WASHINGTON -- Ralph Nader is back with a new organization, some new goals and the same dogged determination to make the Democratic Party squirm whenever it drifts toward the center.
The veteran crusader for causes of the left calls his new grass-roots group Democracy Rising. He has initiated a series of rallies his associates hope will help heal the rift in the political left caused by his candidacy in the 2000 presidential election.
The new group, nonpartisan and nonprofit, will have an easier time working with other such nonpartisan groups interested in similar causes, organizers say.
After a rally in Portland, Ore., attended by about 7,500 last weekend, Nader said: "We plan to have rallies like this all over." Some of the cities where gatherings are likely: San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York.
"We have to replenish the well, find the young generation of leaders and galvanize existing citizen groups," Nader said in an interview.
Some political activists still blame Nader for tipping the presidential election to George W. Bush and say the division between Nader and others in his movement is deep and will only grow as his Green Party targets congressional seats in 2002. Veteran activists are wary of Democracy Rising.
"I think it's a strong possibility that he's using this to build the Green Party in order to run candidates throughout the nation," said Alice Germond, executive vice president of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "I think the rift is very deep. The environmentalists are appalled at the Bush presidency, the pro-choice majority is getting more and more appalled."
Nader got just 3 percent of the national vote as the Green Party's presidential candidate in 2000. He got 2 percent of the vote in Florida, which was decided by just over 500 votes and gave Bush the presidency. Democrats assume the 2 percent was siphoned almost exclusively from the loser, Al Gore.
Nader hopes to field more candidates in next year's congressional elections than the four dozen or so Greens who ran for Congress in 2000. Some Democrats claim to be relatively unworried about the Green Party's impact in 2002.
"People who care about a lot of the issues the Greens care about now can see they have a clear choice between the two parties," said Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The differences have never been this stark."
Environmentalists worry about the Green Party targeting congressional districts where the incumbent is both pro-environment and vulnerable.
They point to the 12th District in central New Jersey, where Democratic Rep. Rush Holt is highly regarded by environmentalists. Holt said the Green Party candidate won about 5,000 votes there in 2000, almost enough to cost Holt the victory, which came in at 750 votes.
Despite last year, Holt said he is aligned fairly closely with Nader's views in many areas, "such as environmental protection, consumer protection and standing up to special interests."
"Nader's candidacy was ultimately harmful to the outcome of the election and to environmental policies," said Deb Callahan of the League of Conservation Voters. "Those of us who work in the public interest section are left to pick up the pieces."
Any claim that Bush's election was good for the environmental movement is a myth, she insisted. "It's like saying the Vietnam War was good because it gave young people something to organize around," she said.
Nader dismisses such complaints. "Inside the (Washington) Beltway, there are some grousers," he said.
He also ducks talk of the 2004 presidential race. "I haven't ruled out going in 2004," Nader said. "It's too early to say."
The 67-year-old consumer advocate said he has been lecturing, writing and traveling to promote the Green Party.
Long a hero to many in the progressive -- some would say liberal -- movement, Nader saw the 2000 election chip away at his popularity and reduce his access in Washington.
"It came mostly after the election, for about a month and a half," he said. "Some people wrote fairly intense letters."
But more doors were closed on Nader's crusading efforts by the increased power of corporate money in Washington, he said.
"Capitol Hill has closed down on us in the last 15 years," said Nader. "One of the reasons I was running for president is because you can't get anything done any more."
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