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.

Independent vice-presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez sits attentively in the front row of UC Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium, waiting for an introduction to 400 political science students who overwhelmingly support U.S. Senator Barack Obama. His pinstriped suit is in subtle conflict with his hair, which hangs loosely over his ears from a middle part. A hardback copy of Tom Sandqvist's Dada East, a historical account of the avant-garde art movement, is tucked under his arm.

Gonzalez walks slowly to the podium where, in his trademark soft-spoken style, he spends the better part of 40 minutes relentlessly bashing the voting record of the students' favored presidential candidate.

"Do you know that in 2005 the Energy Policy Act, which had enormous giveaways to oil companies, tax breaks, subsidies, etc., was on the table, and Senator Hillary Clinton voted against it, Senator John Kerry voted against it, Senator John McCain voted against it?" Gonzalez says.

Vice presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez prepares to speak at UC Berkeley.
Jenny Pfeiffer
Vice presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez prepares to speak at UC Berkeley.
At a Washington press conference, Ralph Nader announces Matt Gonzalez will be his running mate.
AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson
At a Washington press conference, Ralph Nader announces Matt Gonzalez will be his running mate.
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.

He pauses for a beat. "Barack Obama voted for it."

He goes on to question Obama's conservative senatorial votes on war appropriations, the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, a Mining Act amendment, and the approval of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. At one point he cites a quote from a political blog: "Senator Barack Obama speaks like Martin Luther King Jr., but votes like George W. Bush."

Gonzalez really seems to get the students' attention when he contrasts Obama's antiwar rhetoric with his voting for billions in Republican-proposed military appropriations. Obama's voting record, he says, has resonated favorably with defense industry executives. Since February, they have contributed twice as much money to Obama's campaign as they have to the pro-war McCain's, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"If you think the Democratic candidates are against the war, you're not listening to them," Gonzalez tells the audience. "Obama saying he wants to leave 150,000 private soldiers in Iraq is not leaving Iraq. Leaving 60,000 troops in the region to carry out targeted strikes against al-Qaeda is not leaving Iraq."

After Gonzalez finishes speaking, a student yells out from the back of the auditorium that the political left cannibalizing itself is unproductive: "Why are you attacking Obama so much? Aren't the Republicans the problem?" The questions get sustained applause.

"I don't want Senator John McCain to be the president of the United States, but you know what? I don't want Senator Clinton or Senator Obama to be president either," Gonzalez says. "I would say to you that George Bush's policies, which we all abhor, could only occur with the votes of Democrats. I feel very strongly there should be an accounting."

Gonzalez was once the most promising Green politician in the country. The disciplined campaigner and popular city supervisor was elected president of the Board of Supervisors in 2002. In 2003, he nearly won the mayoral race against Gavin Newsom, the much-better-funded darling of the national Democratic Party. Gonzalez then stunned his supporters in 2004 when he decided not to seek a second term as supervisor, opting instead to start a private law practice specializing in civil-rights issues.

Last year, Gonzalez' supporters were hopeful he would run for mayor again, but he decided to sit it out after early polls showed that Newsom's sky-high approval ratings made him impossible to beat. But Gonzalez still seemed to have a promising political future if he wanted one. Many believed that, with his sharp mind and appeal to younger voters, Gonzalez had the potential to be the second Green elected to a state legislature and possibly Congress.

Gonzalez threw a curveball in February when he announced he would be leaving the Green Party to serve as independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader's running mate. San Francisco is one of the most liberal strongholds in the country; some progressives, many of whom believe Nader tipped the 2000 election to George W. Bush, thought Gonzalez might not only ruin his political future, he also might contribute to another Democratic presidential loss. Even his old allies on San Francisco's left criticized him for taking part in yet another Nader presidential campaign.

Gonzalez says he wasn't considering his political future or that of the Democratic Party when he decided to run on the Independent ticket. Rather, he was thinking of the public good. The Republicans are unacceptable, he says, but the Democrats are simply not a good enough alternative — and if they lose in November, it will be their own fault, not Nader's.

