When the plane lands, one of the first off is erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer. Small and pop-eyed, he hustles past alone, not much noticed. The hubbub is around Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, in town to drum up support for the Democratic ticket among union members on their big holiday.
But I’m not waiting for her.
The man I’ve come to meet exits the plane looking much the same as when he burst onto the national scene 35 years ago with his book Unsafe At Any Speed, a withering critique of the auto industry’s lack of commitment to safety. Ralph Nader’s lean and lanky frame is a bit more stooped at age 66, and his wavy black hair is crowded with gray. The years have added an air of distinction, but carrying a brown accordion file folder and wearing a lined windbreaker with a well-traveled navy blue suit coat hanging out beneath it, he still may as well have “policy wonk” stamped on his forehead.
The image mirrors reality. Nader’s bona fides as a good-government crusader are unquestioned. Using Harvard-honed legal savvy and moral suasion, he has successfully championed reforms in areas ranging from occupational health and safety to environmental protection to open government. In the process, he has spawned or inspired countless activist groups.
In the words of columnist Anna Quindlen, he’s the “patron saint of consumers.”
Now he’s on the campaign trail in a quixotic run for the presidency, aiming his lance at the windmills of an increasingly homogenous two-party duopoly and the corporate superstructure that feeds and protects it.
No longer content to simply attack targets such as the auto industry and nuclear power, he’s trying to do nothing less than revive American democracy.
Detroit seems as good a place as any to gauge how the effort is going. This is, after all, a town where, in the ’60s and ’70s anyway, he was as much reviled as revered. You don’t make many friends on the home turf of General Motors, Ford and what was then Chrysler when you target the internal combustion engine. But it is also one of the nation’s staunchest union areas, and organized labor feels burned by the Clinton administration’s support of free-trade agreements that ultimately weaken unions. Is there any lasting adhesion to the so-called Teamsters-turtle alliance of last year’s massive demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle?
One other aspect of his visit here is particularly poignant. If there is any place that Nader is vulnerable to criticism from the left, it is his failure to reach out to minority communities by making racial injustice an issue. In a city that’s 75 percent African-American, this is no small matter. And no matter where he goes, Nader poses an overarching dilemma for those who believe him when he rails against a system he says is corrupted to the core by corporate cash: Is a vote for fundamental change worth running the risk of putting George W. Bush into the Oval Office?
The big Labor Day parade has begun, but the long white van — carrying Nader, three campaign staffers, a Los Angeles Times reporter, four plainclothes cops serving as security and me — is cruising the Wayne State University area for an open Kinko’s. A press release needs last-minute changes, but finding a place open on this holiday is a problem. The LA Times reporter finally spots a cyber cafe’s sign, and the staff hustles in. Nader, through it all, remains unperturbed, sitting quietly in the van’s front passenger seat reviewing his notes. The only trace of anxiety is his repeated request that he not miss joining up with locked-out newspaper workers in the parade.
He tells me about the battle to stop the Joint Operating Agreement that linked the business operations of The Detroit News and Free Press back when it was proposed in the mid-1980s.
“We took it all the way to the Supreme Court,” he says. “The court split on a four-to-four vote, with one abstention, which allowed the JOA to go through.”
Had that vote gone the other way and the papers remained true competitors, he muses, the strike and ensuing lockout would have never gone on this long. I tell him how, moving here five years ago, one of the things that struck me most was this labor conflict: What does it say about the labor movement if you can’t win a newspaper strike in a union town like Detroit? He nods, but doesn’t answer.
Updated press release in hand, the entourage is on the move. As we make our way to the parade marching down Woodward, the van rolls past Brush Park, a once-affluent neighborhood that now resembles the ruins of postwar Berlin.
“Not quite Princeton, is it?” says Nader to two of his assistants, fresh-faced grads of his New Jersey alma mater.
They stare in disbelief. If they needed proof that all of America hasn’t benefited from the record-setting economy on which Al Gore bases his presidential hopes, this is it.
After finding a parking spot, we pile out of the van. By chance we intersect with the march where local Green Party members, carrying “Nader for President” signs, are in line behind a high school band.
