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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ralph Nader for President? - The Green Party Ponders

Air Date: Week of

Driven by concern that the two major political parties are indebted to corporate money, Ralph Nader is running a "no-money" campaign for president on the Green Party ticket in California, endorsement pending. Bill Drummond reports on how a Nader green ticket in the Golden State could affect the outcome of the 1996 presidential campaign.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood. California is the key to President Clinton's hopes for re-election in November. The state has the most votes in the electoral college, and the President won big there in 1992. And the respected Field Poll now gives him a 16-point lead in a 2-way race against Senator Bob Dole.

But Clinton's Golden State backers may have more to worry about than just the GOP. Long time consumer activist Ralph Nader may be on the ballot as the candidate of California's tiny Green Party. The prospect of splitting the progressive vote has given the Republicans reason to hope, but it's also sparked a debate within the Green Party about how to handle Presidential politics. From San Francisco William Drummond reports.

DRUMMOND: Founded in 1991, the Green Party of California qualified for the statewide ballot for the first time the following year. In its brief existence the young party has begun slowly, fielding only 4 candidates for the 152 statewide races in the upcoming general election in November. Instead, the Greens have focused on local, nonpartisan contests such as mayoral races. The Greens also made no endorsement in the '92 race between George Bush and Bill Clinton, sticking to a tradition of deliberately shying away from partisan races. A tradition which was broken earlier this year.

Apparently, feeling their movement was in danger of becoming irrelevant unless it made a bigger splash, some prominent Green Party members approached nationally known consumer advocate Ralph Nader about accepting their party's nomination for President. Greg Jan is with the Draft Nader Committee.

JOHN: He's decided to do this to emphasize that government and politicians shouldn't be bought off and shouldn't be beholden to the wealthy interests, and no wonder, you know, the situation in our country and the planet and the environment has gotten so bad, because of the control of these wealthy interests as opposed to the population and the environment at large.

DRUMMOND: Nader agreed to the offer presented by the Greens, but with one condition:

NADER: My campaign's a no money campaign. I'm not raising or accepting any money. In contrast with the avaricious and indentured 2-party duopoly which is raising millions of dollars from corporate special interests and expect a quid pro quo in return.

DRUMMOND: In running for President, even under these self-imposed limits, Nader has an opportunity to attract media attention to his theme that both Democrats and Republicans are beholden to large corporate interests. He says Clinton specifically has not lived up to his promises.

NADER: He has been indifferent in defending environmental issues such as the environmental ravages of the motor vehicle industry, which he's kept very silent about. He hasn't advanced fuel efficiency issue, he's done virtually nothing on lead contamination of inner city ghetto kids. He's a lot of rhetoric, and it's up to President Clinton to broaden his base. If he becomes a real, authentic environmentalist, consumer advocate, democracy promoter here at home, then any modest competition to him from this side would be considerably diminished.

DRUMMOND: Hearing that kind of anti-Clinton rhetoric, Democratic party officials in California have been keeping tabs on the proposed Nader candidacy. Bob Mulholland, a campaign adviser to the California Democratic Party, says so far Nader is no cause for alarm.

MULHOLLAND: If you're not campaigning, it means you're not serious. And if you get serious, with money, then that's another factor. But looking at Nader and looking at Perot, maybe possibly someone else, as a factor but not in California and not for us as President Clinton, because of the job he's done for the people of California.

DRUMMOND: Nevertheless, some political observers think that the California electorate is volatile, and they say President Clinton's standing is not rock solid. The public opinion polls to date indicate that Nader could attract 6 to 10% of the popular vote. The question is whether most of those votes would come from Democrats or Republicans. Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, says, with some imagination, Nader can reach beyond the Greens and successfully woo a good many disillusioned Democrats.

CAIN: If he wants to make his candidacy target people that have environmental concerns or consumer concerns, then he's going to have to do one of two things. Either he's going to have to run a conventional candidacy, which I doubt that he ever would, because the whole point of his running is to really make a statement about that. Or he could do the Jerry Brown strategy, which is the free media attention, the travel around the state in a beat-up car, that kind of model of campaign where he's getting public attention and he's bringing his message to voters but he's not spending a lot of money.

(A woman's voice backdropped by music: "Live from Oakland, California, it's We The People, with Jerry Brown." Brown: "Welcome to another edition of We The People. This is the show that gets behind the news...")

DRUMMOND: Six days before the California primary election in March, Nader got a little bit of that free media attention from former California Governor Jerry Brown, who hosts a daily talk radio program broadcast over KPFA in Berkeley.

BROWN: Ralph, welcome to the show.

NADER: Thank you very much, Jerry.

BROWN: Okay, now just tell me. I guess today was a setback for you in the Senate?

NADER: Well, it was the vote on the bill which would strip workers and consumers who are injured by reckless corporations of their legal protections to go to court and hold these corporations accountable...

DRUMMOND: The sudden entry of the Green Party into presidential politics, with Ralph Nader as its standard-bearer, has not been welcomed by some long-time members. They call Nader's candidacy a distraction from the party's real mission: to build a grassroots, locally based, environmental movement. One of the critics is Joe Louis Hoffman, a county leader from Ukiah, north of San Francisco.

HOFFMAN: I'm concerned that there are people who are looking for some kind of magic lever that is going to make progressive politics bloom. Running somebody for president with a, who's a household name, is contrary to grassroots organizing. It feels a little bit like a lot of people in the Green Party are sort of falling for the hype of popular politics, and I don't think it's going to pay off the way people are really hoping.

DRUMMOND: That hope is that Nader's candidacy will give the Green Party something that it sorely needs: the appearance of doing things on a grand scale. Richard Winger, a San Franciscan who publishes a newsletter about third parties in the United States, says the Green Party's registration has fallen steadily over the last 4 years, from 89,000 to around 83,000. Winger says the Greens face extinction if they don't develop a higher profile.

WINGER: There's nothing worse for the welfare of the party than to be seen as doing nothing. And they didn't have a candidate for governor in '94, they didn't have a candidate for president in '92, and I think a lot of the registrants want them to and expect them to. And their registration has been declining, and I think that's partly why. I don't really see any negatives for them at all, by doing this presidential thing.

DRUMMOND: Five states besides California have Green Parties qualified for the ballot: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, and Oregon. Nader backers hope to get his name on the ballot in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island as well. But the Nader candidacy in California is still anything but a done deal. For his name to get on the ballot in November, the Green Party at its convention in late June in Oakland must endorse him by an 80% majority. If only a small number of county leaders remain opposed to the plunge into presidential politics, Nader's candidacy could fizzle before it ever leaves the ground. For Living on Earth, I'm William Drummond in San Francisco.



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