Watching a Gadfly Create a Buzz

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It's a pretty good bet that the Founding Fathers, in all of their deliberations in the sweltering summer of 1776, never called on the services of a "facilitator." Not so in Ballroom D of the Renaissance Hotel in Denver. There, a committee of the Green Party put the final touches on the group's platform. "If things get to be too much," said the facilitator, a young woman in a peasant skirt, "there may be times I ask for a moment of silence." As it turned out, a time-out wasn't needed. Despite a few hours of haggling over language, the document remained pretty much as it was--a left-liberal entreaty for things large (universal health care) and small (making Election Day a national holiday). The utopian radicalism of some of the state Green Party platforms, which include such exotica as unilateral disarmament, was missing. "It's a solid and serious document," says platform chairman Steve Schmidt, "for a solid and serious movement."

This feeling of sobriety dominated the Green Party convention. The party was giving its presidential nomination, and in some sense itself, to Ralph Nader, who is nothing if not serious. It wasn't the first marriage. In 1996 Nader ran a somnolent campaign for the Greens--a national party that was inspired by Germany's Green Party, a pro-environment, antinuclear movement that flowered in the '80s. This time it's different. Nader's running hard; he has campaigned in all 50 states and polled 7% last week in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. He's drawing closer to 10% in the West, where he has the most potential to swing states to the Bush columns by hijacking Gore voters, although he appeals to Republicans and McCain voters as well as liberals. This is all new to the Greens. While a handful of Greens have been elected to local offices, for the most part their candidacies have been purely protest gestures. With Nader as their titular leader, they find themselves, perhaps, pivotal players in a presidential election.

The Greens also find themselves closer to organized labor. Last week Nader had a warm meeting with Teamsters' leader James P. Hoffa, who saluted Nader and warned Gore that Hoffa's 1.5 million members shouldn't be taken for granted. In a behind-the-scenes meeting before their joint press conference, Nader wowed the Teamster leaders with his knowledge of the National Labor Relations Board policies governing union elections. "He knew everything," said a Teamster.

This just delights Mike Feinstein, a Green member of the city council in Santa Monica, Calif. The ponytailed pol came to office by way of spiritual soul searching overseas--he has backpacked in 29 countries. He cut his teeth protesting a commercial development in Santa Monica. "We're really maturing as a party," he says over a portobello-mushroom sandwich. "That means everything from getting bigger to knowing when to wear a suit." Indeed, the fringe party has abandoned its own fringe. Nader is running virtually unopposed. His Green opponents--Jello Biafra, formerly of the punk band Dead Kennedys, and Stephen Gaskin, a pro-marijuana activist--have minuscule support.

All of which leaves the Greens and Nader in a loving, but not perfect, embrace. Nader has long de-emphasized the politics of race, gender and sexual orientation that animate so many on the left. He's more into fighting tort reform than promoting tofu, less into supporting animal rights than ending tax abatements for business. In 1996, he angered some on the left by using the word gonadal to describe their obsession with identity politics. This time, Nader's made sure to pay more respect to those causes. At the same time, he's kept to his bread-and-butter economic issues. "We can't have too many detours," he told TIME. "I still believe in the importance of class." Indeed, Nader isn't joining the Green Party even as he accepts its nomination with a fiery speech and a hip biographical video produced by Jesse Ventura's media consultant, Bill Hillsman. He remains an independent. "I don't get involved in the internal affairs of the party." Well, not quite true. He wrote some of the amendments to the platform--wonky stuff, like more public control of the airwaves. Such policy fare is Nader's John Hancock. Now it's the Greens' too.