[Hpn] Catching Up with Ralph Nader by chance martin

Coalition on Homelessness, SF coh@sfo.com
Mon, 18 Sep 2000 10:32:23 -0700

Catching Up with Ralph Nader

...by chance martin

I'm sitting less than ten feet across from Ralph Nader - Green Party 
candidate for the U.S. Presidency - in the Green Party's headquarters 
at 680 Valencia St. in San Francisco's Mission District. He's running 
late, but taking the time to meet with us between campaign 
appearances in Oakland and San Francisco State University the 
afternoon of Thursday, September 14th.

The first thing I notice is his shoes: these are the shoes, I'm 
thinking, of someone who doesn't own a car. They are well worn. In 
fact, Ralph Nader's shoes are less shiny than the soles of San 
Francisco Mayor Willie Brown's Bally slippers.

Paul Boden - Director of the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco 
- was invited to an intimate meeting of about a dozen of San 
Francisco's prominent social justice activists with Mr. Nader. 
Problem was, Paul was on vacation, so we sent six staff, including 
homeless people, to fill in.

When we learned our time was going to be truncated (due to the 
typical traffic delays on the Bay Bridge), we prioritized our issues. 
Although Nader didn't actually respond to Jenny Friedenbach, who led 
off, we managed to put materials about the Community Housing 
Investment Trust and the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing 
Project into his hands. And what Ralph Nader had to say that 
afternoon reflected many of our major issues.

There were definite moments when you could tell he was riffing on the 
same themes he speaks about on the campaign trail, but mostly he was 
very genuine and direct. At times, I wished that I could sign up for 
some class he taught - he was very instructive. His approach was to 

The following is a faithful transcript of a tape of that meeting. Any 
inaccuracies are my own. Dubious name spellings are duly noted. I'm 
guessing at the actual languages that were used when the dialogue 
wasn't in English. The moderator was a representative from the 
California Nurse's Association.

*	*	*	*	*

MODERATOR: I know you don't have a lot of time. I just want to say 
this is Ralph Nader - who's running for President - and that you and 
the people here, Ralph, have a lot in common 'cause most of the 
people here work on social and economic justice. What I've asked is 
that a few of them speak a minute each on some of their issues and 
you speak a couple of minutes - 'cause I know you're rushed - and we 
don't have time to go around the room. Is that fine?

NADER: These are known as 'activists'.

MODERATOR: These are known as 'people in the trenches'.


MODERATOR: The Coalition on Homelessness is going to begin. OK?

I'm Jennifer Friedenbach from the Coalition on Homelessness. One of 
the issues that we would like you to focus on is the broader issue of 
homelessness, and the fact that the federal government is in large 
part responsible for the onset of large numbers of people living on 
the streets. Here in San Francisco, we have between 11,000 and 14,000 
sleeping on our streets every night. We cannot solve this problem 
without federal assistance. Federal government needs to be putting 
money into housing. It needs to stop tearing down our projects 
without one-for-one replacement of those units. We need money for 
mental health treatment - not involuntary treatment. We need money 
for substance abuse treatment - and that's substance abuse treatment 
that the community decides how it looks. Right now, we've got a lot 
of problems with the federal government directing how we deliver our 
substance abuse treatment.

There's a couple of initiatives I'd like to show you that deal with 
homelessness on a federal level. One of them is the Community Housing 
Investment Trust, which would develop a million new units of housing 
which would be affordable to families and individuals who are making 
less than the minimum wage. That's our problem - we have some 
affordable housing here, but it's all geared toward working folks and 
families, and we have a lot of folks who don't even come close to 
making the amount of money to be able to afford it.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Jenny. OK, I'm going to move to City College.

Hi, I'm Elisa Nicholas (?) and I'm representing Education in Action 
as well as City College of San Francisco Alumni, and I'd like to know 
what you plan to do about attacks on young people such as affirmative 
action - which was ended here - and Prop. 21 - which incarcerates 
young people basically for being young - and the criminalization of 
youth. And I also want to know what you plan to do about 
underrepresented students of color, or Native Americans, or other 
people who are not incorporated into our larger important systems, 
such as medicine, law, government, and what you plan to do to keep a 
representation of my people in the United States.

