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Forget Don Quixote, Believers See a Nader vs. Goliath Battle
Published on Tuesday, March 9, 2004 by the Newark Star-Ledger (New Jersey)
Forget Don Quixote, Believers See a Nader vs. Goliath Battle
by Miles Benson

Ralph Nader is finding out who his friends are.

The 70-year-old consumer advocate has attracted a legion of admirers in his four decades as a scold and gadfly. Not all of them are happy about his independent run for the presidency, but many are preparing to march behind him once more.

Nader's most committed supporters share his conviction that Kerry and Bush, never mind their differences, would both preserve an entrenched American power structure that often victimizes ordinary citizens.

Followers see Nader as a crusading romantic hero, a modern Robin Hood organizing citizen bands to combat corporate interests in the Sherwood Forest of American politics. They are a small but loyal group in every hue of the political rainbow, including folks who have voted for Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan.

Some are sure Nader never will be president, but don't care. Others believe lightning could strike and his effort succeed. Some say they might abandon Nader later if it would help defeat President Bush.

In the 2000 election, 2.9 million Americans, or 2.7 percent of those voting, cast their ballots for Nader, then the Green Party's nominee. Democratic strategists say Nader will get only a fraction of that support this year.

But they dread the thought that he might do better. And an Associated Press poll of 771 voters March 1-3 held out that possibility: 6 percent supported Nader, with the rest almost evenly split between Republican Bush and Democrat Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

The notion that most voters who backed Nader in 2000 were chagrined after helping Bush to a thin Electoral College win, and would not behave likewise again, may be overdrawn.

Nader's most committed supporters share his conviction that Kerry and Bush, never mind their differences, would both preserve an entrenched American power structure that often victimizes ordinary citizens.

They want to shake up the system.

"Nader is honest, principled and he takes the right stands on issues that matter to people," said Howie Hawkins, 51, a Teamsters union member who loads trucks for United Parcel Service in Syracuse, N.Y.

"Bush and Kerry might disagree on cultural issues, but when it comes to substantive economic class issues they are in the same camp," said Hawkins, a former Marine who recalls his father, a lawyer, telling him about Nader when he was a teenager. "Dad said Nader was keeping business honest."

When auto giant Daimler-Chrysler wanted to build a new Jeep plant in Toledo,Ohio, in 1998, the city agreed to make room for the company by buying out 83 homeowners and small businesses. But the people didn't want to move, and Nader intervened on their behalf.

"Ralph came to Toledo three times and sent lawyers who slept on our floors and couches and helped us at no cost," said Julie Coyle, 50, a leader of the embattled group that now calls itself Nader's Neighbors.

"He said you can find injustice anywhere; stay and fight and I'll stand with you," recalled Coyle, a registered Democrat, social worker, teacher and grant manager for Bowling Green State University. ("I'm one of those people who needs several jobs to stay afloat," she said.)

She has been a Nader fan ever since.

"If you give him your card, sometime in the next 20 years he'll call you and ask for your help," Coyle said. "Say 'yes,' and it's the most interesting intellectual journey you'll ever have."

Greg Kafoury, 57, a Portland, Ore., attorney, and his son, Jason, 25, say both their lives have been shaped by contact with Nader.

"I'm a leftist," said the elder Kafoury, who was a 20-year-old political science student when he first heard Nader speak at the University of Oregon.

"I was blown away. He was unique. The year before he'd written a book about General Motors, 'Unsafe at Any Speed,' and they tried to destroy him for it. He turned the tables on them.

"Ralph taught Americans both the magnitude of the threat of corporate power and the power of one man to stand up to them. I went to law school because of Ralph Nader, and now I've been an activist for 30 years. My son will be going to law school next year and he'll be doing the same thing."

Jason Kafoury works full time in Nader's Washington, D.C., headquarters, the precise location of which the Nader campaign keeps secret for security reasons.

"He has worked tirelessly around the clock to make America safer, more environmentally friendly, and to promote a civic culture," the younger Kafoury said of Nader. "We are people who believe both major parties are indentured to the same corporate interests and believe that we have to build a movement within the electoral arena to regain our democracy and put people back in charge."

Pat Choate, a Washington-based political economist and author who backed Pat Buchanan in 2000, is supporting Nader this year.

"He's a person of great integrity, and he's focused on the issues that matter -- the budget deficit, trade, and Iraq," said Choate, 63. "He's a courageous man and very good for America. A good number of independent voters are going to be for him, and I think a lot of the old white-shoe conservative Republicans are going to be interested, along with the more traditional liberals of the Democratic Party."

Russell Verney, 57, who helped organize the Reform Party that launched Ross Perot's presidential campaign in 1992, is now advising Nader.

"I want desperately to see him in the presidential debates," Verney said. "Without that independent voice, the Republicans and Democrats will avoid the most pressing issues."

Terence Courtney, 32, a black community organizer in Atlanta, said he supports Nader because he wants "a shift in the way we allocate our resources so it goes mostly to working people, people of color, women and children and less on building weapons and bombs."

Unlike the Democrats, Courtney said, Nader "is telling the truth about the relationships between the government, the military and the corporations."

Jerry Kann, 43, a copy editor and proof reader in the Astoria section of New York City, also is a Nader man.

"I don't think the Democratic Party really stands for anything anymore," Kann said. "Government is there to serve the majority. It's not -- it's serving a tiny, overprivileged elite.

"I'm tired of voting for the lesser of two evils," he said. "That's not acceptable."

© Copyright 2004 The Star-Ledger.


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