Not easy being Green

Just when the McCain mania of the presidential campaign peaks and Ross Perot's Reform Party teeters toward meltdown, Ralph Nader arrives to pick up the banner of reform vérité. The respected consumer activist and critic of corporate power last month kicked off his fight for the fledgling Green Party's nomination and will swing through Texas this week to campaign. Energized by Nader's call to close the nation's so-called "democracy gap," activists statewide are scrambling to get his name on the ballot here.

You may recall Nader's lackluster 1996 campaign as Green Party nominee, when he pledged to spend only $5,000 and received a mere 1 percent of the vote. That's considerably less than either major party paid for the votes they corralled, but Naderites are careful to note that their man merely "stood" for president then, basically allowing Greens to use his reputation for party-building. This time, they vow, Nader will really run, campaigning nationwide and raising funds to press his message of campaign finance reform, market regulation, and environmental protection. The goal? Get on the ballots of at least 45 states and win 5 percent of the popular vote, qualifying the Greens for federal matching funds next time around. A strong turnout, officials say, will further build a national party apparatus and push Democrats to the left.

Nader, famous for challenging the auto industry with his 1965 tome Unsafe at Any Speed, connects nearly all of the nation's ills to excessive corporate power and concentration of wealth in a few hands. An extreme focus on short-term profits, he argues, has prevented the nation from solving long-term problems, such as child poverty, distressed inner cities, and decrepit infrastructure. And while economic statistics paint a glowing picture nationally, Nader argues that "human yardsticks" do not. He said in his February 21 announcement speech, for example, that inflation-adjusted wages and the minimum wage are stuck at 1979 levels while millions of Americans lack health insurance. "Economic growth has been decoupled from economic progress for many Americans," he said.

Um, don't the Democrats usually speak to those issues? The Donkey Party has run out of credit with Nader, who, since joining the international Green movement, has accused Democrats of being part of a corporate political "duopoly." Nader hopes to lure people of all political stripes to rectify "the gross power mismatch between the narrow vested interests and the public or common good." Here in Texas, Nader's 1996 run stimulated the state Green Party, which for the first time has fielded four candidates for office. Gary Dugger, a United Parcel Service driver from Austin, and Charlie Mauch, a retired engineer from Houston, are vying for seats on the Texas Railroad Commission. Attorney Ben Levy of Houston is running for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, and Doug Sandage, another Houston attorney, is challenging GOP incumbent Kay Bailey Hutchison for U.S. Senate.

Since state Democrats haven't fielded candidates for the Railroad Commission and Supreme Court seats, Green Party officials are crossing their fingers for an upset. In addition, there is one local Greenie up for office. Aaron Dolson, a 26-year-old senior at the University of North Texas, is running for mayor of Denton on a platform that stresses recycling, opposition to a copper smelter, and more respect for college students from city government. An achievement by Texas Greens occurred when Teamsters Local 657 in Austin endorsed Dugger, the Railroad Commission candidate -- a rare nod from Labor, traditionally wedded to the Democrats. "From my perspective as an ex-union organizer, that's a big break," says Karen Elenich, treasurer of Dallas' Greens chapter.

Nader is the likely candidate for the Green Party's presidential nomination, but he faces competition from three other hopefuls: Jello Biafra, former singer for the punk-rock group Dead Kennedys; Stephen Gaskin, co-founder of the "the largest hippy community in the world"; and Joel Kovel, an author and activist. To get their man on the Texas ballot, Greens in 25 county organizations will mobilize starting March 15 to collect 38,000 signatures. Since Gov. George W. Bush will probably sweep Texas for Republicans, they predict their party has a chance at a strong showing. "A vote for Gore is a wasted vote," says Davis Cobb, secretary of the Texas Green Party. "You can really send a message with a vote for Nader."

Jonathan Fox

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Jonathan Fox
Contact: Jonathan Fox