NADER: Well, first of all, that Proposition... 21?


NADER: ...it's seen in Europe as absolutely medieval and cruel. The 
idea of taking 14-year-olds and treating them as adults and putting 
them in adult prisons is to condemn their future as if it was a life 
sentence. And this is the heritage of cowardly political leaders, who 
don't understand that brutish conditions lead to brutish behavior, 
and it's the brutish conditions and deprivation that lead to so much 
of what they call juvenile crime. It eliminates any hope of 
rehabilitation in a sane and caring way.

Second, we can provide - in this country - free tuition to all 
students in public colleges and universities for about 32 billion 
dollars a year. And that money can come from shrinking the bloated 
defense budget and getting the corporations off welfare. And there'll 
be plenty of money for universal healthcare, for affordable housing, 
for public transit, and for extending free education from elementary 
school and high school to public colleges.

What we have to do is look at the huge pile of tax dollars which now 
are being drained to favor the rich and the corporations and say that 
tax dollars are to be used for serious purposes - not for stadiums, 
not for other purposes to make corporations richer - and serious 
purposes involve servicing the needs of the many. Whether it's 
housing, rebuilding the public works: schools, community health 
clinics, public transit, the drinking water systems; whether it's 
healthcare. We have to have a political movement that moves a massive 
diversion of public dollars for the public's benefit, not for the 

If you want to put it in a phrase, it's 'a movement to meet human 
need, not corporate greed'. (applause)

Mr. Nader, I'm Steve Bingham. I'm with the Coalition for Ethical 
Welfare Reform - which grew out of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. We're 
a coalition of recipients and advocates who try to minimize the 
damage caused by the Welfare Reform Act. As you probably know, it 
needs to be re-authorized in Washington next year. There needs to be 
a nationally led debate - and hopefully, you'll be a leader in that - 
to talk about why it's just not working. The rolls have been going 
down and nobody's explaining where people are going. Those who are 
getting jobs can't possibly raise families on them, so there needs to 
be a whole lot more work in terms of minimum wage and support 
services to people. There needs to be an elimination of all of the 
exclusions, such as people who are excluded for life if they have a 
felony conviction for substance abuse. People are not allowed to get 
benefits if they have a child on welfare.

The whole thing is social engineering of the worst sort, and unless 
we have leadership and a third voice - which you are - the Tweedledum 
and Tweedledee that you've talked about are just going to 
re-authorize it. We're looking for your leadership.

NADER: Well, there's some western European countries who, years ago, 
essentially abolished poverty. Child poverty is down to two percent 
in Scandinavia, three percent in the Netherlands, and they did it 
coming out of war-torn Europe and World War Two in the '50s and '60s. 
Here we are, the richest country in the world, where the top one 
percent of the richest people have net wealth equal to the bottom 
ninety-five percent. We have 20% poverty nationwide, 25% poverty here 
in California, which you can compare with 15% poverty in 1980 in 
California - it's getting worse as the economy grows.

We have to have a national mission to abolish poverty... and you know 
who launched the last-discussed idea on that subject? President 
Richard Nixon, who proposed a national minimum income policy - 
drafted for him by his special assistant, Daniel P. Moynihan - and 
the Congress rejected it. So we can go back to that flaming radical 
Richard Nixon (laughter) ...and put this idea in the Presidential 
Election for discussion and debate. There is no excuse for our 
country - other than if there's too much power in the hands of too 
few forces - no excuse for not abolishing poverty.

People are poor when they're working, not just when they're not 
working. You can't live on $5.15 an hour - the federal minimum wage - 
which is lower than the real purchasing power of the 1968 minimum 
wage, which is now $7.30. That is, after thirty-two years of economic 
growth people are making less in purchasing power - two dollars or 
more less an hour - than was made in 1968.

