Why Nader country might count

The Green Party won't win the White House, but it could sway enough voters here to change who does.

It's called the "upper left coast" - that 800-mile stretch from San Francisco Bay to Puget Sound. And along with its spectacular scenery, it probably has more political progressives per square mile than any place this side of Harvard Square.

This is Ralph Nader country, the region where the fiery consumer advocate and Green Party presidential candidate - although he has virtually no chance of winning the White House - could make all the difference in who does.

"A year ago it was a whisper in the wind," says Tim Hermach, an environmental activist in Eugene, Ore. "Now I hear a rumble, and come November it could be a shout."

Why the Nader attraction up here?

For one thing, there's a history of labor and social activism going back more than a century. This quadrant of the American geopolitical landscape is synonymous with free speech (Berkeley), the remnants of hippiedom (Humboldt County in northern California), overt dissent (the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle), today's version of anarchism (Eugene, Ore.), and environmental activism throughout.

There's also a tradition of maverick politicians from Wayne Morse to Tom McCall to Mark Hatfield to the majority on today's Seattle City Council, who are members of the Green Party. While 19 percent of the country was going for Ross Perot in '92, the diminutive Texas billionaire was winning more than one-fourth of the presidential vote in this part of the country.

"Perot was a bit of a fascist, but at least he was talking common-man talk," says Mr. Hermach.

Nader's message of environmental protection, social justice, and grass-roots democracy resonates with many here - particularly those who see little difference between "compassionate conservative" Republicans, buffing a more centrist image, and the predominant New Democrats, who have shifted their party rightward.

"Back in 1992, I was really excited about Al Gore," says Washington State activist and author David Korten. "My wife and I sent him a substantial campaign contribution and talked up his candidacy with our friends."

But today, Mr. Korten told the Green Party convention in June, "we are Greens because we are no longer willing to be manipulated by a political system in which the Republicrats present us with a nonchoice among candidates bought and paid for with corporate money."

Dan Hamburg, a former Democratic member of Congress from northern California who switched to being Green, echoes many Nader supporters when he says, "I'm tired of the Democratic Party taking us for granted."

Gore may have gotten a post-convention bounce in the polls, but with Nader running a full-blown campaign this year (as opposed to his desultory effort in 1996), the vice president could be in trouble out here. Political analyst Charles Cook includes Oregon and Washington as among the dozen states "too close to call."

"In closer presidential contests, like this one,... tiny states, which carry disproportional weight in the Electoral College, become a factor," he says.

"It's tempting to completely dismiss [Reform Party hopeful Patrick] Buchanan, and for that matter, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader as insignificant factors in this race. But if this is going to be a really close race, small things could be important."

Still, some observers throw a spray of cold, north Pacific water on the Nader phenomenon. Citing the historical record of other left-wing candidates such as Henry Wallace in 1948 and Eugene McCarthy 20 years later, Oregon State University political scientist William Lunch says, "It's an interesting phenomenon which will dissipate and go away as we get closer to the election."

"In the short run, this is fun and it's a nice diversion," he adds. "But in the long run, it's a footnote to our real politics."

For the moment, however, the Nader movement is very much abuzz in the Pacific Northwest.

This past weekend, Mr. Nader packed a political rally in Portland. More than 10,000 people paid $7 each to attend, a larger group than any that has come out to see either George Bush or Al Gore - including their conventions.

NADER'S running mate is a big draw in this part of the country as well. She's Winona LaDuke, a native American author and activist from Minnesota who grew up in Ashland, Ore., graduated from Harvard in economics, and in 1994 was named by Time magazine as one of America's 50 most-promising young leaders.

Many supporters feel as Steve Traisman of Ashland does: "If you vote for the lesser of two evils, you still end up with evil." Mr. Traisman voted for the Clinton-Gore ticket four years ago. But today he says he's fed up with the major-party candidates and says, "I feel that Ralph Nader is the only honest man that's ever run for president."

As the Democrats' vice-presidential candidate, Joseph Lieberman, with his pro-business record, could make things even tougher for Gore in this area. And the "don't waste your vote and get Bush elected" argument put forth by Democratic officials doesn't necessarily play here.

That's because there's a school of thought among such Nader supporters as environmental guru David Brower that, between Gore and Bush, it may be better to end up with the Texan. That would set the stage for a strong third party, while driving the Democrats back toward their more progressive roots.

(Professor Lunch at Oregon State notes ironically that this "the worse, the better" strategy was followed by the German Communist Party in 1932 before Adolf Hitler came to power.)

"It's kind of a crap shoot ... dangerous when you look at Bush's record," concedes Mr. Hamburg, the former congressman. "Gore's a little better, but is he that much better?"

Both major-party candidate teams are spending lots of time here.

Republican vice-presidential nominee Richard Cheney was in southern Oregon a few days ago, making his pitch in rural areas - to farmers, ranchers, loggers, and mill workers who oppose the Clinton-Gore environmental record of resource preservation.

With those folks going for the GOP and many enviros disappointed with the Clinton-Gore record and favoring Nader, it could be a long campaign for Gore-Lieberman in the Pacific Northwest.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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