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Thursday, July 8, 2004 04:20 am

The Spoilers

Ralph Nader and the Greens go their separate ways – and struggle to stay relevant


Ralph Nader was "snubbed." He was "rejected," "rebuked," "spurned," "bypassed," "set adrift." Plainly put, the legendary consumer advocate and perennial presidential candidate "blew it."

So read headlines across the country and around the globe after the Green Party formally disowned the man who did the most to raise its profile.

At their national convention, held June 23-28in Milwaukee, the Greens voted to nominate their own presidential candidate rather than endorse Nader, the party's nominee in 1996 and 2000.

After heated debate, Greens narrowly selected David Cobb, a native Texan and political unknown. Unlike Nader, Cobb vowed to avoid campaigning in so-called swing states, where polls show a close race between President George W. Bush and the Democrats' likely nominee, U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass.

After Cobb's nomination, Nader berated the Green Party as "strange," said it was run by a "cabal," and predicted that it would be a "big loser" in the November election.

In an interview Monday with Illinois Times, Nader continued to scold the party he once helped foster.

"Why should the Democrats listen to the Green Party if it's just going to contest Massachusetts?" Nader asked. "The Greens have abandoned the only leverage that a third party can have, which is to deny the major parties votes in close contests."

Most Greens admit that Nader is right. By picking Cobb, they have, in Nader's words, "shrunk themselves." They have "jettisoned themselves out of any influence on the Democratic Party."

And, for now, that's just fine by them.

Most Greens are still smarting from the deluge of negative publicity the party endured after the 2000 election, in which Nader won just 2.7 percent of the popular vote nationally but may have tipped the balance in favor of Bush in key swing states.

In Florida, for instance, Nader received 97,488 votes. Bush won the Sunshine State by a mere 537 votes, a slim margin that gave him all of the state's electoral votes. Democrats branded Nader and the Greens spoilers for drawing votes from their nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

Cobb's nomination this year indicates that the party is eager to shed the spoiler label. Rather than chase the national spotlight, the 41-year-old lawyer campaigned on a promise to "grow the Greens" by focusing more on local elections -- running candidates for seats on county boards and in state legislatures.

"We, as a party, need some breathing space," Cobb told IT. "There's nothing sexy about what we're setting out to do, because it's really more slow and methodical."

Green Party members take enormous pride in the freewheeling format of their national convention.

They say the Democratic National Convention, set for later this month in Boston, and Republican National Convention, which will be held in New York City in September, will amount to sterile coronations of preordained candidates.

The Greens, by contrast, came to Milwaukee without knowing who would get the party's nod, which permitted an open and at times contentious process.

"It's a real political convention rather than a staged convention where the decisions are settled in advance," says Marc Sanson, an Illinois delegate from Springfield.

In a recent New York Times article, the Greens were described as the "fringiest of the fringe," and the party's oddball constituency of young idealists and aging bohemians was noted.

Indeed, there were enough silver-streaked ponytails, tie-dyed T-shirts, open-toed sandals, and peace flags to cause most anyone to mistake the Milwaukee convention for a Woodstock reunion.

Pamphlets calling for the legalization of industrial hemp were circulated. A hackysack circle formed a few feet from the main stage during the first voting round.

Despite the campyatmosphere, many delegates said they were stunned by the extensive political maneuvering and finger-pointing, hissing, and catcalling that punctuated many of the speeches and debates.

"It's been high tensions the whole time," said party member Paul Proces, of Philadelphia, as the nearly 800 delegates, representing 44 states where the Greens are organized, began voting on a nominee.

The number of delegates assigned to each state was based on a formula that factored in the level of Green Party activity in the state, said party spokesman Scott McLarty.

California led all states with 132 delegates; Kansas brought up the rear with just two. Illinois had 22 delegates from cities across the state.

Acting out their role as America's largest leftist opposition party, most delegates lampooned their own states before announcing vote tallies.

The Indiana delegation's representative described his state as stretching "from the shores of polluted Lake Michigan in the north to the clear-cut banks of the Ohio River in the south, with many other sins in between."

Illinois' representative took a shot at Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland Co., which she described as "well-known corporate criminals, price-fixers, and union-busters."

In the weeks leading up to the convention, the Illinois Green Party surveyed its members to gauge their preferences. The list included Fahrenheit 9/11 filmmaker Michael Moore (with the addendum "even if he doesn't want it") and former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio ("even if he's ineligible").

