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Ralph Nader Gets Back to His Roots. Consumer advocate turns to cultivating civic involvement in his Connecticut hometown. PUBLIC CRUSADER

By Jonathan RoweStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1989


NATHRA NADER believed in democracy with an immigrant's passion. His forum was his bakery-restaurant, across from the mills in Winsted, Conn. ``The Highland Arms was no place to eat in peace,'' one resident has said. ``Mr. Nader would always try to heat everybody up about wrongs and injustices.''

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When AT&T announced that small-businessmen in the state would have to pay rent for their pay phones, Nathra, outraged, protested all the way to the company's board, and won.

``I didn't flee the Ottoman Turks to live in a second-rate democracy,'' he would tell his son, Ralph.

For more than 25 years, Ralph Nader has been in Washington, challenging the mighty and urging Americans to higher levels of civic involvement. Now he's coming home, to this town of 11,000 in the foothills of western Connecticut, with hopes of making it a model of the kind of democracy he espouses.

Nader has hired a lawyer to help citizens challenge developers and other special-interest groups at Town Hall. He wants to promote self-government tools such as taxpayer initiatives. He's especially interested in teen-agers. ``I would like to make this a hotbed of teen-age civic involvement,'' he says.

``I think its great,'' says Pat Riley, a local resident, gathering her mail at the post office. ``The town needs to be told what's wrong with it by people other than the people running it.''

After what seemed a long hiatus, Nader is in the news again. He was key to a drive to roll back car insurance rates in California. More recently, he led the fight against the proposed congressional pay raise.

Nader's Washington cohorts weren't all thrilled about the pay raise fight. They now have to deal with lawmakers their boss has made tangibly less wealthy. But Nader has always considered himself a full-time citizen, rather than a Washington insider.

In the 1960s, Nader was the young lawyer who took on General Motors and the entire American auto industry with his book ``Unsafe at Any Speed.'' Nader became a national hero, living proof that an individual still could fight the system.

``There were a few years there we could get through almost any bill we wanted to,'' Nader recalls. Auto safety legislation, toughened meat inspection laws, and a host of other new enactments were the result.

But then business groups mobilized. In a bruising battle, they defeated Nader's pet proposal, a Consumer Protection Agency. He realized that what critics called his ``Lone Ranger'' style wasn't enough. There wouldn't be democracy in Washington unless it was flourishing back home.

Nader turned over his Public Citizen organization to a long-time associate and devoted himself to building new channels for public involvement. To critics, Nader's name was a synonym for big government. But Nader regarded regulation as a necessary evil, a counterweight to corporate power, not something good in itself.

So he began looking for ways for consumers to provide this counterweight on their own. An example is Buyers Up, a home-heating fuel-buyers club that enables homeowners to bargain for low bulk rates.

``Certain decisions will always be made in Washington,'' Nader says. ``But how they are decided will be determined less by people in Washington than by what people do back home.''

Associates are not surprised that this path led back to Winsted. ``I've heard about Winsted ever since I've known Ralph Nader,'' says Tom Wathan, who is helping launch the project. ``I expected to find the cradle of democracy.''