Party Crashers 08

Ralph Nader and running mate Matt Gonzalez are looking to make a difference in the upcoming presidential election. Early polling suggests they just might.

Gonzalez stepped in and spoke directly to the caller with the calm and reasoned tones that helped bring him success as a trial attorney. "We don't know what would have happened if Al Gore was elected," he said. "We don't know that 9/11 would have happened. There's a problem when somehow every problem that exists in the country is laid at the feet of someone who ran for office in a democracy."

Nader, who had calmed down, added that the Democrats in Congress ceded their authority to declare war to President Bush, and have sustained the war by voting for every military appropriations bill the Republicans put before them.

Nader recently turned 74; he has been at the center of heated debate and controversy for more than 45 years. Despite many appearances on the likes of Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report, he has a reputation for being sullen and forbidding. Four presidential campaigns and years of battling corporations, Congresses, presidents, and political parties have left him a little frayed, and occasionally cranky. This is where the 42-year-old Gonzalez, with his bohemian appeal and Zen-like detachment, is expected to be an asset.

Gonzalez fields questions from pro-Barack Obama students in UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium.
Jenny Pfeiffer
Gonzalez fields questions from pro-Barack Obama students in UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium.
Matt Gonzalez at the opening night of his art exhibition at Soap Gallery.
Jared Greunwald
Matt Gonzalez at the opening night of his art exhibition at Soap Gallery.

Nader and Gonzalez have known each other for a decade, but their friendship grew in 2004 when the two were on an antiwar speaking tour. Gonzalez was Nader's first choice for a running mate after a recommendation from Peter Camejo, who shared the ticket with Nader in 2004.

When asked about his choice, Nader said, "The real question is, 'Why not Matt Gonzalez?' He's a great person. As a civil rights lawyer, he's very knowledgeable about criminal justice, he's proven his appeal to voters, and he's committed to fighting the good fight."

Gonzalez has a long history of fighting the good fight. After getting his law degree from Stanford in 1990, he spent 10 years as a San Francisco deputy public defender, and won his clients' respect and confidence as well as that of the police, opposing district attorneys, and judges. "He wasn't bombastic, wasn't over the top or theatrical, he was brilliant — and that's a word I don't use very often," says Daro Inouye, who has been with the Public Defender's Office for 35 years. "He could have worked anywhere in the United States, but he chose to work in San Francisco. We're very lucky."

As a supervisor, Gonzalez was able to pass a great deal of progressive legislation, including the highest minimum wage in the country, which had the added benefit of adjusting annually for inflation. He sponsored a successful instant-runoff voting measure, restricted chain stores from overtaking neighborhoods, and initiated the first biodiesel fuel study in city vehicles. He also developed a reputation as a champion of the arts, even holding regular art shows in his City Hall office. In 2003, his colleagues elected him board president. Even though Gonzalez lost the 2003 mayor's race, he became the unofficial leader of the city's progressive factions, many of whom were disappointed when he did not seek a second term and opted to start a law firm with fellow Stanford grad Whitney Leigh.

When Gonzalez announced he would be Nader's running mate, many supporters and allies turned on him. The local media response reached an almost hysterical pitch. Former Gonzalez enthusiast Steven T. Jones, city editor for the Bay Guardian (which endorsed Nader in 2000), called the Nader/Gonzalez ticket "deceptive," "ego-driven," and "ridiculous," and suggested it would tear asunder the fragile unity between progressives and people of color.

Even some of Gonzalez' closest political allies, such as supervisors Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi, publicly criticized his decision. Mirkarimi describes himself as a "loving critic," but he is nonetheless a potent one. Mirkarimi was a legal intern to Nader in Washington in the mid-1980s, and later cofounded the California chapter of the Green Party. He ran Nader's California presidential campaign in 2000, and was Gonzalez' press secretary in 2003. He was also backed by Gonzalez to succeed him to represent District 5 on the Board of Supervisors.

Mirkarimi, who is up for re-election this year, says there was an upsurge of grassroots interest in the Green Party in 2000 that ultimately proved insufficient to reach the 5 percent mark, which he called the "holy grail" for recognition as a valid third party that would have qualified the party for millions in federal matching funds in 2004. Mirkarimi now says the Green Party and other progressives should focus on building local infrastructure by running for school boards and city councils, rather than relying on Nader's shopworn attempts to energize the progressive base. Mirkarimi said he could not support Gonzalez, who was instrumental in getting him elected to the Board of Supervisors.

"There is any number of options Matt could pursue and pursue successfully," Mirkarimi says, "but I really don't think this will hurt his career, though I'm not sure if he knows what that career is."

Gonzalez says he thought a long time about making the commitment to a grueling presidential campaign, but finally decided there are too many critical issues being omitted from the national debate. "One of the key things I will be talking about is voter reform, which is something I've had experience in as a San Francisco supervisor," he says. "And the war in Iraq is another. I think it's incredible that Senator John McCain is putting out the idea of perpetual war, but what's disconcerting is that Senator Obama refused to commit to getting American troops out of Iraq by 2013."

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