So, if that doesn't get your indignation level up, we've got plenty 
of other ways to do so. (laughter)

Hi, my name is Trina Gomez (?). I'm from the Homeless Prenatal 
Program - I work in the Policy and Advocacy Department. Our 
organization serves about a thousand clients every year. We work off 
of limited resources, as you know, for families and I just wanted to 
know how you are going to shed light on the fact that, locally as 
well as across the state, dot-com organizations are taking over the 
space that we need for housing, and for non-profit organizations who 
need places for their organizations to thrive. How are you going to 
shed light on that?

NADER: Well, that comes down to how property is owned. And if 
property is owned in the form of trusts, then the trusts have a 
certain charitable purpose - or other purposes - and they can't sell 
out to the Intels, or the Ciscos, or their counterparts. That's like 
land conservancies, where non-profit groups buy up land to keep it 
from being developed and preserve it for environmental purposes or 
recreational purposes.

So the key is, you can't stop people who own a building like this 
from selling out. What you can do is develop a trust fund - and 
that's a very legitimate function of public funds - so that the 
ownership goes into these community trusts and is preserved for the 
benefit of the neighborhood. In other words, they're not going to 
allow gentrification. They're not going to allow people who've lived 
here all their lives trying to make ends meet at low-income levels, 
then suddenly, just because it's crowded in the richer areas, the 
rich folk come in to replace everyone else.

It drives them out, and then where are they going to go? It's not 
like there's even single-room-occupancies. All these 
single-room-occupancies all over the country have been wiped out to 
gentrification and other methods.

So, you can't fight this alone. You've got to fight it in a 
cooperative, in a housing trust manner, and you've got to fight it 
with a political arm - and that's why the Green Party is spreading, 
because it's designed to give folks in the neighborhood a political 
arm muscle in the political arena. 'Cause citizens can't do it by 
themselves, they've got to have an alliance with a political arm - 
not just civic activism.

My name is Jim Hewitt (?), I'm with the Senior Action Network, and 
the leaders of our organization asked me to come here today because 
they're finishing up with an accountability session right now with 
the director of the Mayor's Office of Housing and the Chair of the 
Housing and Social Policy committee of the Board of Supervisors, who 
- instead of being held accountable - chose to sneak out the back 
door before being presented with our demands.

And what we're looking for are accountable officials - on a local 
level, on a state level, and on a federal level.

We're asking for housing. After the homeless, seniors have the 
greatest need for affordable housing in this city. There's a housing 
gap of 9,800 units for senior citizens. We go to the city officials, 
they point at the state and the feds - and all the way up the line... 
the state points to the locals, and the feds point back down to the 
city. The buck has to stop somewhere.

Also, other issues that are important to seniors are: don't even 
think about privatizing Social Security, raising the retirement age 
to afford the sort of program that is insulting... I've already 
mentioned housing; single-payer healthcare is very important to our 
seniors, and also exploring alternative modes to transportation - 
alternative to the automobile. Our seniors think that crossing the 
street in this city is an 'extreme sport' (laughter), and we're sick 
of having to dodge those cars all the time, so alternative methods of 
transportation are high on their list.

NADER: I appreciate your concern because you're so young... it's very 
rare for that to happen. The other point is - and it's important to 
know - is the use of the recall power. I don't know whether San 
Francisco has the recall power - do you? At the local level - where 
you can recall politicians between elections? The referendum recall 
statewide in California allows you to recall state officials, and I'm 
not sure what the situation is here, but that's one way to hold them 
accountable. And let's say it would be easier to recall a local 
official, for obvious reasons, than a state official. And that's one 
way to get their attention.

Overall, what we're seeing here is a massively wealthy country that 
serves the wealthy. We're seeing giant corporations that are our 
masters, when the corporations should be our servants. We're seeing a 
destruction of the trade union movement by international trade 
agreement. We're seeing the lack of knowledge by people in the inner 
cities that there's even a national cooperative bank that provides 
loans for cooperative housing.

