WASHINGTON, April 14 -- The
students with purple hair, the
graying academics with Jerry Garcia beards and the union organizers
with their anti-W.T.O. buttons had
crowded into a college auditorium in
Minneapolis to hear some red-meat
-- make that green-vegetable -- radicalism. And Ralph Nader, America's foremost anti-corporate curmudgeon, did not disappoint:
Global corporations are sucking
the life out of small businesses and
family farms. Pollution is poisoning
our rivers and air. Inner-city schools
and health clinics are crumbling.
And while the nation corrodes, the
rich are buying and selling politicians like baseball cards.
"Big business is on a collision
course with American democracy,
and American democracy has been
losing," said Mr. Nader, who in his
dark suit was the most conventional-looking person in the room.
The man who became famous by
killing off a sporty but unstable little
car called the Corvair some 35 years
ago is at it again, running for president on the Green Party line.
But unlike his previous presidential run, in 1996, when he refused to
raise money, spent less than $5,000
and attracted barely 1 percent of the
vote, this time he is serious, Mr.
"I specifically said I wasn't going
to campaign in '96," he said in an
interview. "This is a campaign."
Mr. Nader is cranking up that
campaign just in time to step onto
the world stage this weekend, when
tens of thousands of protesters descend on Washington to demonstrate
against the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank. Green
Party affiliates from around the
world are playing a major role in the
protests, and Mr. Nader himself will
address demonstrators near the
White House on Sunday.
The goal of Mr. Nader's run is not
to win, of course, but to get more
than 5 percent of the vote, the number that would qualify him for millions in federal campaign matching
funds that he says he would use to
build the Green Party.
"If the Green Party breaks 5 percent, the Democratic Party won't be
the same again," Mr. Nader, still
irrepressibly dour and hauntingly
hungry-looking at 66, said in reflecting on the prospect of undercutting
the centrist Democratic Leadership
Council and its president, Al From.
"If you think Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council has a grip
on the Democratic Party, wait and
see what a significant and growing
progressive third party can do."
Aides to Vice President Al Gore,
the apparent Democratic nominee,
say they are not losing sleep over a
Nader challenge. Mr. Nader is not
the most skillful of campaigners, and
even many liberal allies question his
ability to move voters. Further, the
Green Party is better known for its
internal squabbling than for its ability to run campaigns or raise money.
But Mr. Gore's yielding even a few
percentage points to Mr. Nader
would be damaging to the vice president if the election was tight. And a
recent poll by the Zogby Group
showed Mr. Nader receiving more
support than Patrick J. Buchanan,
the likely Reform Party nominee, 5
percent to 3 percent. The poll indicated that the vast majority of Mr.
Nader's support came from Democrats and that he was doing particularly well in California, considered a
vital state for Mr. Gore.
All of which suggests that an aggressive Nader campaign could entirely offset advantages Mr. Gore
might gain from Mr. Buchanan's
candidacy, which is expected to siphon votes from the apparent Republican nominee, Gov. George W. Bush.
Mr. Nader intends to remain a
thorn in Mr. Gore's side by promoting causes that many liberals, large
numbers of whom chose Bill Bradley
in the Democratic primaries, say the
Clinton administration has lacked
the will to see through: universal
health care, the environment, campaign finance reform and an attack
on urban poverty.
And unlike Mr. Bradley, Mr. Nader
is a fierce opponent of the North
American Free Trade Agreement
and the World Trade Organization,
endearing him to traditionally Democratic union members who feel that
the administration's free-trade policies have hurt American workers.
As evidence that this year will be
different from 1996, Mr. Nader says
he has hired 15 full-time campaign
workers in Washington and will soon
dispatch 10 others, perhaps former
Bradley campaign organizers
among them, to get the Green Party
on the ballot in every state. (The
party is already on the ballot in 13
states, including New York and California.)
