Behind Nader's 'Mad Dash'

News & Politics

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "It's been like Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," said "Tom Tomorrow" cartoonist Dan Perkins Sunday evening, sipping a beer after his latest performance at a Ralph Nader "Super-Rally."

"It's not like I began supporting him six months ago thinking that I would be giving speeches in front of 10,000 people..."

It's not like anybody thought any candidate in this presidential election could draw five-figure crowds during the campaign, let alone convince them to pay $7, $10 or even $20 for the privilege. Even Monday, the New York Times found it especially notable that Bill Clinton drew 7,500 to a free rally in Harlem on Sunday, even while Nader beat that number for a sixth and final time, down in the nation's capital, with a paid crowd.

The MCI Center rally Sunday night climaxed a remarkable three-month run in which more than 100,000 supporters bought tickets to listen to a man known for decades as a stoic consumer activist with a droning voice. From their humble beginnings in Portland, Oregon -- where the only entertainment was a few local green politicians and then the candidate himself -- the rallies have gathered star power as they've gone on, culminating last night in warm-up appearances by Danny Glover, Patti Smith, TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Michael Moore, emcee Phil Donahue and others.

By the time Nader was announced, college girls were screaming like groupies, fans were bum-rushing the stage and some hobbling old hippies were openly weeping. "Whoa! This is really great!" the candidate said after a 90-second standing ovation, letting loose a rare beaming grin of gratitude. "OK! Let's go."

By all accounts, the rallies have served as raw motivational and monetary adrenaline, for the campaign as a whole and the candidate most of all. On several occasions over the past 10 weeks, the same haggard man seen grumbling through another press conference has been transformed, in a manner of minutes, into a spry and quick-witted orator, barking invectives and jokes to a howling audience.

"I think it gave him a tremendous boost of energy, and it made him dream impossible things," said Greg Kafoury, the Portland-based trial lawyer who organized most of the super-rallies with his law partner Mark McDougal. "It made Ralph think in bigger terms than he'd been thinking before, and it made the people around him think in bigger terms."

Kafoury and McDougal threw the first Portland rally Aug. 26, after overcoming initial skepticism from Nader's Washington D.C. staff. "They thought he risked major humiliation and financial disaster," he said.

Arenas are expensive to rent -- from $37,000 in Portland, to $300,000 for Madison Square Garden, Kafoury said -- and they look depressing when half-empty. "Portland," he recalled, "was stark terror."

To fill the rally, the lawyers bypassed Ticketmaster (which books most arena events), printed their own tickets, and handed out blocks to progressive activist groups in exchange for letting them set up sign-up tables in the lobbies outside. Local Greens canvassed the coffee houses, Kafoury grimly took over bar duty ("My law partner called it the 'Beer-Hall Putsch,'" he said with a grin), and suddenly the Northwest Left was humming with discussion and argument.

"Human beings talking to other human beings about things that matter -- it's the rarest political event in modern American politics," he said.

It worked. Portland Memorial Coliseum sold out, 10,500 tickets in all, and the Nader campaign vaulted to a brand new level overnight.

"It was just a shock," Kafoury said.

A team of a half-dozen or so of the night's organizers -- the "Portland Gang" -- were dispatched around the country to duplicate the event in Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Seattle, New York and D.C. Smaller paid rallies -- in the 5,000 to 10,000 range -- were thrown in Austin, Oakland, Long Beach, and Madison. Thousand-seaters were filled in San Antonio, Houston, Milwaukee, Fresno, Davis and elsewhere. Throw in dozens of standing-room-only events at college campuses all over the country, and Nader has possibly spoken in front of more people these last three months than even that vigorous marathoner, Democrat Al Gore.

"The Democrats and Republicans are hollow parties," Nader has said on several campaign stops. "They don't have any grassroots left."

This is borne out, in the opinion of Green Party supporters, by the arguments liberal Democrats use when trying to woo Naderites -- that a Bush presidency would be far worse for abortion rights, affirmative action and the environment.

"There aren't any 'Gore people' out there, there aren't any 'Bush people' out there," Kafoury said. "There's no such thing as a 'George W. Bush Republican' or an 'Al Gore Democrat.' It's all reactive; there's no core strong personal support that this is the right guy."

Nader's arena fans, usually about half of whom are from the idealism-fired 18 to 29 age range, have also been a good captive audience for additional fundraising. Most of the super-rallies paid for themselves simply by having donation boxes passed around the arena, and from organizers squeezing out more through auction-style pitches, asking for hands of those who would donate $1,000, $750, $500, $200 and $100. The Oct. 21 Oakland rally brought home the most, with $85,000, Kafoury said.

"We've made money at all our super-rallies," Nader 2000 Assistant Press Secretary Tom Adkins said. "A lot of money."

But with the low-budget campaign having a tiny margin for error, the whole enterprise could have come crashing down at expensive Madison Square Garden on Oct. 13.

"We didn't know we'd be able to continue after New York, to do any more of these big rallies, until we saw the place fill up magically that night, and we realized that we'd survived. But we could not have afforded to take a major hit at any of these events, we'd have been out of business," Kafoury said.

Of all the logistical struggles that could have gone wrong, Kafoury said the only real snafus were unsuccessful shakedowns in New York and Oregon.

"Portland we were screwed completely, because we were going to have Ralph answer questions after his speech, but he goes on so goddamned long, and then before the questions we were going to come up and do the money pitch. So Ralph finishes his speech, everybody cheers, Mark and I go up to the podium and say 'Well, you know, wait a minute we want to talk about passing boxes, making money,' and everybody's just out the door. It was a long event, and it's Friday night, it was over. And we made like $14,000 or something ... and there was another $50,000 sitting there just to be gathered up."

As with everything else in this campaign, staffers hold special vitriol for the way the national media has, their eyes, ignored the big rallies.

"God! I mean, the New York Times, when we sold out Chicago -- sold out, 10,000 people ... and on Tuesday night. Tuesday f****** night! And the New York Times wouldn't mention it," Kafoury said. "The day we showed up in New York ... we picked up the morning Times, you get 'Where the candidates are today,' and it said, 'Ralph Nader: New York.' There was nothing saying 'Hey man, he's gonna be at the Garden tonight.'"

Still, coverage has intensified hugely over the past three weeks, and with it so has Nader's fundraising "machine," which limits itself to individual contributions capped at $2,000. This past week, Adkins said, the votenader.com Web site has brought in around $80,000 a day, up five-fold from just four weeks ago.

Kick in the 125 or so low-key fundraising dinners held in private homes and arena lounges, and the Nader campaign has raised more than $7 million.

For Kafoury, the super-rallies have not just been a thrilling "mad dash" -- they've come with a whiff of destiny.

"I first met Ralph in 1973 when he spoke at my law school, and I tried to talk him into running for president," he said. "This has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream."

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