Friday, October 31, 2008

The Importance Of Ralph Nader

The public safety crusader brought his powerful anti-corporate message to Waterbury, Connecticut, in September 2008

Story and photographs by John Murray

If Ralph Nader were a consumer product this would be a lot easier. Nader, standing on familiar ground, would fight like a bulldog to get the public to understand the importance of bringing that product - which makes us all safer - into every home in America. The product, he would tell us, holds the key to crushing corporate power out of our political process, and would return democracy to the American people.

Who doesn’t want that?

But Ralph Nader is not a product, he’s a 74-year-old man wedded to the lifelong pursuit of making America safer. It was Nader’s tireless consumer advocacy in the 1960s and 1970s that brought us seat belts, air bags, food labels, clean water, clean air, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Nader’s work for public good is astonishing, and led to him being selected one of the 100 most influential men in American history.

But when Nader took his consumer advocacy crusade into the political arena and started running for President every four years - he got screwed. His idealism collided with modern American politics. Nader was caught in a vice between Republicans and Democrats, a two-party system he calls a “duopoly”, which was long ago hijacked by corporate money, lobbyists and greed.

Nader entered the political arena to try and pry corporate fingers off the steering wheel. Nader’s weapon was a brilliant mind and suitcase full of ideals. He two opponents , however, were armed with money, guns, knifes and pepper spray. Without a means to spread his message to the American people he didn’t have a chance.

The system is stacked against Nader and any other third party candidate who challenges the iron fisted rule of Republican and Democrat power. Many Americans don’t know that Nader is on the ballot in 45 states in 2008. Why? Because the mainstream media has effectively censored him. Nader said the New York Times and The Washington Post have told him they aren’t going to report about his campaign this year because of the negative impact they believed he had on the 2000 race. (Nader received 97,000 votes in Florida, a state won by George W. Bush by 543 votes)

The media should give the public the information and let the voters decide. An abundance of information should flow through a free country like blood through our veins. We need vigorous journalism to provide the public with more information, not a high minded few applying a tourniquet to the flow of news about Ralph Nader.

It’s un-American. And it’s wrong.

The rap about Nader costing Al Gore the 2000 election is also mis-guided and wrong. Consider the facts: 12% of Florida democrats (200,000) voted for Bush, and all the other third party candidates tallied above the Bush margin of victory – Reform Party (17,000), Libertarians (16,000), Worker’s World (1800) and the Socialists Workers (562).

Why isn’t their fault? Why pin the Bush victory on Ralph Nader? It makes no sense.

I was too young to fully appreciate Ralph Nader in his prime, but my mother was enthralled with him. She read about him in the daily newspapers, watched him on the Phil Donahue Show, bought his books, and went to see him when he visited New London, Connecticut, back in the 1970s. My mother was inspired by Ralph Nader and wrote hundreds of letters to corporations and businesses to complain about their products, and when she didn’t get the response she thought was warranted, she wrote more letters.

Nader reappeared on my radar screen in the early 1990s when he launched his first write-in campaign for the presidency. I was working at the Register-Citizen newspaper in Torrington at the time, and Nader, being from neighboring Winsted, was of intense local interest. One of our reporters, Jedd Gould, was given the assignment to cover Nader’s campaign in New Hampshire. Jedd was so inspired by Nader that he eventually left the daily newspaper to launch The Winsted Voice, which was entirely written by the citizens of Winsted, giving the people the chance to cover themselves.

I remember visiting Jedd in his apartment in Winsted after he published his first issue. The morning changed my life. As one of more than 100 employees at the Register-Citizen I believed you needed reporters, photographers, salespeople, a production department, a vast distribution network and a printing press to publish a newspaper.

But here was Jedd Gould sitting at one computer in his disheveled apartment with a frisky Labrador Retriever bounding between piles of dirty laundry. Jedd sold the ads, made the ads, laid out the newspaper in his computer and cut and pasted the contents together into one mechanical copy. Then Jedd would take the one copy of his newspaper to a printer where they would print thousands of Winsted Voices and drop them back off at his apartment the following day. Jedd would then personally deliver the papers at dozens of locations around town.

He was a one-man band, and his success became the blueprint for the Waterbury Observer. One year after Jedd launched The Winsted Voice, a fellow journalist at the Register-Citizen, Marty Begnal, approached me about an idea he had about starting a newspaper in Waterbury. My first move was to consult with Jedd to see exactly how he published The Winsted Voice - what equipment did he have, what software programs, how much money did he need to start the business, how did he figure out his ad rates, and was it hard to get businesses to distribute a free newspaper?

Ralph Nader inspired Jedd Gould to launch a community written free newspaper in Nader’s hometown of Winsted. Without Ralph Nader there wouldn’t have been a Winsted Voice, and without Jedd Gould there wouldn’t be a Waterbury Observer.

One of the last projects I worked on at the Register-Citizen was an investigative piece about the horrific impact industrial cleaning solutions were having on the workers at the Becton Dickinson (BD) plant in Canaan, Connecticut. The company manufactured hypodermic needles for the medical industry and used a variety of methods to sterilize the product, including radiation and ETO gas. I spent a year interviewing injured employees and reconstructing a nuclear accident that had occurred inside the plant. When it was time to publish the story the editors were terrified that a multi-billion dollar corporation would sue the family owned newspaper. It took months for the story to make the rounds through every editor, the publisher, and finally, the owner of the paper.

