More than just Birkenstock set backs Nader

Sure, Birkenstocks, braids, and hemp hats were much in evidence at the Green Party convention over the weekend.

But in a sign that minor-party mavericks are strengthening their appeal across the American electorate, there were also plenty of folks here who clearly aren't part of the Grapenuts set.

Take Isaac Opalinsky, a warm, wisp of a guy who was a politically disinterested carpenter - until he came across the Greens' Web site. Or Alice Slater, a former housewife who's voted Democratic since 1962. Fed up, she turned Green on Earth Day 2000.

Neophyte activists like Mr. Opalinsky and major-party defectors like Ms. Slater have helped nonmajor parties snag more than 10 percent of the vote in the last two presidential elections - something that hadn't happened since before the Civil War. If the minor parties win 10 percent for a third consecutive time, as expected, it'll be a first in US history.

"Despite all the bellwethers that say Americans should be satisfied, there's a clarion call for something different in politics," says David Gillespie, a third-party watcher at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C.

Ross Perot in 1992 and Jesse Ventura in 1998 have succeeded, to some degree, in defining "something different."

Sen. John McCain, running as a maverick inside the Republican Party, did too, before putting his presidential ambitions on hold this spring.

Now, the mantle falls to presidential nominees of the minor parties - primarily the Greens, the Reform Party, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Libertarians. In the first of the three minor-party conventions, the Greens yesterday enthusiastically nominated consumer activist Ralph Nader for president.

A carpenter's clarion call

For Opalinsky, the 20-something carpenter-turned-activist, the call to politics came after college graduation, when he started repairing grand old houses in Annapolis, Md. He began attending city council meetings to push for preservation.

Pretty soon, "I had a fit of realizing my own apathy," he says, his eyes lofting up to the convention-hotel ceiling, as he searches for the right words. "I realized I live with people," he says, a bit cosmically. This turned into a desire to promote civic health. "We all need to be better neighbors, active neighbors."

Then, seven months ago, he was surfing the Internet and found the Green Party site. He realized "the only thing that can challenge the power of money in politics is activism." Echoing the mantra that unites nearly all minor-party members, he adds, "In the absence of activism, money rules."

Now Opalinsky works 12 hours a day as the paid (albeit low-paid) Nader state coordinator. He just bought Microsoft Excel for the organizing effort. "We want to get 100,000 votes in Maryland," he says. "That means we'll target 30,000 households - and they've each got to see our message at least seven times."

Mr. Nader's campaign is gearing up nationwide. He's on the ballot in 21 states - and hopes to be on in at least 45. He's polling about 7 percent nationally. He hopes to raise $5 million - and is getting financial help from celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Phil Donahue.

Democrat's conversion

For Ms. Slater, the one-time housewife turned antinuclear activist (who even traveled to Tahiti to protest French nuclear testing), Nader's appeal is his integrity.

"When I heard Ralph speak, I was so moved by his speaking the plain truth," says this silver-haired grandmother, cooing as if Nader were part grandson, part saint. "He's not beholden to anyone."

As Senator McCain proved in the Republican primary fight with Gov. George W. Bush, plain speaking can be a big draw. Observers say if anything sparks Nader's campaign, that may be it. "People may pull the lever on that basis alone," says a top Nader aide.

But most observers say Nader will have a big impact only if the major-party race stays utterly tight. If so, the votes Nader takes from Vice President Al Gore - about two-thirds of Nader's supporters are former Gore backers - might be enough to put Governor Bush in the Oval Office.

That prospect doesn't faze many Nader fans. Some say a conservative President Bush would serve as a rallying cry for liberals. In an interview, Nader himself says he wouldn't relish a Bush presidency, but that it would serve as "a four-year cold shower for Democrats."

Meanwhile Slater - whose friends at the convention compare her with Cassandra, the mythical prophet whose predictions were ignored - has the task of turning her Democratic friends to Nader.

"Some of them think I'm crazy for switching," she says with a shoulder shrug. But there's hope, she says, because "they all know something's amiss in the two-party system."

A bona fide Green

Art Goodtimes knows all about working within the two-party system - as an outsider. A bubbly Jerry Garcia look-alike and performance poet, he's an elected county commissioner in Colorado - one of 78 elected Greens in the US.

One of three commissioners in one of the state's fastest-growing counties, which includes the mountain-town mecca, Telluride, Mr. Goodtimes works with a Democrat, on one side, and a Republican, on the other .

He clashes with them only about 20 percent of the time, saying he's learned to "balance the energy" of all his constituents, even when it means not taking an absolute environmental stand. "I get accused of compromising my principles all the time," he says.

For Nader or Reform Party hopeful Pat Buchanan to get the same opportunity to make tough choices, they've got to bust into the two-party apparatus - including the presidential debates.

Nader, Mr. Buchanan, and the Libertarians are suing the Commission on Presidential Debates, headed by former chairs of the GOP and Democratic parties. It requires participants to have 15 percent standing in polls.

Such lawsuits are the laborious part of minor-party efforts to succeed, says Goodtimes, former poetry editor for the journal of Earth First. Now he's mellowed. "If we're not going to shoot 'em," he smiles, "we've got to learn how to work with 'em."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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