Progressives Are Making a Mistake Lining Up Behind Obama

San Francisco based lawyer Matt Gonzalez first entered politics when he ran for District Attorney in 1999 and won 11 percent of the votes. A year later as a member of the Green Party he won an election for District Supervisor, making him the highest elected Green Party official in San Francisco. He went on to become President of the Board of Supervisors two years later. In 2003, his high profile run for city mayor cast him into a national spotlight. Gonzalez narrowly lost the election to Gavin Newsom, the closest a Green has come to the mayorship of a major US city. Today Matt Gonzalez is running on an independent ticket alongside Ralph Nader for the Vice Presidency of the US.

Sonali Kolhatkar, host of Uprising, interviewed Gonzalez on May 9th in advance of a West Coast City tour with Nader.

Kolhatkar: You gained a lot of attention in your challenge of Gavin Newsom in the mayoral race in San Francisco with the Green Party. Why run on an independent ticket now rather than as a candidate with the Green Party?

Gonzalez: Well, you know, Ralph Nader has never been a member of a political party and the Greens, four years ago very much wanted to nominate one of their own. So rather than repeat that we thought we would run on an independent ticket, and of course we are supportive of Cynthia McKinney’s effort to win the Green nomination and we think that these campaigns can work side by side.

Kolhatkar: What is the main function of your candidacy with Ralph Nader, in terms of either symbolic or even real change within the electoral system?

Gonzalez: Well, I don’t think it is a symbolic campaign. I think it is one that is very necessary. If we don’t run, there is no problem that needs to be fixed. And if we run, everybody suddenly says ‘hey, wait a second, why, in this democracy, do we have election rules that don’t allow candidates with different views to run for office without some "spoiling" happening?’ We are running against candidates who want to increase military spending, who are not supportive of single-payer health care, who are not calling for majority elections, who are not challenging corporate power in any real way, and who are talking about an occupation of Iraq. So I think it is imperative that we are out there talking about these issues.

Kolhatkar: Given the last 8 years in this country under Bush, wouldn’t you agree that the difference between the Republicans and the Democrats has widened, simply because the Bush administration has taken the Republican Party so far to the right? When we did have a Bush/Gore match-up in 2000 I don’t think anyone expected that these two parties would split so far apart from one another, and it was assumed that the Democrats were essentially the same as the Republicans. People used the terms ‘Republicrats’ and ‘Demolicans.’ But today these two parties are different enough from one another. Given that context, from the perspective of a progressive, isn’t it important to get a Democrat into office, simply to stave off a Bush-like Republican?

Gonzalez: Well, I think you are making some assumptions that aren’t true. If we look at Nancy Pelosi’s rise to the Speakership [of the House], she was going to have no blank check on Iraq funds without a withdrawal date and all of that rhetoric. The year before she was House Speaker, there were $116 billion in war appropriations. The year she was the Speaker that number went up by $50 billion, and this year it is going to go up probably by another $20 billion on top of that. When you look at the Patriot Act, even when the Democrats were the minority party, the reauthorization passed in the House of Representatives in early 2006, but if 44 Democrats had voted against it, it would have failed.

We often look at someone like Al Gore and we romanticize his legacy. You know he was a representative at the Kyoto Conference when our government would not sign on to that treaty. He had a rating as a Congressman of 60% from the League of Conservation Voters. We had a President, Bill Clinton, who started bombing the Sudan to get out from under the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The reality is that the Democrats have been complicit in everything and so they are very good at trying to lay the blame on independent/third party candidates who want to challenge them to be an opposition party, and they need to look at themselves and take responsibility for what they have done.

Kolhatkar: All of the points you made are absolutely on the mark, particularly if you look at Clinton-like Democrats and their allies. But given Barack Obama’s prominence, would you not say that if Barack Obama does becomes President, that this country would be better off than under McCain?

Gonzalez: Well, I don’t want John McCain to be the President, but I don’t want Barack Obama to be the President either. He opposes gay marriage, he supports the death penalty, he voted for the Patriot Act, he supported every war appropriation since he got to the Senate, and he has done other things that are disturbing. He supported a Republican class action reform law that made it harder to bring these lawsuits in State Courts. He supports limiting pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice cases.

Obama opposed getting any royalties from multi-national mining companies that mine minerals on public lands. He didn’t think it was appropriate to ask them for any royalties, and so they pay $2.50-$5 an acre and get to keep everything under the land.

