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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

An Old Reliable in Era of Spin and Empty Promises

March 23, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Cold winds are blowing hard on a Monday night, but 300 people still crowd a neighborhood center to hear an old rabble-rouser in a rumpled blue suit.

There's a mustiness in the air. It emanates from the 71-year-old auditorium in a liberal enclave called Curtis Park just south of town, and also from the aura of the 66-year-old orator, Ralph Nader.

Nader's rhetoric hasn't changed much over the decades, but never has it been more contemporary:

"Give them [corporations] too much power and they'll run roughshod over you. No shame, no sense of boundary. Everything's for sale. . . .

"Giant corporations have hijacked our democracy, have no allegiance to our country or communities, and are increasingly controlling our government, media, childhood. . . .

"What other society tolerates electronic child molesting the way these corporations are targeting 4-year-olds [on TV]? They know when parents are away working. Then they market their products, undermining parental authority . . . junk food . . . violence as a solution to life's problems.

"Corporate hucksters.

"People say it's up to the parents. Yeah, but who designed an economy where it takes two, three breadwinners to make a middle-class family living? . . .

"These top CEOs are making 415 times the entry wage in their own company. You know what it was in 1940? 12. 1980? 40. Now, 415."

Cheers. Laughter. Applause. Rapt attention.

*

There are no balloons. No confetti. No posters. No brass band. Just the rangy, slightly graying icon and a mike.

This is a campaign rally nevertheless.

The people here--of all ages, many jean-clad--haven't packed the hall to get on a political spoils list or to invest in a potential winner. Neither they nor the candidate are fantasizing that Ralph Nader will be the 43rd president. This night is about curiosity and/or ideology. Some also hope it will lead to party-building: building the Green Party.

If the Green candidate can attract 5% of the national vote in November, the party will qualify for federal funds in the 2006 general election. Four years ago, the Reform Party candidate--then Ross Perot--qualified for $12.6 million this fall. The Democratic and Republican party candidates will get about $67 million each.

In 1996, the Green Party placed Nader's name on 22 state ballots and he got less than 1% of the vote. But he also spent less than $5,000 total. In California, the famed consumer advocate got a 2.4% share, or 237,016 votes. "I think I've met everybody who voted for me," he tells audiences.

In the recent open primary, Nader received 1.5% of the California vote, finishing 6th in a field of 23.

This year, Nader is pledging a real campaign. He'll presumably win the Green Party nomination at its national convention in Denver in June. He expects to be on at least 45 state ballots in November, although the qualifying process often is rigged against third party candidates.

He's trying to raise $5 million and qualify for matching federal funds. For that, he needs to collect at least $5,000 in donations of $250 or less in 20 states.

But beyond this, Nader is trying to build a potent, volunteer party organization. So he's holding not just fund-raisers, but "time-raisers." His goal is to recruit 1 million people who will raise $100 and contribute 100 hours.

"How many of you would like to be part of that?" he asks the Curtis Park crowd, holding up a green sign up sheet. About two-thirds raise their hands.

*

Perhaps it's the humdrum, the banality, the cynicism of the major candidates--Democrat Al Gore and Republican George Bush--that drives me to look in on Nader. He's old shoe but refreshing.

It's always uplifting to hear somebody who you know actually believes in what he's saying--who doesn't need the crutch of a focus group to compose a campaign message, who injects genuine emotion into his words, who doesn't sound agonizingly cautious or like a whining juvenile.

There had been two genuine articles in the race--sincere, interesting, attractive to nonpartisan voters--but John McCain and Bill Bradley were quashed by the party establishments. The new void provides opportunity for the likes of Nader.

After all, he really is "a reformer with results" who has proven he'll "fight for you." He fought Detroit, for one, and saved motorists' lives.

Although Nader won't win the election, he's relevant--both his message and his politics. He'll grab votes from Gore, just as Pat Buchanan likely will cut into Bush.

It may come down to how many people agonize and decide they can't choose a president, but they can vote for a reliable messenger.

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