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The '7:55 Brigade': Fence-Sitters for Nader--or Maybe Gore

Strategy: Some political progressives will wait the election out, willing to cast their vote for the Green Party candidate--provided the race isn't close.


SEATTLE — John Foss is a commercial fisherman who's seen his livelihood slip further toward extinction under the Clinton-Gore administration. For weeks, he has agonized about what to do.

Vote for Ralph Nader, the only presidential candidate who wants to tear down the salmon-killing dams on the Snake River? Or vote for Al Gore for fear of handing the election to George W. Bush, the only man who vowed the dams were there to stay?

Finally, Foss decided--not to decide. At least, not until 7:55 p.m. PST Tuesday, five minutes before the polls close in Washington state. Foss has joined a growing number of Pacific Northwest progressives dubbed the "7:55 Brigade." He wants to vote for Green Party nominee Nader but back Gore, even if he hasn't taken a firm stand on the dams, at the last minute if the race appears truly close.

"A lot of people are going to wait until the last minute and see which way the wind's blowing, and then drop their ballots. If it's close, then I hold my nose and vote for Gore," said Foss, who also likes what Nader has to say about genetically modified food, global trade and labor rights.

In the last few days before the election, the 38-year-old environmental activist, and people like him, has become one of the hottest properties of the Democratic campaign. Nader's dwindling-but-significant numbers--6% in Washington, up to 10% in Oregon--could make or break Democratic nominee Gore's chances in what is otherwise a dead heat with Texas Gov. Bush, his GOP rival.

Groups like the Sierra Club and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League have mobilized last-minute phone banks to get out the Democratic vote and warn potential Nader supporters of the costs--to the environment, to the Supreme Court, to abortion rights--if Vice President Gore loses.

Leaders of Seattle's liberal establishment--from high-tech executives to environmental activists and members of the Seattle City Council--hosted an event at the city's legendary rock club, Crocodile Cafe, to warn Democrats against going for Nader. "Be afraid. Be very afraid of a Dubya administration," said the invitation.

Anti-Nader Material Flows

In a city that practically invented e-mail, in-boxes are flooded with anti-Nader material, and four prominent ex-Green Party members in Portland, Ore., held a public coming-out last week as "Greens for Gore."

For their part, Nader supporters brought their man to town for a rousing, last-minute rally Thursday, and they are mining, with phone calls and thousands of street-corner fliers, the low-income neighborhoods of South Seattle that have historically been an electoral no-man's-land.

Far from tapping into Gore's base, party leaders argue, the Green Party is drawing in people too disengaged and disappointed with politics-as-usual to have voted at all.

"One of the population segments we feel really responds to us is obviously young people, but also lower-income people, people who are at the kind of margins of society, said Chris Doran, who worked street corners and a Safeway parking lot Friday. "There's a lot of people in those areas we think the Democrats and Republicans don't necessarily go out to."

Two locals that broke with their national leadership and backed the Green ticket--the Teamsters and the American Postal Workers--have been phoning their memberships and urging them to ignore the AFL-CIO's Gore endorsement and vote for Nader.

The Pacific Northwest has gone Democratic in the last three presidential elections, but the region has always been split over the same issues that divide Gore and Bush. Large liberal enclaves around Seattle and Portland battle rural timber communities on the coast and farm towns east of the Cascades over such issues as logging in national forests, tax policy, gun control and civil rights.

The Nader factor threatens to upset that historical balancing act by dividing the left. Timothy Harris, the director of Seattle's homeless newspaper, Real Change, celebrated the mass movement for social change that arose out of last year's street demonstrations against the World Trade Organization--an ignition point for much of the Green Party's local support--but he cautioned: "That was then. This is now. We may be about to show the world what happens when progressives can't agree."

A Feeling of Betrayal

Some of the Gore campaign's most persuasive backers are former Greens who feel betrayed by Nader's stepped-up campaign in the Northwest after his promise not to focus on swing states.

"It pains me greatly, it hurts my soul to campaign against Nader, because I have so much respect for him," said Vivian McPeak, executive director of Seattle Hempfest, a major annual marijuana reform event, and a Green Party member who is running phone banks for Gore.

"But I recall him saying he wasn't going to be a spoiler, that he wasn't going to be campaigning in the key states, and what I see him doing now is what all politicians do, which is go back on his word," McPeak said. "And I feel deeply offended when I hear Ralph Nader make the claim there's absolutely no difference between Bush and Gore. That's just not accurate."

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