The Party Crasher

No one's giving much thought to Ralph Nader's running mate. But it has never been a good idea to underestimate Winona LaDuke.

Neither Green candidate has much patience with the spoiler myth. If Gore loses, Nader often says, it will be because he has betrayed too many of the ideals of the left--compromised so often that he himself has become compromised. "Gore knows better," Nader recently opined on the campaign trail. "He's sold the government to the highest bidder."

LaDuke bristles visibly at the suggestion that, by advancing their own agendas, she and Nader might incidentally help elect a Republican president. "We're breaking a barrier," she maintains. "Common people can and should run for office. That's a good thing for democracy. If only the privileged few can run for office, then how is that a democracy?"

Though she has campaigned with Nader in both the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest, LaDuke is making a concentrated effort to spread her message in her own back yard. A recent evening found her running late for a "town-hall meeting" at Bemidji State University (none of the Greens in her entourage was wearing a watch). The crowd of about 200 gathered in the school's cavernous main auditorium, a mix of graying hippies and students with note pads poised on knees, was growing restless.

LaDuke appeared, looking exhausted and wan under the unforgiving lights. Her eyes, set deeply in her face by high, sharp cheekbones, looked sunken. Then something remarkable happened. As she launched into her opening salvo, her posture straightened, and her soft voice rose and tightened. "We are a society with solutions," she told the crowd. "That's what's amazing about this country. There's no absence of resources. We are a rich country, the richest in the world. We have the resources to do the right thing. What we have is an absence of political will. We lack the will to do the right thing."

LaDuke had already delivered the same speech three times that day, yet she settled into a conversational manner that made her seem both vulnerable and resolute, and the phrases spilled out as though she was discovering them for the first time.

The speech wound down and the question-and-answer period began. A student asked what she would do to patch up Social Security, a question that would have Gore or Bush salivating. Unlike the major-party candidates, however, LaDuke had no answer. She wriggled around the question, and for a few moments the fatigue crept back into her face. She seemed to shrink onstage. A camera flash popped. "Maybe I didn't answer your question," she grimaced.

Another audience member took the next logical step: What does she hope to gain from this? Is she actually running for political office, or are she and Nader using the election as a national soapbox from which to preach? This time LaDuke was ready with an answer. She looked up into the sea of white faces. "I'm planning the inaugural powwow right now," she said. "I've already got my bags packed."

 

As LaDuke likes to point out, winning is not the end of this race. In many respects, her current gambit is no different from her father's cross-country trek a half-century ago. When she takes the stage at rallies, she does so not as the representative of a political party but as the ambassador from a shadow nation. And as she has learned through her tumultuous years on White Earth, this generation's lost causes are often the next one's crusades.

On a wet and unseasonably chilly evening in Minneapolis, LaDuke is holed up in the tangle of hallways beneath the Target Center, preparing for the largest event of the Green Party presidential campaign--and, aside from the major-party conventions, of the political season thus far. LaDuke and Thayer drove from White Earth earlier in the day, and because they stopped to admire the changing leaves, they're running late again.

Everything is running late. And everyone is running. Men in blue suits--the uniform that everyone who works with Ralph Nader seems to adopt--rush through the halls with conspicuously displayed badges marked VIG, as in "Very Important Green." At Nader's insistence, the press is also much in evidence. A large contingent of standoffish folks from MTV News seems to be everywhere at once.

In a plushly arrayed lounge on the stadium's upper level, a gaggle of supporters awaits LaDuke's appearance, sipping Diet Pepsi and listening to show tunes on an electronic keyboard. When LaDuke finally arrives for a rushed meet-and-greet flanked by two bodyguards, she's wearing the same outfit she wore a few weeks earlier in Bemidji, a long dark skirt and a vest with beadwork flourishes.

"Thanks for coming," she tells the group.

"Thanks for running!" a man yells.

LaDuke smiles sweetly and says, "I'd run a little faster but I've got five kids at home." Then she adds, somewhat less sweetly, "I guess Dick Cheney's kids are already in boarding school."

LaDuke positions herself near the center of the room while her guards, two imposing Green activists from Bemidji, take up positions around her and glance nervously at the crowd. "My kids asked me where I was going this morning," LaDuke says. "I said, 'I'm going to recover democracy.'

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