The article finally had the green light, but just days before publication, the Journal Register Company, an aggressive business corporation with a reputation for destroying a newspaper’s soul, purchased the Register-Citizen. Dozens of employees were let go and the story was killed.

Frustrated, I took the story to Jedd Gould, who was now publishing The Winsted Voice, and The Canaan Voice. Jedd immediately agreed to publish the story and every home in Canaan received a copy of The Canaan Voice with an eight page expose on the dangers inside Becton Dickinson, the largest business and employer in the region. There was some talk from BD officials about suing Jedd for publishing the story, but the specter of Ralph Nader looming ominously in the background might have squelched that idea.

A few months later, Agnes Mulroy, the BD employee who had risked her life to bring the story forward, was flown down to Washington D.C. to receive a Citizens Courage Award from Ralph Nader.

Fast forward 15 years and I get a call from Silas Bronson librarian, Anita Bologna, telling me Ralph Nader was coming to Waterbury for a rally. Despite the indirect impact that Ralph Nader had on my life, I was uninspired to go out of my way to see him. Like many Americans, I had swallowed the propaganda, and saw Nader as a polarizing figure who helped deliver the White House to George W. Bush in 2000.

I was sluggish going to see Nader in downtown Waterbury in late September, but I went. Ralph was 30 minutes late and walked into the Independent Party headquarters and headed straight for the food buffet. He nibbled on some treats and was whisked into a back room for a private audience with journalists from the Hartford Courant, the Republican-American, the Observer, and a two film crews.

Nader’s posture was slouched and he looked straight at the floor as he uncorked a blistering attack on the $750 billion Wall Street bailout package just passed by Congress. Pulling no punches he called the package a bailout for the reckless and the greedy that contained little to nothing to help homeowners about to lose their homes.

“This is taxation without representation,” Nader said. “Congress is bailing out Wall Street with $750 billion without a single minute of a public hearing. This is the worst piece of legislation I have seen in 40 years.”

And for the next 30 minutes Ralph Nader stood in a cramped room with six journalists and delivered the keenest insights about democracy and the modern political process that I have ever heard. The words tumbling from his mouth were like notes from a Mozart tune - crisp and clear.

He didn’t lose Al Gore the 2000 election, he said, Al Gore lost when he couldn’t deliver his own home state of Tennessee, and despite all the focus on Florida and the recount, it wasn’t Florida that swung the election to Bush - it was the Supreme Court of the United States that swung the outcome when they voted along party lines to give the throne to “King George IV.”

Nader’s message is as sharp as an ice pick, but he can’t effectively deliver it to the American people because he isn’t allowed to debate Barack Obama or John McCain. The Commission on Presidential Debates is a private corporation run by the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and the former chairman of the Democrat National Committee. They decide which candidates voters get to see, and despite 66% of the American public wanting Nader on stage with Gore and Bush in 2000, the commission not only froze him out, they threatened to arrest Nader if he entered the hall with a legitimate ticket to simply sit in the audience.

The justification for Nader’s exclusion was that polls indicated he didn’t have enough support to be a factor in the race, which makes no sense, because after the election he was blamed by millions of Americans for being the biggest factor in the race.

“Which is it,” Nader said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Nader received almost three million votes in 2000, and snagged 10% of the vote in Alaska. Many national experts have stated that if Nader were allowed to debate his presidential opponents, his 3% in the polls would swell to 25% to 30%, not only making him a major factor, but also forcing the two political parties to adopt some of his platforms, which can be viewed at

And it might be one of the planks in Nader’s platform that keeps the debate door slammed in his face. Nader has spent his life challenging corporate America to provide better and safer products to Americans, and one of his first moves as president would be to launch an aggressive crackdown on corporate crime and corporate welfare. The political process in America is now driven by corporate interests, so does anybody in their right mind believe that the major corporations in America have any interest in letting Ralph Nader expound his views of democracy and civic duty to the American public?

That’s why he’s barred from the debates - he’s too dangerous to corporate interests.

Amazingly, it is through the efforts of the local Independent Party in Waterbury that Nader is even on the ballot in Connecticut. Independent Party chairman, Mike Telesca, met Nader in New Hampshire in 2004 at a meeting of independent political candidates. The Independent Party was fresh off a major victory after they had swept local Republicans out of office in Waterbury, gaining 8 elected seats.

This eventually got Nader’s attention, and during a rally the following year in Hartford, Nader saw Telesca in the crowd and said “Mike is doing amazing things in Waterbury. Come up here and tell us how you did it.”

Nader then walked off the stage and gave it to Mike Telesca. Earlier this year a Nader coordinator called Telesca to ask if the Independent Party would be interested in working with Nader to try and get the 7500 signatures needed to get him on the Connecticut ballot.

“I was thrilled,” Telesca said. “ And I promised our support.”

Then Telesca and a group of highly motivated volunteers went out and gathered more than 15,000 signatures to insure Nader was on the ballot. Incredibly, Nader is running on the Independent Party ticket, and is using local party headquarters as his state headquarters. The Independent Party started in 2001 in Waterbury and now has candidates for office in Naugatuck, Winsted, Newtown, Norwalk and Milford. And now the Independent Party has Ralph Nader at the top of their ticket.

Although it’s clear that Ralph is never going to be invited to any presidential debate, his mere presence in the 2008 race is a benefit to all Americans. His tenacious pursuit of democracy is not only inspiring, it’s heroic. By hurling his body against the corporate wall of politics Ralph Nader has created a crack in the fortress, an opening for the rest of us - if we ever wake up - to march through and reclaim our democracy.