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The Green Team 

Nader's Raiders march down the Green highway to take America back from 'tweedledum' and 'tweedledumber'

The Green Party and their new found labor union and Reform pals got together last weekend and decided that Al Gore and George W. Bush make them want to Ralph.

It may not be a sleeper of a presidential election year after all.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader and a burgeoning Green Party solidified what they hope will become this year's populist rallying cry: Turtles and Teamsters Forever!

And in a stunning move, the spokesman of the 23-state coalition of the Reform Party of America offered on Sunday a decisive endorsement for Nader at the Greens' national convention in Denver.

Dismissing the notion that a vote for Nader is a vote thrown away, speaker after speaker attacked Democrats and Republicans for being indistinguishable as they satiate their voracious appetites for cash from the same corporate and special interest trough.

"I don't think voting your conscience is throwing your vote away; I think you waste your vote when you vote for someone you don't like," said convention organizer Dean Myerson.

Four years ago, Nader only halfheartedly campaigned on the Green Party ticket, spending an estimated $5,000 on the election. This year he insists he's in it to win.

While few Greens think that Nader will actually win the presidency this year, their more realistic goal is to secure that magic 5 percent of the vote in the election, which would give the Greens access to millions in matching federal funds for the 2004 presidential race.

As Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the now-defunct punk band Dead Kennedy's, puts it: "Can you imagine what would happen to American television if people like me get to design the presidential campaign ads?"

Biafra was also drafted to run for president on the Green Party ticket this year, as was Stephen Gaskin, who helped found the Farm in Tennessee in the 1970s -- at the time, the largest hippie commune in the world.

Not unexpectedly, Nader easily won the nomination. But both Biafra and Gaskin say they are helping to revive interest in politics among punkers and hippies and other disenfranchised voters who, in recent years, have run away, screaming, from politics.


Years of efforts

In addition to nominating Nader for president, the Greens also adopted a platform that lays out their positions on issues that are unmistakably progressive concerns of the 21st century.

For example, Greens support a national insurance program for health care, living wages and a free education, including college. They want to reinvest a significant portion of the military's budget in family support services and job training.

They oppose bioengineered food, and call for the federal Endangered Species Act to be strictly enforced. Greens reaffirm the rights of youth, including providing them with education regarding their own sexuality and getting rid of "coercive" corporate advertising in schools.

The Green Party first organized in Germany as an anti-nuclear, pro-peace movement at the height of the Cold War. United States Green activists began forming here in 1984, and by 1992 were forming state parties and gaining ballot access.

Now, formally organized in 38 states, with a high-profile presidential candidate, 78 candidates holding mostly-local public offices, and 118 candidates running this year, the Greens are on a roll, said Oregon delegate Blair Bobier, a longtime U.S. Green Party organizer.

"It's exhilarating for a lot of us; this is a real culmination of many years of efforts," he said. "The Democrats have been telling people for years that they have nowhere to go -- that's not true anymore and it's a new ball game."

In part because of a growing disgust over corporate welfare and a lack of obvious ideological separation between the two major parties, Nader and his Green Team have established a broad base of support.

The Greens love his commitment to cleaning up the environment and his socially progressive stances; Nader's opposition to global trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement appeals to some Republican conservatives.

Building on the momentum generated by last year's widespread protests of the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C., Nader could pick up votes from Gore, who has infuriated labor unions and moderates with his pro-China trade position. Most recently Gore embarrassed himself with his perceived pandering when he sided with the Miami relatives in the Elian Gonzales case.

Of course, Nader and the Greens will never appeal to hard-line conservatives, whose decision on which candidates to vote for is based on a single-issue, whether it be gun control or a woman's right to choose -- both of which he supports.

"This is a very long-term movement, with people of all ages, stripes and designs totally fed up with a corporate monarchy," said Biafra. "Our constitutional democracy has slowly but surely been overthrown in a sugar coated Disney-crusted coup."