Do you know, for example, that if you have cooperative housing here 
in San Francisco, you're almost certain to be able to get a loan from 
that bank in Washington? Are you aware of that, by the way? You know, 
we worked hard in the '70s to get that through. 1978 - it was called 
the National Consumer Cooperative Bank, and then Reagan wanted to get 
rid of it, so they went private. But their mandate is to give credit 
- loans to food co-ops, and housing co-ops, and all other types of 
co-ops. And they sometimes complain that they don't have enough loan 
applications. So reduce their complaints - flood them with loan 

The cooperative housing is going to stay put. If you have cooperative 
housing, it's not going to migrate.

Hi, my name is Bianca Henry, and I'm with Family Rights and Dignity, 
and I'm seeing a lot of homelessness because demolished low-income 
family housing project units are not being replaced on a one-to-one 
basis. HUD and the Housing Authority are hiding behind red tape, and 
they're not actually selling the land, but they let dot-coms build on 
the land. When they develop it and say they're developing affordable 
housing, only 33% of the units go to low-income people. Then, when 
those low-income people are evicted for some absurd reason, the 
housing that's supposed to go for low-income people is going back to 
fair-market rate. When we complain about it, they say it's not ours. 
But in fact, it is ours. We paid for them to be operating. And I want 
to know: what are you going to do about this?

NADER: See, we all have to move protest to power. Don't we get sick 
and tired of demanding and having our demands - which are very 
legitimate - rebuffed? Or 'we'll take that under consideration', 
'we'll assign a study committee to that' in order to cool you off.

The point is, that we've got to move from what we know about the 
injustice in our communities, what we know about the solutions that 
are available - if we had a functioning democracy, what we know about 
the financial resources that are piled up, making the rich 
hyper-rich... That's the problem, isn't it? The rich want to be 
super-rich, then they become super-rich and they want to be 
hyper-rich, and there's no end. The definition of greed is infinity. 

There was a time, twenty years ago, when a corporate executive would 
be totally satisfied with a million bucks a year. Now, they're not 
satisfied with being paid a million bucks a month; some of them want 
a million bucks a week.

So, we've got to bring all of these justifications for change 
together and move to power. If people do not have power in a 
democracy, they do not have justice. They've got to have a power as 
voters, a power as workers, a power as taxpayers, and a power as 
consumers and tenants, etcetera. And that's what has to happen. You 
see, the problem is that if we restrict our activities to charity... 
which is important and it helps people in need, but we'd be on that 
treadmill forever.

You've got to go beyond charity, and advocate for change: to go to 
the causes of why people are homeless, the causes of why people in 
America - the biggest agricultural production machine in the world - 
are hungry, why people in America don't get a fair shake because of 
race or gender, why people in America can't even get to their jobs, 
because if they don't own a car they can't get to a job, because they 
need public transit worthy of the name - without getting up at four 
in the morning, as in some places around the country.

So the phrase that we really need to use more often is 'a society 
that has more justice is a society that needs less charity'. So the 
key is justice. And the definition of freedom we should all use is 
'participation in power'.

Freedom is participation in power. That's the key. That's what it's 
all about in a society. And if the people have the power, they have 
the justice. If the corporations have the power over the government 
and over the marketplace and the workplace, they've got the power. So 
that's what we have to do: we have to move from the charitable 
interface - where a lot of you are working - to power.

Along comes the Green Party, right? What is the Green Party? It's got 
the right direction, the right policies, and it says: this is a 
wide-open party. You've got to fill it with your energy, time and 
talent. You've got to run for local city council on the Green Party, 
you've got to run for state assembly, you've got to run for federal 
office. So this is a party you can build with your own efforts, and 
your own time, and your own talent, because I guarantee you, when you 
read that agenda of the Green Party, it is so superior to the 
Republican/Democratic agendas that you'll say: This is for Me.

And this is what we're trying to do. It's an opportunity to build a 
new progressive political movement in America.

Hi, I'm Nadine Nebir (?) from the Arab-American community and I just 
wanted to make a couple of points. One is that people have expressed 
concern - from our community - that you haven't strongly identified 
as a person of Arab descent because it might harm your campaign. So 
I'm interested in what you would say to that.

But more urgently, I'm interested in how you would deal with ending 
the sanctions on Iraq, Palestinian self-determination, and the issue 
of secret evidence.