Nader and Gonzalez say they plan an aggressive campaign to create public debate about issues on their agenda, which include single-payer healthcare, a crackdown on corporate crime, election reform, cutting the military budget, and ending the war in Iraq. But according to strong showings in recent polls, the Nader/Gonzalez ticket could have a greater impact on the presidential race than providing discussion topics.

The day after Ralph Nader named Matt Gonzalez his running mate, the two appeared on the KQED radio show Forum. In a nearly hour-long interview with Rachel Myrow, they put forward their agenda and discussed the failings of the Democrats on the war, trade, environment, and workers' rights.

One caller hit a raw nerve by accusing Nader of being responsible for the Iraq War because his 2000 candidacy helped elect George W. Bush. "This is bigotry, and I won't listen to it anymore," Nader erupted. "Stop! This is political bigotry, period ... "

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.

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."

But despite Gonzalez' criticisms of other candidates' views on the war in Iraq, few antiwar protesters in the Bay Area seem sympathetic to another Nader candidacy.

In March, during an antiwar protest outside state Senator Dianne Feinstein's office near Market and Montgomery streets, the crowd swelled off the sidewalks and into the busy street. A group of protesters overtook the middle of the intersection, bringing traffic on the city's main commercial artery to a screeching halt. They were quickly surrounded by a phalanx of police officers sporting powder-blue helmets and riot batons, who moved in to arrest them.

A speaker whipped up the crowd of about 500 by ratcheting up the intensity of his rhetoric. "This war is illegal," he shrieked into the tinny public address system. "George Bush and Dick Cheney are criminals, and it's time to get them out of the White House. And fuck you, Ralph Nader, if you run for president! Ralph Nader, fuck you!"

The source of the resentment toward Nader in the left's spiritual homeland is the 2000 presidential election. Democrats have been effective in blaming former Vice President Al Gore's loss on Nader's Green Party candidacy in 2000, even though there are serious problems with the theory.

The election was extremely close in all the battleground states; election night finally boiled down to Florida, where Gore ended up losing by a mere 537 votes. The results gave Bush enough electoral votes to take the presidency. Because Nader got 97,000 votes in Florida, Democrats have argued vociferously that those votes would have otherwise gone to Gore. Some even go as far as to blame Nader indirectly for the war in Iraq.

"People are still feeling burnt by what happened in 2000," says Scott Wiener, president of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. "When you have Nader take nearly 100,000 votes in Florida and close margins in other states like New Mexico and Oregon, there's no question that Nader had a role in Gore losing, but I'm not going to say for a second that Nader was the sole cause."

In fact, the Gore campaign had deep-rooted problems. Gore failed to win his home state of Tennessee, or President Clinton's state of Arkansas. In addition, there were so many problems in Florida that many believed Gore should have been more aggressive accusing his opponents of voter fraud. Problems included confusing butterfly ballots, missing overseas ballots, and a so-called "scrub list" that wrongly disqualified thousands of African-American voters because their names were similar to those of convicted felons. A month after the election, a national Harris poll showed 49 percent of Americans believed Gore had won the election, compared to 40 percent who thought Bush did.

Gonzalez dismisses claims that Nader was responsible for the outcome of the 2000 election, and says the idea that he is indirectly responsible for the war in Iraq is outrageous and hypocritical, given the Democrats' enthusiastic support for the war. He points out that Democrats are quick to blame third parties for their own failures, but fall silent when they benefit from third-party candidates. In fact, Gonzalez says, Democrats owe their current Senate majority to three-way elections: Maria Cantwell, Tim Johnson, and Jon Tester all won their seats because Libertarian Party candidates drew votes away from Republicans. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada owes his 428-vote victory in 1998 over Republican John Ensign to Libertarian Michael Cloud, who took 8,044 votes.

"Before you criticize Nader for entering a political race, ask yourself: If Congress approved the war in Iraq, all war appropriations, and the PATRIOT Act, then who is really spoiling this country?" Gonzalez wrote in a recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Despite their losses to Libertarian campaigns, Republicans are less hostile toward third parties. Mark McKinnon, who was advertising adviser to the Bush campaigns in 2000 and 2004 and who is currently working for John McCain, says third parties are part of the landscape in a democracy. "First, it should be in the constitution that if you can't win your home state, you can't be president," he says. "That said, in a race won by 500 votes, there is no question that Ralph Nader cost the Democrats the presidency. Bottom line, this is a democracy, and you don't get to pick your opponents. The voters do."