In the first voting round, Minnesota delegates got a huge ovation by nominating Eugene V. Debs, the legendary Socialist Party candidate and union organizer. Debs died in 1926.

Delegates had several choices: They could vote for "no nominee," which would open the door to either a Nader endorsement or a decision not to field a presidential candidate, or they could vote for one of a handful of homegrown no-name candidates such as David Cobb.

To the surprise of many delegates -- and most observers -- Cobb won. It took several hours and two voting rounds, but in the moment that Cobb's victory became clear, the convention-hall lights went off, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" came roaring through the speakers, and Cobb ascended the stage in a rumpled suit, his shirttail spilling from his pants.

"Without Ralph Nader, this nomination wouldn't have happened," he said, flashing the crowd a V-for-victory sign. "Ralph, if you are watching, thank you for what you have done, and thank you for what you will continue to do."

Nader's absence loomed large at the Greens' convention, where, many delegates contended, he would have easily won the endorsement had he simply shown up. Some supporters held crudely drawn signs that asked, "Where is Ralph?"

Nader says it would have been "crass interference" to actively court the Greens' endorsement because he was not seeking the party's nomination.

"The press misunderstood it," Nader told IT. "They felt we were going all-out to contest the nomination, and we weren't."

Still, the nomination was seen as a significant setback for the simple reason that a Green Party endorsement would have given Nader's independent campaign access to ballots in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

Getting his name on these ballots has already proved difficult. Nader must now collect tens of thousands of voter signatures and stave off legal challenges, filed mostly by Democrats, who hope to thwart his candidacy.

"You cannot believe how expensive that is," says Nader, referring to an estimated $80,000 legal fee to defend his petitions in Oregon last week. The tab proved too costly, he says, forcing him to withdraw.

In Illinois, a similar challenge to Nader's nominating petitions, also filed by Democrats, is pending (see sidebar, p. 12).

And, according to published reports, Nader has received contributions from traditionally Republican donors, who hope he'll siphon votes from Kerry.

Nader has added to the strangeness by successfully courting the endorsement of the Reform Party, the Ross Perot-created organization that four years ago backed conservative commentator Pat Buchanan. The Reform Party's endorsement potentially puts Nader on seven state ballots, including the key states of Florida, Colorado, and Michigan.

Although they largely agree with his views, many liberal-left stalwarts, such as The Nation magazine, have urged Nader to drop his presidential bid, lest he spoil Kerry's chance of beating Bush.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who will debate Nader on National Public Radio this week, has called Nader's candidacy "the single biggest danger" to Kerry's campaign.

More than a dozen Congressional Black Caucus members, all Democrats, met with Nader last month to request that he quit the race.

Even some formerly loyal supporters have turned against Nader, calling him arrogant and egomaniacal.

John Rensenbrink, a founder of the Green Party and longtime Nader ally, broke allegiance and cast his vote for Cobb at the Greens' convention.

"Ralph Nader is in the business of making political statements," says Rensenbrink, "rather than creating a durable political party."

Cobb was the only Green candidate to run a national campaign for the party's nomination.

A shoestring operation at best, the Cobb campaign raised some $40,000 and made campaign stops in 41 states. During a press conference in Springfield early last month, Cobb distinguished himself as perhaps the nation's lone presidential candidate to open his stump speech with a diatribe against genetically modified foods.

"We're not allowed to know what's in the food we eat," he began.

For years, Cobb says, he voted for Democrats, volunteering for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 and then for former California Gov. Jerry Brown's candidacy in 1992.

"I quit in disgust," he often says, in a voice that betrays a Southern drawl and a slight lisp, "realizing that the Democratic primary process is where genuine progressive politics go to die."

In 1996, Cobb joined the Green Party to volunteer for Nader's campaign, and he again helped rally the troops for Nader in 2000.

Indeed, Cobb promotes the same political platforms that form the core of Nader's campaign.

Both oppose the war in Iraq, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the federal government's war on drugs. Both advocate publicly financed elections, single-payer universal health care, and stricter environmental laws.

Both Cobb and Nader want to scrap the Electoral College (which ensured that Bush won the presidency despite the fact that Gore won the popular vote). And both advocate instant run-off voting, which would allow voters to rank candidates in their order of preference, thereby eliminating the possibility of a spoiler candidate.

Directly after winning the nomination, when asked the difference between his and Nader's campaigns, Cobb responded, "We are a Green Party campaign, and Nader's is an independent campaign. Otherwise, there's not many distinctions."