The Greens let out a cheer. They’ve worked hard to get to this place, laboring to gather the more than 30,000 signatures to get their candidate on the ballot in Michigan.
Nader seems oddly subdued. He waves, then steps quickly to the front of the group of 50 or so people.
“Where’s the newspaper workers?” he asks. When told they’re up ahead, he quickly sets off, supporters in tow, hustling past the trombones and drums.
He never does catch up.
The focus of the day is dubbed Labor Fest. With tent-toppling winds and dark, cloudy skies threatening rain, attendance seems nowhere near the 20,000 predicted. But the mood is festive, with hot dogs and hamburgers sizzling, a band onstage, and beer flowing.
The featured speaker is Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. When I ask Nader what he thinks of Al Gore’s running mate, he makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the senator from his home state of Connecticut.
The way Nader sees it, while Gore used the Democratic convention to turn up the heat of his populist rhetoric (at least in part to defuse Nader’s attacks from the left) Lieberman represents the true face behind the vice president’s newest makeover.
“Lieberman is the real Al Gore,” observes Nader. “He’s the quintessential corporate Democrat. The drug companies own Lieberman. And Gore is going to fight the drug companies.”
A give-me-a-break look creases his face.
Nader says corporate money — from pharmaceutical companies and tobacco and big oil and media conglomerates and the insurance industry and military contractors — has subverted democracy. Corporate powers, not the electorate, call the shots. Every four years the people are offered a choice between “Tweedledee and Tweedledum,” each of whom draws tens of millions of dollars from many of the same corporate wells.
“If the only similarity is where they get their money,” he says, “that’s enough to clean them out.”
Legitimate third-party candidates like Nader can’t even get on stage to debate them. Afraid of wasting votes, the public — at least the minority of potential voters who go to the polls — holds its collective nose and votes for the lesser of evils.
“Corporations are on a collision course with American democracy,” says Nader, “and democracy is losing.”
As a result, says Nader, conditions continue to worsen for the working class and the poor.
He can’t comprehend why big labor continues to support the Democrats.
“The Democrats can’t get elected without the support of labor, yet labor is willing to settle for crumbs from them,” he says. “The Democrats can give labor the back of the hand because labor has no place else to go.”
And now that he’s offering a place, he’s largely being shunted aside. A few smaller unions have come out in support, but the major unions have endorsed Gore. The extent to which big labor’s leadership is freezing Nader out has never been clearer than today: Nader couldn’t even wrangle an invite to speak at Labor Fest.
And he’s not exactly greeted with open arms as he walks through the crowd, hearing more than a few shouts of “Go, Gore, Go!” and “A vote for Nader is a vote for the Republicans.”
There is, however, a contingent of the rank-and-file firmly behind Nader. They show up at the Magic Stick pool hall a few blocks away, where a crowd of about 300 has come to hear him speak. Mostly middle-aged and wearing jackets emblazoned with the numbers of their union locals, they sit beside a larger group that appears to be college-aged and into decidedly alternative lifestyles. They sport rainbow colors, dreadlocks or spiked hair, baggy, low-rider pants, hats embroidered with pot leaves. It’s not the 10,000-plus people who recently paid $7 bucks apiece to hear Nader in Portland, Ore., but they are wildly enthusiastic.
Taking the stage, Nader is calm and relaxed, even smiling.
“This whole grassroots resurgence of ‘Labor for Nader’ is very gratifying,” he says, seeming almost embarrassed by the outpouring of affection.
He then offers a rare bit of personal revelation. He talks of growing up in small-town Connecticut as the son of Lebanese immigrants who owned a restaurant. He recalls working countless hours behind the counter while still a boy and observing the textile workers from a nearby factory.
“The thing I noticed,” he remembers, “is looking into their faces and seeing them totally drained.”
From there he launches into an awesome display of intellect, offering not just opinions and ideas, but statistics and data. He begins with the plight of working people who, according to the Labor Department, make less in relative terms than they did 30 years ago; yet they work an average of 163 hours more each year.
Next he talks about the need for universal health care: “10 million more people have been added to the rolls of the uninsured under Clinton and Gore.”
Then he’s on to the minimum wage.
