Synthesis/Regeneration 11   (Fall 1996)

Toolbox for Democracy Nuts and Bolts

Handy Hints For Building Your Own Ralph Nader Campaign

by Walt Contreras Sheasby, Green Party 27th Congressional candidate

Editors' note. The first six articles in this section continue the discussion of the Ralph Nader Presidential campaign which began in Synthesis/Regeneration 10. Walt Sheasby and Eric Chester contributed articles which are supportive and critical, respectively, of the campaign. Linda Martin and Greta Gaard each received copies of these articles before writing their responses. Steve Welzer and Mavis Belisle penned their thoughts independently of the other contributions.

Nader and his legal associates were not anxious to risk these vital tax-exempt groups.

About those Loose Nuts and Bolts. If you are currently or potentially active in a group that would like to join the Nader campaign, you may be wondering about signing on to an economy flight while your neighbors are going with Air Force One. Well, if you are dedicated to making this historic flight, you need to know the nuts and bolts of engineering the Nader campaign.

Start with a Flight Plan. The first thing you have to realize is that you are in charge: you are the pilot, you are the maintenance crew, you are the precious fuel, and you are the prayer in the phrase, "a wing and a prayer," where Nader is the only fin with integrity.

You will need to devise a flight plan to get you to your destination. So it makes sense for you and your friends to discuss and agree on a set of "Principles of Unity" that focuses on issues and roles. Nader has provided a very powerful set of ideas contained in his "Toolbox for Democracy" approach. But he has also sent along a helpful hint: "I want to focus strictly on how we build democracy in this country. . . I'm sure other candidates in the Green Party and other Green Party volunteers are going to take the positions that flow logically from their own platforms. But I want to focus on the democracy agenda." (KPFK Interview, Mar. 27, 1996)

You might want to have your friends fill out a short quiz: What issues, beyond those being emphasized by the Presidential candidate, do you want to highlight in the campaign? What planks from the Green Platform or the Common Platform of the National Slate of Independent Progressive Candidates do you want to project?

Which issues are appropriate for the kind of coalitions you want to build in the next six months but also in the next six years? How do activists from other parties and groups fit in with your democratic structure?

Hazard: Air Pockets, Not Deep Pockets. The most turbulent question you will find yourself bouncing around over is the issue of Nader's official $5,000 "noncandidacy." He has made a virtue of necessity: "I'm not asking for, raising or accepting any money. That's part of the model." (Economist, Mar. 30, 1996) But for the media, the "$5,000 Question" has become the wind shear of the Nader flight.

Apparently last winter Nader and his public-interest attorneys discovered that he was in a very vulnerable position if he ran a campaign with ordinary fund-raising. If any volunteer or staff person in any of the 28 or so non-profit tax-exempt organizations associated with Nader was found to have contributed time or money to the presidential campaign, the tax-exempt status of these groups could be challenged. Not much has changed in the quarter-century since a Senate aide told a journalist, "There are a lot of people around town who'd just love to pull Nader's tax exemptions."

Catching Flak with Your Teeth. At the beginning of this year, the Wall Street Journal fired off a spectacular warning burst in a blunt editorial warning of investigations. Robert L. Bartley, the editor, wrote that, "According to Forbes magazine, Mr. Nader has control to varying degress of more than 20 non-profit organizations with combined revenues of more than $100 million a year." The Journal editor objected that Nader "claims not to be 'responsible' for their actions, but he founded many of them and most work in close alliance with one another. Despite their 501(c)3 status, many engage in overtly ideological work." (WSJ, Jan. 3, 1996) Here was a warning from the boom boxes of corporate capitalism that Nader's receipts and his list of contributors would be studied in "microscopic" detail if he filed with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

Nader and his legal associates were not anxious to risk these vital tax-exempt groups by handing them over to the squeaky-clean inspectorate of the current Administration or even squeakier audits by Mr. Forbes and Mr. Bartley. That is exactly what is at stake in Nader's decision to stay under the $5,000 spending limit in order to avoid the hazard to the "Nader's Raiders" groups that are responsible for much of the progressive legislation and decisive research carried out over the last 30 years.

Nader will also not be filing personal financial disclosure forms, including tax returns, required by the Ethics in Government Act, as amended. By staying below the limit, Nader does not meet the federal definition of a candidate-and thus is not obligated to make his personal finances public either: "For 30 years I've been an advocate of privacy, and I like to practice what I preach," Nader said. "Tax returns are a matter between the American people and the U.S. Treasury."

