WASHINGTON — Ralph Nader, the independent presidential candidate Democrats love to hate, is afraid that Pennsylvania authorities trying to dun him for $61,000 are about to freeze his personal bank account.
Nader ran into a buzz saw when he tried to get on the Pennsylvania ballot in 2004 as an independent presidential candidate. Democratic activists kept him off the ballot, beat him in court for turning in fraudulent signatures his campaign had collected and are on the verge of getting officials in his home city of Washington to attach his assets.
Nader, who's contemplating a 2008 run, claims that the smell of politics permeates the conflict. Democrats in the Keystone State blame him for tilting the 2000 election to George W. Bush.
T.J. Rooney, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said that the mention of Nader's name sent his blood pressure up 50 points. Told of the judgment against Nader, Rooney laughed. "I think that's great. You're goddamned right he should pay, and he should go away, because he didn't learn his lesson in 2000."
Describing his reaction to the judgment, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, Nader said he felt disenfranchised, excluded from the standard American political and legal process, much as African-Americans once were.
"It's like the 1930s," he said. "It's political bigotry of enormous proportions."
The lawyers who sued Nader and his running mate Peter Camejo have no sympathy.
"Mr. Nader owes us some $60,000 to $70,000, and it's time for him to pay," said Efrem Grail, a partner at Reed Smith, the Pittsburgh firm that brought the case on behalf of a group of voters. Nader failed to submit 25,697 valid signatures to get on the ballot, he said, and the court reporters, stenographers and handwriting experts Grail used to buttress the case were costly.
Gregory Harvey, a Philadelphia lawyer who's also part of the case, said he was an unabashed Democrat and was motivated by one thing: "I wanted to prevent Ralph Nader from doing what he did in Florida in 2000." Harvey was so eager to talk about Nader that he called from his vacation in the southern France region of Provence.
Bush beat Democratic nominee Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida, when Nader, the Green Party nominee, received more than 90,000 votes there. "There's no question that Nader cost Gore the election," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
Nader has millions of dollars in stock holdings, but that, he said, isn't the point.
"Yes, I can afford it," he said, "but the necessity of a diversified electoral process can't afford it."
Camejo settled and paid Reed Smith $20,000. Nader owes the remainder of the court's judgment of $81,000, plus interest.
Grail, whom Nader refers to as "unholy Grail," allows that there were some tentative settlement discussions with Nader. Nader said he was willing to consider giving the money to charity if he could pick the charities, a proposal that apparently has gone nowhere.
"We do intend on collecting the judgment that he owes us," Grail said.
Nader, for all his chutzpah, isn't all bluster: "This is so embarrassing to me. Not even GM did this to me."
In the 1960s General Motors hired private investigators to turn up dirt on Nader, even hiring prostitutes, after his landmark book about GM's Corvair, "Unsafe at Any Speed," was published. The effort failed, and GM paid him a $475,000 settlement for its trouble in 1970.