(Ralph and Nadine converse in Arabic for about a minute.)

NADER: Yes, see how I deny my heritage? (laughter)

(Ralph and Nadine exchange in Arabic again.)

NADER: We're talking about food. (laughter)

NADER: All right, number one: you have to end the criminal economic 
sanctions on Iraq - that the American Physicians Task Force of the UN 
said are killing 5,000 Iraqi children every month. It's a violation 
of so many international laws and agreements - the UN Declaration on 
Human Rights for Children. And it's only making the dictator of Iraq 
even more repressive, because he can point to the foreign devils who 
are keeping critical medicine and critical equipment out of the hands 
of hospitals and doctors and nurses in Iraq.

So, it's a totally failed policy. We're not talking about the 
military sanctions - nobody disagrees with that - we're talking about 
the economic sanctions. What was the second one?

(another exchange in Arabic)

NADER: Of course. You know, even in Israel, now the majority of the 
people say there should be a Palestinian state - not just a 
Palestinian homeland. And they're negotiating it and trying to decide 
the land territory and how much international assistance is going to 
go with it and other issues. It's on the right track - it's just got 
to have some sort of final deadline before you get another eruption.

Nadine: Can you be a little more specific on the Palestinian issue? 
In terms of refugees rights to return or specific issues that you 
have views on, regarding Palestine.

NADER: Well, I mean once you get a state, you want a democratic 
state. I'm sorry to say that is going to be the next challenge - how 
to get a democratic Palestinian state. And in terms of right of 
return the Israelis have offered 100,000 people coming back, a lot of 
people no longer have any refugee relatives there, after all these 
decades. They should work that out. If anybody, the Jewish people 
know what the right of return means, and very, very sensitively.

As far as anything else, there's a huge amount of capital that's 
needed. A lot of destruction, a lot of deprivations and poverty and, 
I think, a lot of the nations in the world will be able to get 
together and provide significant funding.

My name is Barry Hermanson, and for the past two and a half years 
I've been serving as the Co-chair of the Living Wage Coalition here 
in San Francisco. And I guess from everything you have been saying, 
that I've heard for a long time now - that obviously you get - about 
the need for a living wage. People who work full-time should be able 
to support themselves without having to resort to charity or public 
subsidies. I know you think that's very, very important.

Recently, we were able to get something passed here. It's not a 
living wage - we have a lot of work to do. I think that very soon the 
industrial welfare community is going to be considering an increase 
in the minimum wage in California, and even what they're proposing is 
a joke - it should be much, much higher.

I believe it's time that we ought to have a statewide living wage, we 
ought to have a national living wage - that any contract dollars that 
are going out, anything for programs and services should condition 
that employees make enough that they can support themselves and their 

Related to that, I'm an owner/operator of a temporary employment 
service here in San Francisco, and I've been doing that for over 
twenty years. I started my business by trying to compete by offering 
a lower markup than my competitors and offering my employees a better 
wage. I've been frustrated for over twenty years because I cannot put 
healthcare, I cannot put paid time-off, retirement, into my markup 
and still be competitive. We have a huge industry in this country of 
contingent workers, temporary workers - millions and millions of 
people. It has, over the last 20, 30, 40 years, enjoyed enormous 
growth in this country - people who are, essentially, disposable. You 
use them for a little while, and they're gone - because they're not 

I think we desperately need universal healthcare, but we need to go 
beyond that and take a look at the other types of benefits people 
really need in order to be able to survive in their old age. I 
certainly hope that you will be able to...

NADER: Yeah, well I think we ought to take a cue from western Europe. 
They have social wage laws, regardless of whether you belong to 
unions or not. The bottom one third of the poorest workers in western 
European countries make 44% more than the bottom one third in our 

Just for starters, they get a month paid-vacation, they get paid 
maternity leave, they get paid sick leave, they get the right - 
easier - to form trade unions, and these are countries that were 
essentially destroyed in World War Two. So we have to ask ourselves: 
why can't we do what they did thirty to forty years ago?

