Do You Want to Ralph?

Green Candidate Nader is the Antipolitician—and Possibly Al Gore's Worst Nightmare

In one cubicle, the field director meets with reps from Virginia; in another,the press secretary trolls through the day's media hits. Nader's campaign staff—35 people and growing—includes twentysomething alumni of Seattle and D.C. organizing efforts, a filmmaker, a punk rocker. His campaign manager, Theresa Amato, 36, comes from Public Citizen. New to the team is Bill Hillsman, media adviser to Minnesota governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura's campaign. One idea Hillsman likes for a Naderite slogan: "Bush and Gore make me want to Ralph."

Unlike Gore and Bush, Nader had no dilemma choosing his veep, Winona LaDuke, a 40-year-old Harvard grad economist and American Indian activist and writer, who doesn't mind breast-feeding on the campaign floor. Nader/LaDuke appeared on 21 state ballots for the Green Party in the 1996 presidential election—and won about 1 percent of the vote, roughly 700,000 votes, on a $5000 budget. But they didn't run much of a campaign then. This time, they're serious. Their campaign is not just a gesture of protest—it's about transforming the two-party system, entering the belly to change the beast.

For a campaign that's raised only $1.1 million—though it has hopes for $5 million more—the thousands of volunteers are as critical as the celebrities who help raise the cash. A Paul Newman house party brought in nearly $40,000; Phil Donahue, Susan Sarandon, and Warren Beatty make up some of Nader's Hollywood connection.

Nader embarked on a grueling 50-state tour prior to the Green convention in June, and now will likely limit his travel to the West Coast, New England, and spot visits to the Midwest. This past month he was in Baltimore, where he spoke at the NAACP convention, and Ohio, where he met with steelworkers. Much of the focus for now is on getting the media attention that could propel him into the presidential debates. (Under current rules, he needs 15 percent in the polls to qualify. And if Nader is allowed to debate, so will Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan—who would doubtless nab votes from Bush, perhaps canceling Nader's impact on Gore.)

With a flurry Nader comes down the stairs, and we hustle into the car that CNN has sent for him.

Nader's first concern, after being late, is the ear piece. "Did you wash that?" he asks anxiously. It's not a question to be taken lightly: Nader believes the spread of infectious diseases is a greater security threat than military invasion. His concern assuaged, Nader settles into the isolation of the remote-satellite room, where his image will be beamed to Atlanta for CNN's TalkBack Live, and from there into the living room of the everyman, for whom he says he speaks.

Almost five months into the campaign, there are some choice issues he'd like to convey, he tells the Voice, not least among them that he intends to raise funds sans PACs and soft contributions. He'll rail against corporate welfare ("What are we doing giving Microsoft a $20 billion tax break?") and offer a plan to use the national surplus to alleviate child poverty and initiate a public works project that would reinvigorate mass transit, health clinics, and schools. How might he accomplish this? Through massive citizen mobilization, he says.

Onscreen, Nader lifts his head when given the signal that the commercial break is over. A viewer question comes in: "Are you a Marxist?" Nader replies: "No. I think big corporations are destroying capitalism. Ask a lot of small businesses around the country how they're pressed and exploited and deprived by their big-business predators."

Another caller asks how health care can be made fair. Nader cites statistics: 47 million Americans without coverage, 10 cents out of every health care dollar disappearing through billing fraud. But "health care in my dictionary is not just how to finance and pay for it," Nader says. "It's, what kind of health care? Does it emphasize prevention? Does it emphasize workplace safety and environmental cleanup and consumer safety?"

Beneath Nader's image on the TV, e-mailed comments stream across the screen: "At least Nader pulls his own strings. There's no real difference between Gore and Bush." "I hope all you liberals vote for him so we can have Bush." "Buchanan is the only patriot running." "Finally a true champion who won't desert us." Other screens in the control room flash soap opera make-out scenes, Russian guns firing on Chechnya, an Italian soccer game.

It seems appropriate that the world unfolds in all its glorious mess as Nader rests quietly in the satellite room during a commercial break—a still figure prepared to pounce. Sitting alone, he is the picture of contemplation and agitation. His eyes, one slightly hangdog, the other piercing, seem to capture a constant tug-of-war between being solitary in the world and enacting change for the good of all. Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly says, "Do I have to stare at myself on this monitor? Can you turn it off? It's the most disconcerting thing to look at yourself."

And indeed, he does appear uninterested in himself, almost disembodied, a man made of ideas, focused on repeating his mantras about corporate greed and the need for consumer/voter choice. The apparent lack of a me-me-me mentality may be one of the most radical things about him compared to Bush and Gore. But despite the apparent discomfort, he commands attention when he walks into a room, and his people-centered solutions, delivered with an armory of stats and anecdotes, draw in those who have a chance to hear him speak.

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