Flying Through Walls Can Be Done. For their own reasons, some of the key lawyers and public interest lobbyists who head up the Nader-associated citizens' groups and publications are, understandably, not enthusiastic about Nader's campaign. Since some are in a position of filtering the voluminous mail and faxes that are sent to the candidate, this has apparently resulted in a slowing or even obstructing of communication from the grass-roots to Nader. They are the ones responsible for making sure the legal barriers required to separate Nader from each of the other 1996 campaign entities are never breached.

Because Nader is not "campaigning" by the FEC $5,000 definition, he must "disavow" any efforts the Draft Ralph Nader for President Committee makes to elect him. Nader cannot be involved in directing or supporting any of these campaign efforts. Very thick "walls" have been erected to shield the noncandidate.

Avoiding Thunder and Lightning. The $5,000 spending limit impacts every step and every word from Nader. If he is in town for a campaign finance initiative rally (say, with travel costs paid by a student Public Interest Research Group, for example) and he immediately talks about his campaign in a press conference, SHAZZAM! he becomes a candidate, that trip becomes a campaign jaunt that he has to report in his FEC disclosure, and the plane ticket becomes a campaign contribution.

How to Get Nonconnected to Nader. Except for maybe a few barnstorming, crop-duster populists, no one has seriously attempted to run a Presidential campaign for less than $5,000. The only reason it can be done is that independent, "Nonconnected" or "Draft" committees can spend their own money without asking Nader or anyone else, as long as they file with the FEC and follow all the rules.

But if that Committee sends a plane ticket to Nader, that is a campaign contribution to Nader's own campaign, and it counts toward the $5,000 Nader limit. What Non-connected Committees have to do is focus on putting out literature, buttons, bumper stickers, precinct lists, office rent and supplies, phones, mailings, etc. All the things that make a campaign, sans the candidate. Every State Committee involved in the Draft Nader effort will be filing the required forms with the FEC and their Secretary of State. But local groups should not rely on a State Committee to do all the fund-raising and campaigning, and they should not reach out only to Green party members to promote Nader and the Green Platform.

An interested local group should form a "Nonconnected Committee," as the FEC coolly dubs it: "A nonconnected committee is a political committee that is not a party committee, an authorized committee of a candidate or a separate segregated fund established by a corporation or labor organization." Hey, that's cool; I'm none o' the above!

The first step is to call the FEC at 1-800-424-9530 and request their publication Campaign Guide for Nonconnected Committees (FEC, March 1995). The FEC will assign the Committee an FEC number to be used in all communications. The deadline for filing the initial registration form (FEC Form 1) is within 10 days of the Nonconnected Committee's raising or spending $1,000.

Check Your Fuel Tank. Before accepting any money, you need to open a bank account with a Treasurer and Chairperson and obtain a Tax Identification Number (TIN). Political contributions are usually not tax-deductible by the donor, but do not give out any tax advice. Contributions received by the Committee are not taxed, but any interest or dividends earned on contributions is taxable and must be reported to the IRS using the Committee name and TIN and FEC numbers. For this reason, unless large donations are accumulated, it makes sense to set up a checking account that pays no interest.

The Committee Treasurer will be responsible for filing Campaign Finance reports with the FEC at 999 E Street, NW, Washington, DC 20463. The next deadline for such groups to file a quarterly report (FEC Form 3X), is October 15. An additional report (FEC Schedule A) must also be filed itemizing any loans received (regardless of amount), as well as contributions exceeding $200, and some other types of receipts.

Watch the Nader Radar. Nader will travel as much as he can through un-related appearances where he is not a candidate. He has always had a full schedule of flying to paid campus appearances or meeting with citizens' action groups across the country. He will not identify himself as a candidate in these billings. After he gives a talk, if the audience wants to ask questions about his campaign, he is free to answer at any length. As to his spending limits, Nader says, "I'll get on the air free, people can make tapes, pass them around." (NYT, March 31, 1996)

Get a Team of Flying Electors. Nader also discussed and approved the enlisting of a "team" of supporters, who might serve as electoral college "state electors," to carry the message of the campaign and to allow Greens and progressives to educate and organize around issues of affirmative action, immigrant rights, and the like. In New York, Ronnie Dugger, founder of the progessive-populist Alliance, has indicated he will speak out for the Nader campaign.

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