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By Aaron Reiss
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David Cobb is a Nader man, no question. Thirty-seven years old, white, socked and Birkenstocked, gray-bearded, thoughtful lenses riding in Pacifica rims, jeans and a stars-and-stripes rugby shirt, Green Party button pinned over his heart. He's smart as a whip, freak-proud, bug-eyed with intensity and charismatic with mission. On a recent morning, he fills the Empire Cafe with voluminous and increasingly voluble riffs on corporate hegemony and nonviolent revolution and quasi-fascist culture and nonhierarchical decentralization and moral ethical capital and proportional representation and disenfranchised electorates and monopolistic global capitalism and -- for Christ's sake -- paradigms.
You intended to read to him a snatch of prose written by the honorable H.L. Mencken in the early part of the last century on the subject of political reform campaigns -- "they belong to popular sport rather than to the science of government; the impulse behind them is always far more orgiastic than reflective" -- and gauge his response. But all you can do is wish him well -- and why not? What sport is more noble and ennobling than the improvement of the world? Besides, let the slightest expression of debate enter your eyes and your whole afternoon has died on the vine. Reformers are like evangelicals. They'll convert you if they can, or wear you out trying.
Cobb remembers his mother teaching him the importance of sharing, and he idolized Atticus Finch. At the University of Houston, he made law review, then quit law school over tremors of moral uncertainty, was lured back, concentrated on social justice work, moonlighted producing alt-rock concerts. Cobb threw himself into Jesse Jackson's campaign in 1988 and Jerry Brown's in 1992, burned out, and listened to records for a couple of years, wondering how to attack injustice broadly, at its root, instead of one ineffectual piece at a time. He finally came to the conclusion that "the corporation as institution was the hijacker of the body politic," and began "looking for vehicles to fight corporatization."
Listening to KPFT one day, he heard Ralph Nader reluctantly accepting the 1996 Green nomination for the presidency.
Since then, Cobb and his wife, Nathalie Paravicini, have almost double-handedly willed the Green Party of Texas into being. They serve as state party secretary and state coordinator of Nader's presidential campaign, respectively. Both are headquartered in the pleasantly artsy little house in Garden Oaks that Cobb and Paravicini call home.
Cobb and the Greens are excited, of course, because they're bringing Ralph Nader to Houston on Thursday, October 19, to speak at the University of Houston's Cullen Performance Hall. The respected muckraker is trolling for support in a state that's hardly known -- the venerable Texas Observer's four-digit subscription list notwithstanding -- as a hotbed of progressive politics.
Still Cobb thinks Nader's got advantages in Texas that he doesn't have many places. The conventional liberalish wisdom holds that even if one prefers Nader, one should vote for Gore, so as not to waste a vote that could be fighting Bush. But a Texan's vote for Gore, Cobb says -- and University of Houston political scientist/pundit Richard Murray agrees -- is just piss in the wind in the first place, since it's the electoral college votes, not the popular, that count. That, Cobb says, opens up the possibility of a guilt-free Nader vote. Not so Nader will win, which everyone knows he can't, but to build the party (Greens are also running candidates for Texas's Supreme Court, Senate and two spots on the Railroad Commission on the November 7 ballot), get those federal matching funds for next time around, and ensure a place on the ballot in 2004.
Just that last is no small thing. Texas has some of the most odious ballot access requirements of any state, demanding over 37,000 petition signatures from voters who hadregistered, but hadn't voted in the last election, with only 75 days to collect them. Texas Greens collected over 51,000 in that time.
One common Green Party complaint about the mainstream media -- and pretty much all media that's even marginally consumable fits the definition -- is that Nader and the Greens are so rarely covered in terms of the ever-loving issues. This is partly because we media often do bad, lazy work, true, but it also has to do with the fact that Green issues never end. Cobb likes to say that every major progressive victory in these historical United States has been effected by energetic fringe voices, maybe 5 percent of the citizenry, first dismissed as utopian and naive until visionary leaders took up the cause. But emancipation, women's suffrage, the 40-hour work week, all had the advantage of being reasonably contained, easy-to-grasp issues. The Green Party platform is a War and Peace of dissent.