And he voted for the Energy Policy Act in 2005. You know, everybody is talking about Exxon Mobil having $40 billion in profits and haw we have to something about it. Well in 2005 they had $35 billion in profits and this was an act that gave more money for fossil-fuel production tax breaks and subsidies than it did for alternative energy and conservation.

So when I hear Obama and I hear Clinton talking about, oh if they were just the President, it would be different with these energy prices, oh, if they were just the President, the home mortgage crisis wouldn’t have happened. Well, they have been in the United States Senate. We have got to see how they govern. They are part of the very Washington establishment that Obama now in his rhetoric claims he is going to somehow change the culture. It is not true. He has a long history of being a very different person, and I think it is a mistake for progressives to line up behind his candidacy.

Kolhatkar: Let’s talk about some of your efforts and goals regarding the electoral process itself. As it is currently set up, it certainly discourages third party candidates and independent candidates like yourself from running. What are some of the ways, particularly around voting for President, that you think can be improved and can strengthen our electoral system?

Gonzalez: I think there are two things that happened in 2000 when Bush beat Gore that need to be fixed. One was that Gore got half a million more votes than Bush, but Bush was declared the winner. So if you have a national popular vote measure or effort, which is under way right now, that would solve that problem.

The second issue though, which isn’t being addressed, is that we allow somebody to win the contest for President without getting a majority of votes. And if you look back at the last 100 years of presidential elections, the last 24 contests, 8 of them were won, that’s a full third, by a candidate that didn’t have over 50% of the vote. That’s true more often than not of Democrats rather than Republicans. And so we have to deal with that and it is very simple. You just have to have a run-off before you award Electoral College votes to someone. So in Florida, neither Bush nor Gore had a clear majority – they should have had a runoff to deal with that.

Kolhatkar: So this approach would keep the Electoral College system intact, but just make it more fair, in terms of how the votes are allocated?

Gonzalez: You could do it that way, or you could reform the Electoral College and just do a national vote. But even if you do a national vote, you can have a situation like, let’s say Clinton in ’92, where he was the top vote getter in the national vote, but he only had 43% of the vote. He was declared the winner. That’s not a very good democracy. It’s better to have someone get over 50%. And of course, using the Clinton example of ’92 is ironic, because the Democrats complain about 2000, When Bush was elected. But Bush had 48% of the vote. He had five percentage points higher than Bill Clinton! So this is a recurring problem that we have to deal with.

Kolhatkar: Finally, Matt, let’s talk about the way in which mainstream Americans and progressive Americans as well have moved away from Nader  There was a time when Ralph Nader was able to mobilize tens of thousands of people at his rallies, and that’s not happening these days. What is happening and why do you think it is happening?

Gonzalez: When Eugene Debs ran for President of the United States in the early 20th century, and he would give a talk wherein he advocated that women should be allowed to vote, and he only got 5% of the vote, so 5 out of 100 listeners agreed with him. I don’t think that we can conclude that, therefore, he shouldn’t have run, or he was wrong to run.

The point is that it is the responsibility of leaders on the left to stand up and say "Wait a second. Everybody is getting excited and jumping on this bandwagon. We need a real accounting of Senator Obama’s votes from the past, how he cast these lousy votes, and how are we going to ensure that we are not just setting ourselves up for a huge disappointment?" And, in Nader’s case, I think the quality of the people that are coming out and the response that he gets… I mean, people are generally being reminded of how much they like him and his legislative record as an outsider with things like creating the Environmental Protection Act, or Clean Water Act, Freedom of Information Act. His legislative record really towers over Obama, McCain and Clinton put together. So when people get in a room with Nader they realize this is a guy who could actually do the job and has an enormous amount of experience.

Kolhatkar: Finally, where do you see yourself regarding the Green Party, beyond this election?

Gonzalez: Well, I don’t know. I’m "decline-to-state." You know, it really started four years ago, where they wanted to do a kind of "safe states" strategy. And I think it is a psychological response to 2000, where Nader was blamed for everything. So I don’t want to be part of a political party that can’t stand up and defend itself to those issues. And of course, there are a lot of good people in that party, doing good, important work, but I am probably going to remain a decline-to-state voter or independent and make decisions election to election.

Listen to this interview online at www.uprisingradio.org

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