This may be all you need to know about Ralph Nader's presidential campaign: The crusading attorney who fought corporate America on behalf of the working stiff is being sued. By a labor lawyer representing the homeless.
In order to get on the Pennsylvania ballot this November, Nader's Philadelphia campaign office employed homeless people to circulate petitions. If his campaign achieves nothing else -- and it won't -- this means his campaign has done more to help the poor than George Bush's entire presidency. But some of those workers say they were never paid, and a labor attorney has filed a lawsuit on their behalf. (The hiring was done by a contractor, but as attorney Louis Agre asked the Philadelphia Inquirer, "If this was Wal-Mart, do you think Ralph Nader would say it was OK?")
Nader's camp claims workers didn't get paid only if their petitions were forged. And indeed, lawsuits filed by Democrat attorneys allege that all but 10,000 of the 46,000 signatures Nader has compiled are invalid. The cases claim that many of the names on Nader's petitions are forged, including some belonging to dead people, and that other signatures were acquired through false pretenses. An election challenge has prevailed in Arizona already, and Democrats here claim to have witnesses and experts ready to testify.
How did it ever come to this?
Nader has complained about a Democratic "dirty tricks campaign" seeking "to harass our ballot efforts on frivolous and technical grounds." He needs only 27,000 signatures, and it seems almost impossible the courts would throw out enough names to disqualify him. But could Nader claim to represent a break from "politics as usual" if just 1,000 of his signatures, say, were obtained by means that would be familiar to Tammany Hall?
The Democrats' challenge is two-fisted politics, no mistake; even some Democrats are appalled by it. Allegheny County Councilor Bill Robinson has circulated an op-ed piece condemning the challenge, which he and co-writer Dr. Lenora Fulani compare to disenfranchising black voters during the 2000 election fiasco in Florida. Even in the best of circumstances, it's notoriously difficult for independent candidates to get on Pennsylvania's ballot. The two parties have conspired to rig the election rules in their favor, which is what they call "bipartisanship" in Harrisburg. Independent candidates are required to get thousands more signatures than Democrats and Republicans. That's an election fraud itself, perpetrated on voters who want alternatives to the two parties.
But none of that stopped Nader from getting on the ballot in 2000, when he ran as the Green Party's candidate. It hasn't stopped Socialists or Libertarians from appearing on the ballot over the years either. Could it be that Ralph Nader, one of the most influential Americans of the past century, lacks the grassroots support enjoyed by Socialists? The fact that Nader had to outsource his petition-gathering, like a corporation sending jobs to Indonesia, is probably a bad sign.
Nader is paying the price for getting into the race late, too late to build the kind of community support that his candidacy requires. The irony is that Nader knows better than anyone the need for community-based organizing, especially when mainstream corporate interests dominate politics and the media. Up until now, Nader's legacy has included a network of community advocacy groups he helped spawn across the country. His Green Party candidacy in 2000 continued that work. You knew he would lose, sure, but you felt like a vote for Nader was more than a vote for Nader (or even a vote for Bush): It was a vote for a political movement, a party that was there before the election, and would be around afterward.
But this year, Nader the candidate seems to have forgotten everything Nader the activist spent a lifetime talking about. When his 2004 campaign is over, will there be anything left to challenge the two-party system he decries?
There's a lesson here for every lefty who despairs of politics as usual. As Nader's supporters know firsthand, creating a viable political movement from scratch isn't easy. There will be bitter disappointments, frustrated efforts, and occasionally some ugly compromises. For all the agonizing and sleepless nights the job requires, you might as well devote yourself to rescuing a hopeless basket case like the Democratic Party.
Come to think of it, that might not be a bad idea.