“The Democrats want to raise the minimum wage $1 over two years. The Republicans want to raise it $1 over three years. Jim Hightower (the populist radio show host) says that’s the difference between the two parties, 17 cents!” he says. He even draws from our conversation an hour earlier about Detroit’s newspaper strike: “If you can’t win a strike like this in Detroit,” he says, “it shows you how rigged labor laws are in favor of employers.”
He argues for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, ’40s-era legislation that, among other things, allows employers to hire replacements for strikers and restricts workers from striking in support of other unions.
There are swipes at the Republicans: “George Bush’s campaign may be unconstitutional. He’s a giant corporation running for president disguised as a human being.” But much of his attack is aimed at Democrats: “If they can’t beat the extremist, craven wing of the opposing party, Gingrich, DeLay, Armey, if they can’t beat these creeps, what good are they?”
And then, finally, there is one way the whole corrupt mess can be cleaned up: “The only way to deal with organized money is with organized people.”
This is Nader’s vision. No longer content to take on issues one at a time through citizen action, he wants to build a “watchdog” party that will keep corporate powers in check. All it will take, he says, is 1 million people each contributing $100 and 100 hours of volunteer time a year. Considering that he garnered nearly 700,000 votes while spending a mere $5,000 and running virtually no campaign four years ago, those numbers don’t sound all that far-fetched, especially coming from someone who has spent a career creating organizations and motivating people.
“Mobilize,” he tells his cheering supporters, “and organize.”
Not even Nader can seriously expect to win this election. But if he attracts 5 percent of the vote, federal matching funds will flow the Green Party’s way in 2004. That means money for local races as well as a presidential campaign.
Nader is looking to build a movement, and this is one step in what he expects to be a long march. He’s looking eight years down the road to a time when the coalition he’s building will grow beyond the spoiler trap and become a true force.
“All it takes,” says Nader, “is the willpower to do it.”
Race in the race
Following his speech Nader returns to the Labor Fest to spend a few minutes talking on the air with Hightower, who came to Detroit for a special remote broadcast of his “Chat and Chew” radio show, one of the few populist programs on the American airwaves. Afterward, Nader wanders through the crowd, stopping for an interview with reporter Abayomi Azikiwe from WHPR-FM 88.1, a small, black-oriented station.
The first question is about the rash of citizens being shot by Detroit police officers. It’s not just a problem in Detroit, says Nader, and the answer is community-oriented policing, better officer training and civilian review boards.
The next question is tougher: Why does there seem to be a lack of attention by Nader’s campaign to the issue of race? Nader notes that he spoke out on civil rights as far back as the mid-1950s, while still a college student, and that organizations he’s founded have been very involved in issues of great importance to African-Americans, such as “redlining” by mortgage lenders to exclude blacks.
Early in his career, he says, he determined to focus his energies in a way that transcends race.
“I realized these corporations were abusing people no matter who they are,” he explained, adding, “The issue of class is very important.”
Noting that the media has a way of diffusing campaign platforms, he adds, “I want to keep the focus on corporate power.”
Riding in the van back to the airport, I bring up the issue again, pointing out that of 300 people at the pool hall, there couldn’t have been more than three or four African-Americans.
“Why do you think that is?” I ask.
For the first time all day, he offers up a number that obscures rather than clarifies.
“There must be a 100 reasons why,” he says.
I point out that a few days earlier Jesse Jackson had been in town, rallying African-Americans to campaign for the Gore-Lieberman ticket.
“You talk about the lack of difference between the two parties, but here in Detroit you would have a hard time selling the idea that when it comes to inclusivity there’s no difference between the Democrats and Republicans.”
“If you were to ask Jesse who the two worst judges on the Supreme Court are, he would say Scalia and Thomas,” observes Nader. Scalia, he says, was approved by a Senate vote of 98-0, while Thomas wouldn’t have been approved at all were it not for 11 Democratic votes that gave him a 52-48 majority. In both cases, these reactionary judges were put on the high court with the help of Democrats. “What kind of credibility do the Democrats have after that?”
“Jesse is saying bad is better than worse “ when it comes to Democrats and Republicans, argues Nader. “I’m saying both are not good enough.”
Then he makes another point: There are two kinds of oppression, “discriminate and indiscriminate.”