Last weekend was marked by a landmark announcement when Don Torgersen took the stage to -- on behalf of 23 state party affiliates of the Reform Party of America -- endorse Nader.

Since H. Ross Perot founded the Reforms in 1992, Perot's third Party has engaged in massive infighting and have splintered into two distinct factions.

Torgersen's group should not be confused with the faction of the party that supports Pat Buchanan for President. Torgersen said Perot hasn't personally weighed in on who he's supporting, but Torgersen said many longtime activists refuse to sit by and watch the Buchanan Brigade hijack their principles.

"Most of the traditional Reform members have walked away from Pat Buchanan," Torgersen said, noting they are offended and disgusted by the Buchanan's blustery emphasis on a conservative social agenda, including damning abortion.


Corporate paymasters

Kicking off the three-day convention in Denver, Nader and his running mate Winona LaDuke blasted the Democratic and Republican parties for bowing down to "corporate paymasters" and making American government of the Exxons, by the General Motors and for the DuPonts.

The arrogance and complacency of the major two-party system has resulted in widespread alienation in the political democracy, Nader pointed out. Less than 50 percent of eligible voters -- or 75 million people -- stayed home four years ago.

Big money has not only forced major parties to their knees, but democracy itself is in peril, Nader warned.

"We've got one corporate party with two heads wearing different make-up," Nader said. "We're one choice short of a [dictatorship]."

LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist and Harvard graduate who Time magazine identified in 1994 as one of the country's 50 up-and-coming leaders, called for a reconciliation between humans and the land and ecology in which we live.

That can't happen, she said, as long as corporate-controlled Democrats and Republicans are allowed to turn their backs on the environment and on workers.

And LaDuke warned of business as usual under a Gore or Bush administration.

Under Bush's watch in Texas, the Lone Star state ranks 50th in spending on public school salaries, is 49th in spending on the environment, 40th in public health funding and 47th in social services, LaDuke said.

And life in the Clinton-Gore administration has not proven much better. Twenty-five percent of American families -- or 32 million workers -- are living in poverty, even with both parents working, she said. "The disparity between the rich and the poor is disgraceful."


Which is worse?

Yet, throwing around such brain-heavy topics as global justice and ecological wisdom, speaker after speaker howled for reform -- both from the media and in politics -- during last weekend's gathering.

Manning Marable, the founding director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, delivered a rousing oration calling for economic and social justice. He urged people to ponder tough moral questions.

"Which is worse, Clinton's sexual misconduct or his decision to sign the 1996 Welfare Act that put millions of [families] in poverty?

Marable thundered criticism over the execution of Gary Graham in Texas. "Which is worse, George W. Bush's decision to send an innocent man to his death this week, or Al Gore's failure to denounce him?"

Radio commentator and keynote speaker Jim Hightower electrified a packed house, highlighting the weekend's oft-repeated theme: Republicans and Democrats have sold out.

Hightower blamed an exodus of would-be Democratic voters from Al Gore's camp on a major party that has abandoned its core values and is now indistinguishable from Republicans. In essence, he said, the two have become the party of "Tweedledum and Tweedledumber."

The former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, elected as a Democrat, commended the Greens for their enthusiasm and for shaking things up.

"Agitation is what America is all about," Hightower said. "If it wasn't for agitation we'd all be sitting here wearing powdered wigs and singing 'God Save the Queen.'"

In response to Democrats' claims that Nader will steal votes away from Gore, Hightower offered the vice president a little piece of advice: "If you want to get rid of the Nader problem, become a Democrat."

Hightower hooted as he cited a June 23 New York Times story quoting U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, condemning potential spoiler Nader as "a very selfish person" who is on an ego trip.

"You can say a lot of things about Ralph Nader, but selfish?" Hightower asked, noting the celebrated consumer advocate lives in a rental apartment, has not owned a car since 1959 and still watches TV in black and white.


Green twinkling

It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that the Greens have found a champion in Nader.

