As he did during 1988's "war of the insurance initiatives," consumer advocate Ralph Nader has emerged this week as a key figure in this spring's political campaigns in California, a state 3,000 miles away from his office in Washington, D.C.
But this year Nader is trying to cut a considerably wider swath, weighing in on several fronts, including the Democratic primary races for governor and insurance commissioner. Nader has been moving for some time from straight consumer issues into more general politics. If his strategy works in California next Tuesday, he likely will become more of a political force than ever.
Nader arrived in the state Thursday for a two-day swing with the announced purpose of opposing two reapportionment initiatives, Propositions 118 and 119, as power ploys by Republicans and big business, and of opposing Proposition 112, the ethics initiative, on grounds legislators should remain responsible for setting their own salaries.
But an unannounced and probably just as important reason for Nader's trip only days before next Tuesday's vote was to boost the candidacies in the Democratic primary of John K. Van de Kamp for governor and Conway Collis for insurance commissioner.
In the gubernatorial contest, Nader has termed Van de Kamp a better, more authentic Democrat than his opponent, Dianne Feinstein, whom he calls "a Republican in Democratic clothing." Nader himself is registered at his legal home in Winsted, Ct., as unaffiliated with any political party.
In the insurance commissioner's race, Nader has split once again with his traditional allies, the trial lawyers, to support a more militant anti-insurance industry candidate, Collis, rather than Bill Press, the choice of the lawyer group.
This parallels his position in 1988, when Nader backed the more radical Proposition 103, instead of Proposition 100, sponsored by trial lawyers.
Nader's position proved victorious two years ago. Proposition 103 was narrowly approved and he was credited with being a decisive factor. Proposition 100 was defeated, and three insurance industry-sponsored initiatives on the same ballot went down overwhelmingly.
Nader tries to tie his positions this year to insurance or other business issues. In lambasting Feinstein and one particular Democratic insurance commissioner candidate, John Garamendi, he cites their alleged closeness to the insurance industry. And in lauding Van de Kamp and Collis, he says they are foes of the industry.
Nader argues that his positions on the reapportionment initiatives are related to a desire to keep corporate interests at bay.
But in extending himself to candidates, Nader is running what Collis' campaign manager, Bill Zimmerman, acknowledged were political risks.
"People turn to Nader because he's an honest man, not because of his political affiliation," Zimmerman said Thursday. "I question the efficacy of his endorsement of candidates."
Nader denied at a Sacramento news conference Thursday that he is endorsing anyone, although his remarks were widely regarded as endorsements. He said that, if he were a Californian, he would vote for Van de Kamp, and that he supported Collis as the best person to implement Proposition 103.
In 1988, after taking an in-depth opinion survey on Nader, the coordinators of the insurance industry campaign in the initiative battle decided it would be counterproductive to criticize him in their $60 million advertising campaign.
"The survey showed that Nader was just too much of a plus (for our opponents)," said Scott Carpenter, an industry campaign aide. "What we did was try to separate Nader from Proposition 103. We tried to show it to be the Rosenfield initiative," a reference to Harvey Rosenfield, the measure's actual author.
In the present context, both the Feinstein and Garamendi campaigns are pretty much following such tactic themselves. So far, they have not attacked Nader or sought directly to counter his criticisms.
By contrast, Van de Kamp and Collis are both spending heavily on television commercials advertising Nader's remarks. The Van de Kamp campaign says it sent a cameraman to Nader's news conference on insurance issues Tuesday just on the chance he would say something nice about Van de Kamp and not so nice about Feinstein.
On Thursday in Sacramento, there was the first sign that Nader's political interventions might not leave him unscathed by criticism.
A Common Cause lobbyist, Ruth Holton, after listening to him speak on Proposition 112, the ethics initiative, said: "It was clear from his remarks that he had not clearly read the proposition. If he is going to come in and criticize something, he ought to know what it contains."
She added that supporters of Proposition 112, such as the California branches of the National Organization for Women and the League of Women Voters, "have just as much credibility, and certainly more in California, than Ralph Nader. . . . He's welcome to his opinion, but I think Californians ought to look at California issues."
Nader had said he doesn't like Proposition 112 because it mixes ethics and legislative pay. "They two are like water and oil," he said. "They do not mix."
On the carpetbagger question, Nader said Thursday:
"We have only one United States. A citizen of the United States should be able to go anywhere and advocate anything within the law. Corporations from Japan, from Germany, from Italy come and throw their weight around here. You are going to say someone from the East Coast can't do that?"
Nader pointed out that he has "come in in a lot of races (in various states) where I just reveal the electoral record. We put out voting records of members of Congress, we put out voting records of state races."
But aside from one race in New York a few years ago, where Nader had endorsed a friend, up until this week he has not gotten as deeply involved in directly backing candidates. It is a test for him, and if the election returns back his choices, it may be a new stage in his increasingly political career.
Reich reported from Los Angeles and Shuit from Sacramento.