It's a windy Saturday evening, and people are jamming into Soap Gallery, a small storefront art space on Mission Street, to see Matt Gonzalez' art. There are about 15 of his small collages on the wall, two of which are marked as gifts for the gallery's owners. Gonzalez sips from a bottle of beer while talking with guests. The collages are made of cutouts of colored paper and cardboard Gonzalez culls from the mail or finds in the street. "Matt is great to have a show for," gallery co-owner Eve Mendelson says. "Artists can be a bit difficult and disorganized, but Matt had his work ready right on time and knew how he wanted to hang it. He's a little more disciplined than what we're used to."

Gonzalez lives simply in a small Western Addition apartment with his girlfriend, Robin Savinar. The apartment walls are covered with paintings, mostly from the Bay Area Figurative Movement, which is characterized by warm colors and figures distinquished by "gloppy" lines. Other than the paintings, the apartment is decorated so sparsely that when it was burgled recently, the only thing taken was Savinar's laptop. "There's nothing here that's worth much," Gonzalez says with a hint of pride.

Gonzalez doesn't own a car or a television, and likes to relax in the evenings by discussing, reading about, or making art. He even organizes books in his two bookcases according to color rather than subject.

But beneath the easygoing bohemian style is a talented and serious politician. In fact, Gonzalez goes so far as to say a Nader/Gonzalez win isn't out of the question. In an election with multiple candidates, it's possible to win with less than 40 percent of the vote, and Gonzalez says those numbers are not out of reach.

"I wonder if our support would grow if we were allowed into the debates," he says. "Would it grow from 5 percent to 10 percent, 5 percent to 15 percent? What if we were at those numbers? Wouldn't it be a different dynamic?"

Newsom, a former opponent who learned not to take Gonzalez lightly, wrote a piece that was published on the Daily Kos Web site to remind voters of the threat posed by a Nader/Gonzalez ticket. "If I had to make an educated guess, I would bet that Matt Gonzalez' name ID outside San Francisco is somewhere south of zero," the mayor wrote. "But the fact is, Matt Gonzalez is a dynamic and accomplished politician who will bring both a charming charisma and steely discipline to the Nader effort."

Still, despite Gonzalez' optimism and Newsom's praise, it is all but certain Ralph Nader won't be sworn in as president in January.

As independents, it will be tough for the Nader/Gonzalez ticket to get on the ballot nationwide. Each state has different qualification requirements. But Nader has been aggressively campaigning in the East, and Gonzalez has begun to make radio appearances. He has traveled to Texas, and will soon visit Oregon and Washington. The two will campaign together in California in May, and Nader is scheduled to appear on the popular online forum Candidates@Google, which has hosted Obama, Clinton, and McCain.

So far Nader and Gonzalez have submitted enough signatures to get on the ballot in Hawaii and New Mexico, and have recently launched signature-gathering campaigns in Kansas and Arizona. They hope to avoid the expense of gathering signatures in California by seeking the nomination of the Peace and Freedom Party, which is one of the state's six qualified political parties. It has relatively few registered members, but has been a voice for racial equality, feminism, and ecology since 1967. Nader also insists he will get on the ballot in battleground states such as Arkansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

In 2004, Democrats filed 24 lawsuits in 17 states in what Nader has described as a coordinated attempt to keep him off the ballot. Attorney Oliver Hall has filed a complaint in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia claiming Democrats brought the suits, most of which were dismissed as unfounded, simply to obstruct Nader's access. Among the defendants named in the complaint are Senator John Kerry, the Democratic National Committee, and the law firm of Reed Smith. "The whole purpose was to drain us," Nader says. "This is an attack on our First Amendment rights, our right to free speech. The corporate Democrats are sending a message that if you think you're going to get any kind of votes, it will cost you millions, so don't bother forming a third column because you will be punished."