The Houston Chronicle singled out the fact that Nader favors the decriminalization of pot, and surely everyone knows that thorough campaign finance reform is his calling card, but Greens also want more political control locused in "communities," a castrated defense budget, abolishment of nuclear weapons, and a foreign policy aimed at "advancing the cause of peace." They want "fundamental change" in the education system, "fundamental reform" of the health care system, a "radical paradigm shift" in welfare programs toward ending poverty, "system-wide" tax reform, a $10 an hour minimum wage, every imaginable civil right, "broad" reform of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, nondiscrimination toward immigrants, and the formation of a Civilian Conservation Corps to restore wetlands.
Two more sections cover Environmental Sustainability and Economic Sustainability. Read them at www.gp.org, because there's not enough space here. It goes on and on.
David and Nathalie hardly seem to have the space themselves, but somehow it all fits: the computers on the folding table, the stacks of pamphlets, the bags of buttons, the boxes of T-shirts, the stacked mailing lists, the rubber-banded tickets to a $100-a-plate fund-raiser at the Art Car Museum on Thursday, October 19, the photocopied Tom Tomorrow cartoons, the bumper stickers, the flyer that reads, "Bush and Gore Make Me Want to Ralph."
Behind the house are two raised garden beds where once grew vegetables -- organic, natch. Now ungroomed sunflowers tower, the bloom of which happens to be the Green Party logo. They just sprung up unbidden, Cobb says, sometime after he quit his most recent job as an insurance trial lawyer and Nathalie quit hers in industrial publishing, and they dedicated professional lives and adjusted personal budgets to the Green Party, and let their garden go to seed.
Inside is the come and go of volunteers, canvassers, ticket sellers, a Rice student group leader and a Green presidential delegate who looks like a college volleyball player.
Out front is the Greens' coup de gräce: a 1975 AMC Eagle flaunting Green slogans and colors, hitched to a strange little camper trailer of some sort, also freshly greened, and topped by an outsized papier-mäché shark fin. It signifies nothing Nader-related; the trailer once served as an accessory to art carist Tom Kennedy's Shark Car.
Greens report that Nader rallies in Portland, Boston and Seattle have drawn upwards of 10,000 people paying $10 a pop to see their man Ralph. Cobb has high hopes for a good time here; this from a man who describes Seattle's World Trade Organization protests as "with the exception of Burning Man, the best party I've ever seen."
It remains to be seen what Houston can add to those numbers, especially without the Eddie Vedder/Jim Hightower spectrum of star power introducing Nader, as has been the case in other cities. But it's Cobb's job to rally the faithful, and these he has found in the art car "community."
Bill Patridge, a music curator at the Art Car Museum, says that "What the Green Party promotes is directly in line with what you'll see us promoting here. Our little gift shop, all the walls are laden with the written words of various people like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn. So that's right in line with the philosophy of the museum, the whole Green Party's platform. Of course the art car community in general shares Many of them share similar views."
Just how many of them share similar views -- nationwide polls put the candidate at 4 percent -- should become apparent Thursday, when a motorcade of art cars will deliver Ralph Nader to his engagement at UH.
Is there any intentional sense of artistic irony, I ask curator Patridge, in the idea of chauffeuring Ralph Nader, the man who made his fame trashing Chevy Corvairs in the automotive industry exposé Unsafe at Any Speed, in a chugging line of barely street-legal clunkers?
"Unsafe at Any Speed I've heard of it," Patridge says. "I haven't had an opportunity to even peruse it, let alone read it. Oh, that was about the Convair [sic]."
Cobb, plenty familiar with the book, tosses out a laugh unfazed by irony. Why shouldn't a political campaign be fun anyway? It's not like Cobb's going to get offered a job in the Nader administration come November 8. It's not like one of the mainstream parties is going to notice his work and pick up his option. It's just a big orgiastic party until the election is over, when Cobb says he's going to fall asleep for two weeks, wake up and figure out what to do next.