based, unapologetic appearances were no surprise to hundreds of thousands of students, renegade trade unionists, angry family farmers, environmentalists, organic-food activists, campaign finance reformers, dissident Democrats and leaderless Perotistas who packed Nader's "superrallies" from Oakland to Minneapolis to New York City. Those modern-day hootenannies raised some of the more than $5 million with which Nader's campaign hired staff in virtually every state, developed a network of 900 campus coordinators, bought a few television ads and papered every coffee shop bulletin board from San Francisco to Boston with Green literature. For their contributions, those who rallied were treated to inspired performances by Nader backers Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder, crowd-rousing appeals from Jim Hightower and Michael Moore, arguments for a split from the Democratic Party by such progressive icons as Cornel West and Barbara Ehrenreich, and Nader addresses that bore less and less resemblance to college lectures and more and more to the populist orations of William Jennings Bryan and Robert La Follette.
On a Friday night in Iowa City, just days before the election, Nader arrived to find the University of Iowa Memorial Union overflowing with more than 2,000 cheering supporters. "The two parties have morphed together into one corporate party with two heads wearing different makeup," the candidate declared. The line was dutifully picked up by the Iowa City papers, which, like most local media, lavished front-page coverage on the man drawing some the biggest political crowds of the year. Unfazed by criticism from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and comedian Al Franken, who had appeared in town that day at a hastily scheduled Democratic rally, Nader said, "These frightened progressives say I'm undermining my own legacy of reform. What they don't know is that the Democratic Party has already done it."
Nader was introduced by one of the most prominent Democrats in Iowa, former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, who explained, "I have worked for the election of Democratic Presidents since Harry Truman in 1948. I have received three presidential appointments from two Democratic Presidents. I have run for Congress from Iowa as a Democrat. I have served the Democratic Party at every level from local precinct chair to a Democratic National Committee task force. So it's not easy for me, this endorsement of a Green Party candidate. But the corporate corruption that engulfs both major parties has now reached the stage when we cannot afford to wait any longer."
But where does such a leap take Nader backers? If their candidate polls 5 percent or more of the national vote, the Green Party will receive at least $7 million in federal campaign funds. As Election Day approached, however, even some in the Nader camp worried that 5 percent earned at the price of a Gore loss might lead to a damning of the Greens that would make party-building difficult, if not impossible. In the final weeks of the campaign, Nader's closest advisers debated whether to tailor their schedule to states where the race was not close--such as New York, where Gore is a prohibitive favorite--or to return to swing states like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where a strong Nader could undermine Gore. Pleas from swing-state Nader backers tipped the decision in favor of the go-for-broke strategy--even as vote-trading schemes like www.nadertrader.org promised Nader fans who agreed to trade Gore votes in states like Oregon and Washington for Nader votes in New York and Texas that they could get the best of both worlds: President Gore and 5 percent for the Greens.
But a good many Nader voters were disinclined to become election day-traders. Their enthusiasm had less to do with party-building than with raising a banner of protest and, perhaps, of faith in a vision of democratic participation. In the crucial swing state of Wisconsin, the village of Belleville took a pre-election break for its UFO Parade, an annual commemoration of a supposed Halloween visit by aliens some years back. Bush and Gore backers were no-shows. But there, between the Brownies and the Belleville Dairy Queen, were forty Nader supporters, almost all of them from nearby farm towns. They carried a banner reading ralph nader is out of this world and handed out packets of seeds with a reminder to "plant a seed for democracy on November 7."
Grandmothers grabbed the seeds, children cheered "Nader!" And Dr. Cynthia Haq, the local physician, clapped as they passed. Torn between Gore and Nader, she said, "I know we're supposed to be worried about Bush, and I am worried. But it makes me feel good to see the Nader people. There's something that feels right about voting for what you believe, as opposed to voting against what you fear. I think that's why a lot of people are sticking with Nader--no matter what."