Coffeehouse idealism collided with political reality Saturday when more than a thousand Ralph Nader supporters--genuine and otherwise--staged a second attempt to get their independent candidate on the Oregon ballot for the November presidential elections.
On foot, on bicycle, in Volvo and minivan, the Nader hordes converged on the Benson High School auditorium with a single objective: to get at least 1,000 voters together in a room at the same time for an "assembly of electors," and sign petitions to nominate Ralph for President.
But this exercise in Jeffersonian democracy devolved into a three-ring political circus as conservatives, eager to siphon votes from presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, decided to lend a helping hand.
Last week, two staunch Republican allies--the Oregon Family Council and Citizens for a Sound Economy--called on supporters to swell the ranks of the Naderites and help them achieve critical mass (something they failed to do in April, when fewer than 800 Oregon voters showed up).
On Friday, Nader, the former Green Party candidate, appeared on KXL radio to drum up support from listeners of the Lars Larson show--most of whom think the only good spotted owl is a stuffed spotted owl.
A day later, the scent of fresh bread from the nearby Franz Bakery combined with a whiff of the surreal as Naderites, clad in blue jeans, tie-dyes, ponytails and miniskirts, ran a gantlet of demonstrators protesting Ralph's unholy alliance with the dark side.
"Help support corporate America tonight!" shouted a demonstrator decked out in black dress and furs, hoisting a sign that proclaimed "Billionaires for Bush." Two other protestors, one dressed as an oligarch, another wearing a Nader mask, lay together on a mattress beneath a sign reading "Nader + Big Business = Strange Bedfellows."
While most electors seemed like genuine Naderites, certain individuals stood out from the crowd--such as the snowy-haired gentleman sporting a tweed jacket, a white turtleneck and a pinstripe shirt.
"Do you think there are any Republicans here tonight?" I asked him.
"I suppose there are some," he shrugged, adjusting his bifocals. "I can tell you now, I'm not giving you my name."
"Why are you here?" I asked.
"To sign a petition for Nader," came the coy reply.
"Who are you going to vote for?"
"I would NEVER vote for Kerry," he sputtered. "He's a liar, a cheat, he's from another planet! Bush is trying very hard...but everyone's against him...."
He trailed off, perhaps fearing that he had tipped his hand. "I may vote for Nader," he allowed. "I don't know. I want to see him on the ballot--just to make it interesting."
Bush supporters weren't the only ones with a few tricks up their sleeve, however. Surveying the scene from a strategic corner of the auditorium, Moses Ross, spokesman for the Multnomah County Democratic Party, claimed that 100 Democrats had infiltrated the assembly to fill seats--but would refuse to sign petitions.
This tactic struck at the heart of a Nader weakness--discipline.
Under state election law, the nomination could not take place until the assembly was called to order. At that point, no one else would be allowed to enter the room. The key for the Nader campaign was to call the assembly to order when the crowd was at its peak, to ensure at least 1,000 valid signatures.
Trouble is, it's hard to keep that many people in a room on a Saturday evening. They want to go to the bathroom. They want to step out for a smoke. They want to get to yoga class. Just keeping an accurate count of the people milling through the doors was a logistical nightmare.
Tension mounted as seats in the sweltering auditorium became harder to find. Finally, at 6:06 pm, elections officials reckoned there were at least 1,107 people present, and the Nader forces decided to strike.
"I now call for the nomination of Ralph Nader for president of the United States," declared presiding officer Mark McDougal, receiving a lusty, throaty roar in reply.
But the boisterous mood of the assembly quickly bogged down in the mechanics of Oregon elections statutes. "We have no ballots up here!" shouted one anxious voter in the gallery. McDougal issued a confusing series of instructions on the proper way to sign petitions as campaign workers scurried up and down the aisles.
Nader took the stage at 6:15. "This is what democracy looks like," he declared, to rapturous applause. But even as he lashed out at Democrats, he was interrupted--twice--by campaign workers imploring the crowd to turn in their petitions.
In the end, the campaign collected "more than 1,000" signatures, according to national field coordinator Jason Kafoury, who would not release an exact number. The signatures will now be verified, a process he said will probably take "several weeks."
If Nader does make it onto the ballot, it will almost certainly be thanks to the embrace of the sort of folks he has spent his whole career fighting against. For a man renowned for putting principles above pragmatism, that's a strange place to be--but then again, that's politics.