I think we need to go for a National Living Wage - regardless of 
whether there's a government contract involved. And that's called the 
Social Wage. It's quite clear that if the minimum wage was adjusted 
for inflation the way that congressional salaries are adjusted beyond 
inflation - and they're about to raise their salaries again in a few 
days in Congress by about $4,000 a year - if it was adjusted, it 
would be about $7.30 now.

That ought to be the floor for any consideration, right there. That's 
where you start. If we can't - after thirty-two years of economic 
growth - have workers paid the same as the workers were paid in 1968 
in purchasing power, then we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

We have to raise our expectation levels here. You know, for thirty 
two years businesses have been raising their prices, right? They've 
been paying their owners more for thirty two years, right? Well, they 
haven't been paying their workers at the same proportionate level, so 
they've had thirty-two years of windfall here. There's a lot to catch 
up for.

MODERATOR: One more question...the last person. Lily?

I'm from the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition and we're working on 
a process of community planning and fighting against gentrification 
and displacement here in the Mission. As you've heard, this is a 
nation-wide crisis - and we're in a serious housing crisis. I think 
what a lot of us would like to hear is more specifics about how - if 
you were elected as President - would you preserve the existing 
affordable housing and create more - and also deal with the local 
city governments that are stacked with pro-development people who are 
allowing the perceived economic boom to destroy our communities.

NADER: Part of that is encouraged by the federal taxes, as you know, 
so the federal government has got a role in that. The whole 
anti-sprawl movement is a movement of a hundred approaches. I mean, 
it's really pretty complex, because you're dealing with zoning, 
you're dealing with drainage runoff, you're dealing with lack of 
public transport, and all the rest of it. You're dealing with how 
dense do we want housing to be - two, three, four, five stories? The 
more dense, the less land.

So, it's a very complex issue, but you have to start it by 
controlling the property that's in place now through some sort of 
trusts and cooperatives so they can't be sold off so quickly - 
because the people don't want it sold off - where landlords will sell 
out very easily.

Just ask yourself: how do you avoid being discouraged?

Audience: Fight back.

NADER: Fight back. What else?

Audience: Having another choice.

NADER: Having what?

Audience: Having a choice.

NADER: Having a choice... to be discouraged you mean?

Audience: (unintelligible)

NADER: Oh, to choose a different path. Oh yes. Let's see, anyone else?

MODERATOR: OK, this is our last question.

I'm Eric Mar from the Chinese Progressive Association, and many of us 

(Ralph and Eric converse briefly in Chinese.)

Eric: ...we struggled for months to free Wen Ho Lee, and the federal judge...

NADER: Oh, sure. That was a frame-up right from the beginning.

Eric: ...the Department of Energy, the Department of Justice...  what 
do you feel about that?

NADER: You see, here's what happened: the Department of Energy was 
caught with a situation where they had to find somebody to scapegoat, 
right? So they focused on him, and right from the beginning - I could 
just tell from the newspaper reports - that there's something really 
insubstantial about their case. And fortunately, we have a great 
judge in this case. And he stood up to the federal government, and 
criticized them, and shamed them. And for once the judiciary came 
through - I mean, it does come through more than once. But in a 
situation like that, with the powers of the federal government, with 
bureaucrats trying to cover their flanks - right up to the Secretary 
of Energy - against this lone scientist, the courts came and rendered 
justice. I'm sure he's going to probably have a civil suit against 
the government if he wants to exert it.

By the way, the articles from recent papers say there are no nuclear 
secrets left to steal. (laughter)

Audience: Can we abolish nuclear weapons?

NADER: We've got to work with other nations for the abolition of 
nuclear weapons. Even the former head of the Strategic Air Command, 
General Butler, has been crusading for that since he retired three 
years ago.

MODERATOR: OK, we've got to move on now. This dialogue will continue 
for a long time...

NADER: All right. So, what do you say? Huh? Thousands of votes come 
out of this session! (applause) Everyone can bring their neighbors, 
friends, co-workers, relatives. Figure on a hundred votes - each 
person. Can you imagine?

*	*	*	*	*

Thanks to my long-time mentor and co-conspirator Josh Brandon for 
editorial assistance.

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