But Nader says he is prepared for 2008. He has assembled a team of attorneys who are ready to file countersuits if the Democrats try to block him from getting on the ballot. "Because we have filed a complaint already in the District of Columbia, much of the work has been done already," Hall says. "We might have to make some slight adjustments depending on state laws, but we're ready this time."

Nader adamantly insists he will not broker deals with Democrats or any other political parties to bypass critical swing states such as Florida and Ohio, each of which played a deciding factor in the last two elections. "The public is tired of brokering and stealing and thieving and cheating," he says. "There will be no brokering, because it's the only way the voters can really trust you."

But Nader wasn't above taking money from major Republican Party donors four years ago. In July 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that nearly one in ten of Nader's major contributors — those giving $1,000 or more — were Republican, and suggested the purpose was to hurt John Kerry's campaign. At the time, Nader defended the $23,000 in contributions as relatively small and mostly from Republicans he had worked with on a number of issues.

Gonzalez' senior adviser Hansu Kim says raising the issue of individual donations from Republicans was ludicrous. "Republican executives for oil, pharmaceutical, energy, and finance industries are lavishing millions on Senator Barack Obama," Kim says. "I wonder if the San Francisco Chronicle will ask Obama to give that money back."

But no matter who contributes to Nader's campaign, state Democrats say they aren't worried. California Democratic Party chairman Art Torres is dismissive of Nader's chances of getting on the California ballot. "Ralph Nader belongs in a wax museum; he's old news," he says. "Let him run for president. In fact, I want Ralph on the ballot; it's important for the people to have a choice. I would never, never block him from getting on the ballot."

While Torres is dismissive of Nader, the Nader/Gonzalez platform appears to be resonating with voters even though their campaign only recently kicked off. A March Zogby poll showed Nader taking 5 percent of the vote in a three-way race with McCain and Obama. Swap Clinton for Obama, and Nader takes 6 percent. A FOX News/Opinion poll the same month showed one in seven voters would "seriously consider" voting for Nader. Another poll has him winning 10 percent of the vote in Michigan.

While those numbers are considered preliminary, or "soft," they are an indication the Nader/Gonzalez ticket could win enough votes in November to have an impact on the Democrats' chances. But political pundits and California party officials (neither the Obama or Clinton campaigns returned calls from SF Weekly) are dismissive of the threat.

UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain says Nader will win only the votes of hard-core supporters in battleground states, and maybe some Democrat votes in solid blue states where a Nader vote is unlikely to affect the election's outcome. "The other scenario is Hillary wins the nomination in a brokered convention," he says. "Then you would have a lot of disillusioned younger voters who are particularly antiwar and more progressive than Clinton. That's a setting in which Nader, and particularly Gonzalez, who has a proven ability to energize young voters, could have an impact."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Gonzalez is relaxing in the sunlit living room of his small apartment. He's slumped into the couch and complains of a headache. It has been a long week of campaign meetings and public appearances in addition to his responsibilities at the law firm, and there is still another media interview to do.

Gonzalez ignores a specific question about the date when Nader first asked him to join the Independent ticket, and answers philosophically. "For me, it wasn't whether or not to join Nader," he says. "We're both trying to do the same thing. I didn't have any doubt that it was the right thing. There needs to be reform, and I don't have any animosity toward people who disagree with me about how to achieve it."

Gonzalez puts his hands over his eyes. Then he sits forward and his voice quickens. "Hey, let me change the subject ..."

A moment later he is showcasing 67 Poems for Downtrodden Saints, the book he published for San Francisco street poet Jack Micheline, saying it was Micheline who first gave him "the courage to buy art."

Then he produces a large portfolio filled with charcoal drawings and sketches by Jack Freeman, a talented and prolific local painter. "I have so many people coming through here, it gives me an opportunity to show people his work," he says.

By nature, Gonzalez is at opposition with the status quo. That nature has characterized his career in law and politics. But in politics, change comes in small, hard-fought increments, and each inch gained is mined with compromise, expediency, and betrayal. The world of art, on the other hand, is in a state of constant insurgency. Axial changes in genre, design, color, and form are embraced and celebrated.

The interviewer makes an awkward attempt to shift attention back to a long list of prepared questions. "Ah, man, I thought we were done with that," Gonzalez says. "C'mon, I want to show you some collages."

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