Nader shakes up Western enviros


  • Vote Nader (cartoon)

    John S. Pritchett

Note: a sidebar article, "'A choice between bad and worse is not good enough,'" accompanies this story.

MONTROSE, Colo. - "There's a lot we have to cover here," sighs Ralph Nader, stooping over the podium with all the enthusiasm of a harried college professor.

The Green Party presidential candidate isn't campaigning this afternoon. Not officially. He's speaking at the 20th anniversary meeting of the Western Colorado Congress, and the regional environmental group's nonprofit status doesn't allow it to host campaign stops. But after his no-frills opening, Nader starts hitting his targets with gusto.

Citizens' political power, he says, has been hijacked by corporations.

"If you look at all the problems in the world," he says emphatically, "corporations are either causing them, contributing to them, or indifferent to them." Later, he gets a big laugh when he savages the proliferating big-box stores in Montrose. "The first thing I saw was Wal-Mart," he says, "and the next thing I saw was the old Wal-Mart."

Environmental activists from all over western Colorado have paid at least $15 a head to pack this 602-seat auditorium, and at the end of his hour-and-a-half talk they jump up to give Nader a standing ovation. Many of them are paying tribute to Nader's 40-year fight for their safety as consumers, but they're just as excited to hear about his new endeavor. Most of the questions are about his campaign.

"I felt in awe of the man," says Jeff Hahn, a Western Colorado Congress member. Hahn had the delicate job of driving Nader, a dogged defender of auto safety, over the precipitous Million-Dollar Highway between Durango, Colo., and Montrose. "I voted for him last time, and I'm going to do it again. I hear people say that a vote for Nader is a vote for Bush. Well, my answer is that a vote for Gore is a vote for the status quo."

Hahn has plenty of allies in this audience, and Nader's candidacy has inspired environmentalists throughout the West. But others warn that the Green Party might drain off just enough Democratic support to make a difference on Election Day. With the presidential race still too close to call, and many local races up for grabs, the internal debate has split the West's environmental community.

Telling it like it is

Ralph Nader is an expert on many things, and his expertise has saved lives. As a lifelong Easterner, though, he's no expert on Western environmental issues. Some of his applause lines, such as calls for an end to commercial logging in the national forests and reform of the 1872 General Mining Law, get a lukewarm response from this audience. Many of these activists want more advice on fighting their new enemies, such as suburban sprawl and the growing recreation industry.

Even Hahn, who praises Nader's keen interest in Western issues, concedes that "some parts of his platform are a little simplistic."

But grassroots activists say they can take care of the details. They say Nader's big-picture vision - his ceaseless attack on big-money politics - strikes at the source of the problems. Though many Green Party supporters like Gore's stump speeches, they don't trust him to follow through on his promises. Both Gore and Bush, they say, are beholden to major contributors.

Nader is "the only guy who's telling it like it is," says Chuck Worley, the 82-year-old co-founder of the Western Colorado Congress. "There's no big difference between the two main parties. The big corporations are running everything, and all they care about is profit."

Supporters - and Nader himself - espouse a kind of civic-minded radicalism, arguing that a powerful Green Party would energize the U.S. public. In turn, they say, it would revive the entire political system.

People are listening. This summer, a group of grassroots environmental leaders organized Environmentalists Against Gore, accusing the Democratic candidate of buckling under to "money and political dealers." The list of 100 Gore critics includes former Sierra Club head David Brower and tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill.

In late August, more than 10,500 people paid $7 each to hear Nader speak at the Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Ore., and Nader-LaDuke signs have been sprouting up on Portland lawns ever since. The Oregon Wildlife Federation, one of the few local environmental groups with a political action committee, announced its Green Party endorsements in early September. The group's Joe Keating, a longtime environmental activist in Portland, says the endorsement is about more than just this year's election. "Business as usual is unacceptable," he says. "What we're talking about is real transformation."

How have other environmentalists reacted to his group's position? "They love us and they hate us," says Keating with a loud laugh. "They'd love to do what we did."

Closing ranks

Would they? Though Nader garners only 1 to 4 percent in nationwide polls, his fervent supporters in urban Washington and Oregon have turned the traditionally Democratic northwest coast into a battleground.

And Nader isn't the only Green Party candidate who's making an impact. In the 2nd Congressional District race in Colorado, Ron Forthofer may grab vital support from incumbent Democratic Rep. Mark Udall. There are at least 14 other Green Party candidates running for national office in the West; Idaho, Montana, and Utah are the only Western states with no Green candidates.

In response, many environmentalists are closing ranks around Gore. The three national environmental groups with political action committees - the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and the League of Conservation Voters - have endorsed the Democratic candidate.

The Sierra Club made its earliest-ever presidential endorsement, which political director Dan Weiss says "reflects the closeness of the race and the resources at stake." Like other Gore supporters in the environmental community, he's careful not to knock Nader. But groups such as Environmentalists against Gore are not taking "a responsible position," he says. "Any differences between Gore and Nader pale in comparison to the differences between Bush and Gore." Weiss cites Bush's support for increased commercial logging on public lands and his enthusiastic endorsement of oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, positions that Gore has sharply criticized.

Though several local Sierra Club activists have joined Environmentalists Against Gore, only one state chapter, Alabama's, pushed for a national Green Party endorsement. "Gore is the most viable candidate, and viability is something that we look at," says Mari Margill, conservation coordinator for the Oregon chapter of the Sierra Club. "We're spending a lot of our resources to make sure he wins, and if he does, we think we'll have a strong friend in the White House."

The national group Friends of the Earth, which endorsed Bill Bradley in the Democratic primary, seriously considered a Nader endorsement after Bradley dropped out of the race. Yet in early September, group president Brent Blackwelder announced a Gore endorsement at the Democratic campaign's Portland office.

"The vote in this presidential race is about governance," the Friends of the Earth political action committee said in a detailed statement of its reasoning. "It is a decision about who is going to set the budgets for the country, fill cabinet and agency posts, appoint members to the judiciary and deal with national and global environmental problems.

"And this choice is between the two front runners."

The schism between Greens and Democrats in the environmental community clearly divides idealists from pragmatists. Nader supporters say the political landscape is in need of a makeover, that an election needs to be more than a choice between two front runners. Gore supporters say it's possible to work from within. But it gets a little more complicated. In some ways, the idealists are the patient ones here. They admit that a third party will take a long time to build, and if they have to wait through a Republican administration, they'll do it.

"We have to go through that, or we'll never go anywhere," says the Oregon Wildlife Federation's Joe Keating. You can't expect a political party to go from nothing to something overnight."

It's the pragmatists, usually the advocates of slow-and-steady change, who say the short-term situation is too urgent to ignore. "A lot of damage would occur, some of it irreversible, during those four years of rebuilding," the Sierra Club's Dan Weiss says. "Nader calls it a cold shower. I say it's more of a deep freeze."


Michelle Nijhuis is an associate editor for HCN.

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