"He has an incredible connection. I can't think of a more natural alliance," Bobier said. "He's impressed by our dedication to civic democracy and we're impressed by his commitment to doing it."

The Independent Nader said he has no plans to formally join the party that selected him as their presidential nominee. In exchange, the Greens will benefit by having a high-profile candidate in their camp.

The Greens hope the combination will prove to be a potent blend.

"If they're smart, they're worried," Oregon's Bobier said of Republicans and Democrats alike. "One of the ways to tell they are worried is how often they are coming out and saying they aren't."

Their Green Party convention itself was a blend of often-quirky characters who made no apology for the progressive party's grassroots foundation.

On the first day of the gathering, a friendly collie greeted many conventioneers in the basement of the Renaissance Hotel near Denver's old Stapleton Airport.

Not to be mistaken for a bohemian retreat, the Renaissance Hotel is owned by the Marriott Corporation. Aside from the sight of the dog and the numerous hippies and granola-heads, the ambiance -- with its recirculated air conditioning and surreal biosphere -- was just like chain hotels anywhere.

The Greens did implement a fanciful effort to keep on schedule. Rather than clapping out loud when they were in agreement of something being said, the delegates were initially instructed to use "Green Twinkling."

That's where they would raise their hands over their heads and wiggle their fingers around like antennae. To their credit, most of the crowd applauded out loud anyway.

In between speakers and twinkling, the Greens milled about the hallways, swapping activist war stories and collecting literature being distributed by groups opposed to everything from food irradiation to the continued bombing of civilians in Iraq.

The most noticeable split among the Greens is over marijuana. Many on the movement believe that pot should be completely legal -- for both medical and recreational use. Others -- including Nader -- support legalizing the non-potent hemp plant that has a multitude of uses, including for paper and cloth.

The most obvious trait that many Greens share is they appear to be plain healthy and in good shape. Not a lot of cigarette smokers or heavy drinkers in this crowd.

And, judging from the number of delegates who couldn't even make it to the convention to support their choice of candidates, the Greens appear to be made up of truly working class people. For example, half of New York's 33 delegates were no-shows because they are currently in the middle of critical campaigning, they couldn't afford the airfare or they simply had to work.

Even vice-presidential candidate LaDuke had to cut out early, missing Nader's acceptance speech because she had to get back to her working farm in Minnesota.

The protesters -- so common to national conventions everywhere -- were absent too. Nowhere were those pesky Flip Benham Operation Rescue-types waving six-foot high posters depicting grisly-looking aborted fetuses. The lack of formal protesters may be read as a sign that the two major political parties do not take the Greens seriously. But the major media may be starting to pay attention.


Do as I say

Repeatedly last weekend, Nader issued a challenge to the media to treat third-party candidates as seriously as they do the two major parties -- and to insist he and Buchanan not get shut out of the presidential debate.

Currently candidates must garner 15 percent support in the polls to be allowed to participate in presidential debates, a system that was devised by the Democratic and Republican parties.

Recent polls, including a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggested Nader is currently ahead of Buchanan 7 percent to 4 percent.

Yet, despite assertions that Nader would steal Gore's thunder, he may also capture the vote of people who -- turned off by Bush's candidacy -- would otherwise vote Republican. Nader support is growing in the Pacific Northwest, and in the crucial electoral state of California.

Nader also asked the media to treat third-party candidates equitably, allowing them equal access to the masses, instead of working in the mindset that only the two major parties are legitimate.

Throughout the weekend, Nader, joined by speaker after speaker, heaped nearly as much criticism on America's corporate-owned media as they did on the corporate-controlled Republican and Democratic parties.

But, by the end of the convention, Nader and the mainstream press were cozying up nicely with each other (though the more cynical media types who were dispatched to Denver for the convention -- including CBS radio news -- were privately chortling over the tree-hugging make up of the crowd).

In the past, Nader has accommodated the alternative press. Yet the day he accepted the nomination, Nader's press handlers insisted that the candidate would only be available for interviews with major daily newspapers.

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