Racism is a form of targeted discrimination; issues such as water pollution, unsafe workplaces and tax preferences for corporations are indiscriminate.
“Most of the agitation focuses on discrimination,” he contends. “There needs to be more emphasis on the indiscriminate.”
I consider pressing him further, but decide not to. The race-vs.-class debate is difficult, and although it seems foolish for Nader not to help build his movement by speaking out more about the problems facing people of color, it seems not quite fair to belabor the point with a man who has chosen a Native American woman as his running mate.
Maybe having Winona LaDuke as the Green Party’s vice presidential candidate won’t convince critics that Ralph Nader is committed to racial justice and inclusiveness, but it is much more than empty rhetoric.
Now or when?
Just before departing for the airport, as Nader buckles himself back into the front seat, a man approaches the van’s open door. He is middle-aged, well-dressed and earnestly implores Nader to drop out if it appears his candidacy will throw the election to Republicans.
“Wait until 2004,” begs the man. “I’m scared to death of Bush being elected.”
Nader is unmoved.
“I thought that in 1980, in ’84, in ’88, in ’92,” replies Nader. Even in ’96, he says, he didn’t mount a serious campaign, instead attempting to only bring his issues into the debate.
The time for waiting, he says, is over.
“A hundred years from now, it will always be one is worse than the other.”
But the man’s concern is palpable. Like a lot of liberals, he finds a Bush presidency too horrid to imagine.
In Nader’s mind, however, the time for the lesser of evils has passed. “In the end,” he says, “you still wind up with evil.”
In fact, he‘s said in other interviews that a ‘’provocateur’’ like Bush would do more for the progressive movement than an ‘’anesthetist’’ like Gore.
Among leftists, Nader’s candidacy has rightly inspired fierce debate. In the Nation, columnist Katha Pollitt recently observed that if Bush were to win, “it’s safe to say it doesn’t bode well for reproductive rights, affirmative action, the Violence Against Women Act, public schools, church-state separation, gun control, labor rights, the environment and a host of other issues on which the Democrats are marginally or significantly better.”
I confess that I am torn.
“Is there anything at all that Gore could offer you that would cause you to drop out?” I ask Nader. “Policy guarantees? What about a cabinet post? Secretary of Labor?”
“The only thing he could offer me is to drop out of the race,” he says wryly.
Ready to fly
Back at the airport, waiting for his flight back to Washington, D.C., I ask Nader if it seems odd that in the era when he first broke into the national spotlight, he seemed relatively mainstream. While anti-war leftists were rioting, he worked within the system. Since then the country has moved so far to the right that he could be classified as one of the most radical men in America.
He tells me I’m wrong.
“It’s the corporations that are radical,” he insists. “In the upside-down world of corporate power” the people fighting against them “are called the extremists. But being the corrupter of democracy is not a traditional value. Poisoning the water, land and air is not a traditional value.”
Saying that, he pulls from his breast pocket an index card on which he has written a passage from Leviticus that instructs the faithful to “not stand idly by the blood of neighbors.”
It is surprising. While the other candidates are wearing their religion on their sleeves, Nader spent Labor Day walking around with a quote from the Bible close to his heart.
As his departure approaches, I squeeze in one more question: Does he ever get discouraged? He dismisses the question immediately, saying that sort of thinking doesn’t do anything but “rationalize futility.” Besides, he’s been a huge underdog in battles before, and look how they turned out.
As if on cue, a man who’s been patiently waiting for an opening steps forward with right hand extended.
“I read your book Unsafe At Any Speed,” says the man. “And I think you’re still telling things the way they are.”
Nader thanks him, and the man steps away. Nader, seeing a pair of deputies nearby, amiably chats them up, offering sympathy for the miles they must walk patrolling the endless airport concourses.
I ask the man about himself. He is Allen Marshall, a 63-year-old retired autoworker from Eastpointe.
Would he vote for Nader?
He wouldn’t want to see Bush win, but if Gore were to build a cushion in the polls, or if Nader somehow got a legitimate shot at winning, “I’d vote for him.”
“He’s the only one,” says Marshall, “who’s totally up front about everything he’s saying. He really does tell things the way they are.” Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or email@example.com