The Contenders: The Canuck Who Became Ralph Nader's Spokesman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because America’s elections matter to the whole world — and some foreigners cross the U.S. border to make a difference.
By Neil Parmar
Learn more about Ralph Nader’s most historic and controversial presidential campaign by watching The Contenders: 16 for ’16, an OZY TV series about the men and women who have run the ultimate political gauntlet in pursuit of the most powerful job on Earth. It airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. EST this fall on PBS.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Toby Heaps, former press secretary for Ralph Nader and publisher of Corporate Knights magazine
I first thoughtfully knew of Ralph in 1996, right after the New York marathon. I was sitting in my uncle’s tub and watching C-SPAN and this guy just kept talking and talking, so I turned up the sound. Then I said, look, this guy makes a lot of sense. I just liked the way he logically latched onto big problems and broke them down into solutions, and equipped you with enough information so that you could do that yourself. There was a respect and a dialogue that usually doesn’t happen in politics. I liked his style a lot.
I remember election night in 2000. I never understood this idea of why you wouldn’t vote for who you believed in. The spoiler thing didn’t really stick on me.
My first issue of Corporate Knights was out in 2002. We were talking about corporate accountability and socially responsible investing, and Ralph had really played a formative role in the United States. It was in a discussion with my dad who said shouldn’t you interview Ralph Nader? I said yeah, that’s a great idea — then I became obsessed with interviewing him. We were doing this conference, and we invited him. My buddy and I picked him up at the airport. I had written down things I definitely wanted to cover, including my suggestion to have Erin Brockovich as a running mate in 2004. He just listened. I think he was amused. Then I said if he ran again to give me a call.
In 2004, I got a phone call. His team was trying to get onto a ballot in Texas, and they were doing some massive signature gathering. I went down for a long weekend. Unfortunately, I spent one of the days gathering about 180 signatures on the wrong petition; it was for the Libertarian candidate. The Democrats were vociferously challenging every single signature. Then I got another call in the summer. This time it was Ralph. He wanted to know if I could come and take over the Great Plains states for the ballot access effort. I hadn’t even known what the Great Plains states were; I had to Google them.
That was a six-week, 24,000-kilometer trek in a rental car. I was also sending press releases out to the media and doing radio shows. Then the campaign started hearing some of these TV hits and one of the team members was like, what the hell is going on down there? I was told to be careful. The story was: Why is somebody from Canada coming? I said because your election matters to the whole world.
Did he have a chance to win? He started in the polls at under 5 percent, so there was this notion that if Ralph was going to be able to get ballot access and prove that there could be a campaign, that it might be successful in getting him to the debates, which could catapult him into the race. It was a lot of “ifs,” but I think that even though the probability was low, the outcome was so good it was worth going for. And the consolation prize was even if he didn’t win, those ideas would be discussed — and, really, ideas are the currency of change.
Everyone was scared of a spoiler. It became such a term that we had T-shirts made: “Revolutionaries always spoil corrupt systems.” He was getting daily threats. For me it was interesting just as a litmus test. Americans have a certain way they engage with politics. I’m not going to comment on if it’s sane or not, but to me, it doesn’t seem like it’s totally in the realm of the rational.
After Ralph lost, I stayed in touch and then got a phone call in 2007. I thought, here we go again. I moved to D.C. in 2008. He announced in February. Deadlines hit you fast. I was brought on to get the ballot access operation up and running, and then when that was done, Ralph moved me over to press secretary. It was great. There was lot of work done, but in the end, we didn’t get into the debates — so we organized parallel third-party debates. It was covered by C-SPAN, but not by CNN. You really just see the power of the media, and how unfair and illogical it is just because you’re not one of the top two seats. Even in baseball, it’s not like they stop covering the teams that are in third or fourth place.
At the end, there was a thank-you party for volunteers, and it was a little bit subdued. We had to go do one last media thing, and I remember in the car ride over, Ralph was a little bit sad. The next day, he was back up — but it was pretty clear it wasn’t his fault, or America’s fault. The timing didn’t work out. Maybe if Ralph didn’t run until this year …
As told to and edited by Neil Parmar.
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