He has also vowed to raise $5 million, and says he may get help from
celebrities like Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Susan Sarandon, Bonnie
Raitt, Jackson Browne and the Indigo Girls. His first major fund-raising
event, in Washington tonight, drew
300 people, who paid $25 to $1,000
each, adding to the $210,000 or so that
the candidate's aides said they had
But to get anywhere near 5 percent
of the vote, Mr. Nader will have to
overcome some big obstacles, not the
least of which is the Green Party
itself. The party is notoriously disorganized and divided.
oppose any involvement in electoral
politics; others are supporting another candidate, Jello Biafra, former
lead singer of the rock group the
And then there is Mr. Nader, who
is the first to acknowledge that he is
not the best campaigner. Gawky and
prone to long speeches, he is also shy
and painfully uncomfortable with
asking people for their votes. When a
Delta Air Lines worker stopped him
in the Minneapolis airport last week
and said, "I'm a big fan," all he could
say in reply was "thanks."
"Campaigning takes a level of political ego I just don't have yet," he
said after the man had sped off.
He is also notoriously private, refusing to tell even co-workers where
he lives. (It is in an apartment he
rents in the Dupont Circle section of
Washington.) The only crumbs of
biographical information he sprinkles into his hourlong speeches are
passing references to the town of his
birth, Winsted, Conn. Rarely does he
mention that he is a son of Lebanese
immigrants, that his father owned a
restaurant, that he studied Chinese
at Princeton and law at Harvard.
His secretiveness has spawned a
host of dark theories among his critics. Some contend that he lives in a
million-dollar town house here, not in
the ill-furnished apartment of Nader
lore. (Mr. Nader says the town house
he has been spotted entering is his
sister's.) They say that despite his
seemingly penurious way of living,
he is actually quite wealthy, that he
purposely spent almost nothing on
his 1996 campaign to skirt federal
election laws, which require candidates who spend more than $5,000 to
file reports disclosing their assets.
Mr. Nader says he will file a financial disclosure report next month.
Despite the concerns he frequently
voices about the dangers of too rapid
an advance in technology, the report
will show, he says, that he owns
technology stocks. It will also disclose, he says, that he earned about
$200,000 in speaking fees last year
but gave half of it to charities. He
says that most of the other half went
toward "projects" and that he lives
on about $25,000 a year.
Asked how so private a man could
run for so public a job, Mr. Nader, a
lifelong bachelor, replied: "When
you work all the time, you don't have
a problem in terms of private time.
There is no private time."
Even among many on the left, Mr.
Nader is not considered the dream
candidate. In a recent essay in The
Nation, Katha Pollitt complained
that his 1996 campaign had focused
too much on trade issues, to the
exclusion of matters like race relations, health care, and gay and abortion rights.
"The idea of progressives cranking up an organization, raising funds,
fomenting energy and enthusiasm on
behalf of this doomed project," Ms.
Pollitt wrote, "well, it's just too depressing. If working on Nader's campaign is the best way progressives
can spend the next eight months, it's
time to hire a hearse and lie down in
Mr. Nader, who says he is running
partly at the behest of Green Party
leaders, replied, "I think she ran out
of material that week."
Still, his platform seems to reflect
some of the criticisms of progressives like Ms. Pollitt. At the top is
universal health care, followed by an
antipoverty program built heavily on
consumer-protection ideas, including
provisions against loan discrimination by banks, high auto insurance
rates and landlord abuses.
"Corporate welfare," one of his
favorite issues, will also be front and
center: he will campaign against tax
breaks and government subsidies
that allow big companies "to privatize profits and socialize risk."
And, in an effort to win support
from social conservatives, he plans
to attack big media corporations,
saying they exploit children with
racy programming and aggressive
Although he is counting on the anti-globalization protests this weekend
to raise his national profile, Mr. Nader says his best hope for gaining
attention would be to squeeze between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush in
The commission that determines
presidential debate participants has
said a candidate must be receiving
15 percent in national polls to be
included. Mr. Nader contends that
the threshold is ridiculously high,
and hopes to unite with Mr. Buchanan to protest it.
And if he prevails, he
says, he will pose in those debates
the kind of questions that will spark
interest in his campaign.
"Candidates are asked, 'What is
your position on welfare, what is
your position on crime?' " Mr. Nader
said. "That's not the right question.
It needs an adjective: 'What is your
position on corporate welfare? What
is your position on corporate crime?'
We're going to open this up. We're
going to provide adjectives to these
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company