And yet, despite their ideological sameness, bad blood between the two camps seems to boil close to the surface.

Peter Camejo, a respected Green activist who came in fourth of 135 candidates in last year's gubernatorial contest in California, tried hard to convince Green delegates in Milwaukee to back Nader. Camejo, who agreed just before the convention to run as Nader's vice presidential candidate, even suggested a dual-endorsement proposal that Cobb rejected as "vague" and "unrealistic."

Camejo was shocked and angered by the party's response.

"No one thought David Cobb could get this kind of momentum," Camejo told IT. "Cobb wanted the division; he wanted to deal Nader a blow."

Cobb denies this, saying that Nader has only himself to blame for failing to get the Greens' endorsement.

"Ralph Nader was dismissive and was not willing to participate in the Green Party process at all," Cobb says. "He thought that my efforts were irrelevant. It was certainly a miscalculation, in retrospect."

Some party members say Cobb's victory demonstrates that the fledgling party has at last grown up.

At a post-victorypress conference, Cobb said, "The Green Party, which Ralph Nader has done so much to nurture, has grown out of [his] shadow."

But where Cobb's camp sees growth, the Nader-Camejo camp sees betrayal, contending that Cobb's candidacy has permanently fractured the party.

"The anger is extreme," says Camejo. "The Green Party will never be what it was before. It is changed forever."

Without Nader's marquee name to lead it, some say the Green Party is bound to shrivel up.

"It's not plausible for them to become a nationally competitive party," says David Rhode, a political scientist and expert on presidential politics at Michigan State University.

"They may have seen some growth at the local levels," Rhode continues, "but even at the local levels they're distinctly not competitive to the major parties."

Cobb rejects this claim, noting that the Greens today have 205 people in elected office, compared with just 40 a decade ago, and saying that he expects the number to swell come November.

Although that remains to be seen, one thing is certain: If Bush wins re-election, the Greens will be absolved of any blame. Nader alone will have to stand as the spoiler, a role he seems to welcome.

"You can't spoil a political system that the two established parties have spoiled to the core," Nader says.

"If you want to use that word, then we're all spoilers of each other because we're all trying to get votes from each other."

Cobb makes a prediction: "Ultimately we will force the two-party system to change the voting system," he says. "If they don't, we will spoil elections in the future."

But not this year. The Greens are sitting this one out.

Challenging the challengers
ItÕs not easy being Green in Illinois

With no money, no political organization, no name recognition, and no media coverage, it's safe to say attorney Scott Summers has no chance.

"I have no illusions about winning," says Summers, of Harvard, Ill., regarding his campaign for the U.S. Senate on the Green Party ticket.

Indeed, Summers likely will never appear on the state ballot.

The Democratic Party of Illinois last week backed challenges to the nominating petitions of several third-party candidates, including Summers.

John F. Tully Jr., a Democrat from Chicago, formally filed the objections. Tully is represented by Michael Kasper, legal counsel to state Democratic Party.

Tully also formally filed an objection to Ralph Nader's independent presidential bid. In 2000 Nader garnered more than 103,000 votes, or 2.2 percent, in Illinois as a Green.

Petition challenges have already knocked Nader off of ballots in Arizona and Oregon.

"The public ought to demand that every party follow the law," says Steve Brown, spokesman for state Democratic Chairman Michael Madigan.

Marc Sanson, an Illinois Green Party member from Springfield, says the state's requirements for nominating petitions -- 25,000 valid signatures -- is overly burdensome.

"It's designed to be nearly insurmountable," says Sanson, who expects several Illinois Greens to have to fold their campaigns.

Still, there are a handful of Green candidates, for county and statewide offices, whose names will appear on ballots in November.

Greens are running for such offices as state's attorney, county clerk, and coroner in Champaign, Union, and Fayette Counties.

Phil Huckelberry, of Normal, is running as a Green for state representative in the 88th District, and Julie Samuels, of Oak Park, is running as a Green in the 8th District.

In Carbondale, Green Party member Rich Whitney, an attorney, is mounting his second challenge to incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Bost for a seat on the state legislature.

Whitney collected more than 5 percent of the vote during his 2002 bid, giving him established party status. That reduced the number of signatures he had to file this year to just 5,000.

Since starting his campaign in December, Whitney said he now has $6,000 for the race, much of which will go toward advertising costs. He hopes to raise another $18,000 to compete in the election.

"We think we can win," says Whitney. "There's a very active local chapter here."

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