Ralph Nader Gets Back to His Roots. Consumer advocate turns to cultivating civic involvement in his Connecticut hometown. PUBLIC CRUSADER
NATHRA NADER believed in democracy with an immigrant's passion. His forum was his bakery-restaurant, across from the mills in Winsted, Conn. ``The Highland Arms was no place to eat in peace,'' one resident has said. ``Mr. Nader would always try to heat everybody up about wrongs and injustices.''
When AT&T announced that small-businessmen in the state would have to pay rent for their pay phones, Nathra, outraged, protested all the way to the company's board, and won.
``I didn't flee the Ottoman Turks to live in a second-rate democracy,'' he would tell his son, Ralph.
For more than 25 years, Ralph Nader has been in Washington, challenging the mighty and urging Americans to higher levels of civic involvement. Now he's coming home, to this town of 11,000 in the foothills of western Connecticut, with hopes of making it a model of the kind of democracy he espouses.
Nader has hired a lawyer to help citizens challenge developers and other special-interest groups at Town Hall. He wants to promote self-government tools such as taxpayer initiatives. He's especially interested in teen-agers. ``I would like to make this a hotbed of teen-age civic involvement,'' he says.
``I think its great,'' says Pat Riley, a local resident, gathering her mail at the post office. ``The town needs to be told what's wrong with it by people other than the people running it.''
After what seemed a long hiatus, Nader is in the news again. He was key to a drive to roll back car insurance rates in California. More recently, he led the fight against the proposed congressional pay raise.
Nader's Washington cohorts weren't all thrilled about the pay raise fight. They now have to deal with lawmakers their boss has made tangibly less wealthy. But Nader has always considered himself a full-time citizen, rather than a Washington insider.
In the 1960s, Nader was the young lawyer who took on General Motors and the entire American auto industry with his book ``Unsafe at Any Speed.'' Nader became a national hero, living proof that an individual still could fight the system.
``There were a few years there we could get through almost any bill we wanted to,'' Nader recalls. Auto safety legislation, toughened meat inspection laws, and a host of other new enactments were the result.
But then business groups mobilized. In a bruising battle, they defeated Nader's pet proposal, a Consumer Protection Agency. He realized that what critics called his ``Lone Ranger'' style wasn't enough. There wouldn't be democracy in Washington unless it was flourishing back home.
Nader turned over his Public Citizen organization to a long-time associate and devoted himself to building new channels for public involvement. To critics, Nader's name was a synonym for big government. But Nader regarded regulation as a necessary evil, a counterweight to corporate power, not something good in itself.
So he began looking for ways for consumers to provide this counterweight on their own. An example is Buyers Up, a home-heating fuel-buyers club that enables homeowners to bargain for low bulk rates.
``Certain decisions will always be made in Washington,'' Nader says. ``But how they are decided will be determined less by people in Washington than by what people do back home.''
Associates are not surprised that this path led back to Winsted. ``I've heard about Winsted ever since I've known Ralph Nader,'' says Tom Wathan, who is helping launch the project. ``I expected to find the cradle of democracy.''
Actually, Winsted is a cradle of Yankee enterprise. Gail Borden condensed his first milk here. Waring first made blenders. According to one local historian, the birthplace of Ralph Nader is also the birthplace of the American shareholder corporation, the excesses of which Nader has spent much of his life trying to tame.
It was a happy, small-town setting. The Naders, Lebanese immigrants, lived on a shaded street just above Main Street. The library and elementary school are down the block. On Main Street is the courthouse where Nader listened to lawyers argue, and the Town Hall where his father spoke up at town meetings.
Ralph worked behind the counter at his father's restaurant. ``The whistle would blow, and the workers would come pouring out of the mills,'' Nader recalls. ``That's where I got my education.''
There are hints of Nader's later concerns. When he was little, for example, he liked to ride his bike around Highland Lake. ``The worst part was the cars on the turns,'' Nader recalls. ``You didn't want to meet those too frequently.''
In 1955, a flood wiped out one side of Main Street. Rather than rebuild, the town just widened the road. Now it is an incongruous ocean of concrete abutting the shops.
Although the mills are closed, Winsted still has a blue-collar feel. There are candlepin lanes on Main Street and dark, tawdry bars. Incomes here on average are among the lowest in the state.
But a real estate boom is creeping up Route 8 from Waterbury, Conn. Condos have become a raging political issue. ``I was astonished how many doors I knocked on [where] I didn't know people,'' says James O'Meara, Winsted's mayor, speaking of his most recent campaign.
The rapid change has many residents worried. A few years ago, voters blocked a foam plant that Mayor O'Meara, a development-minded businessman, was pushing. Then came a bitter, year-long attempt to save the old elementary school that the town has since replaced. Residents are resisting new taxes to pay for roads and the like.
Developers are chagrined. ``We need a new type of person'' in town, a real estate executive said to a companion at the local YMCA recently. Corporate executives would be ideal, he said. They stay only a few years, so their main civic concern is a ``return on an investment'' in their house.
That's not the Nader idea of civics. ``What we need,'' says Claire Nader, Ralph's sister, who led the fight to preserve the old school, ``is a community that would make it antisocial to make a fortune at the expense of the community.''
While Ralph was off in Washington, it was Shafeek, his older brother, who applied this outlook back home. Shaf, as he was known, is revered in Winsted for pushing through the Northern Connecticut Community College at a time when many residents were worried about hippies. Shaf's more recent projects included an ``incubator'' for small business, a farmers market, and a radio station.
``The perpetual gardener,'' O'Meara calls him. ``Always cultivating the scene.''
``If you said `no' once it wasn't enough,'' adds Robert J. McCarthy, former editor of the Evening Citizen (now Register-Citizen). ``You had to say it four or five times. The whole family was like that. They don't roll over easy. They don't hold any fears.''
Hank Ryan, a family friend, recalls that Shaf once challenged Ralph to name one thing of importance that didn't come out of a small community. ``Ralph gave up,'' Ryan recalls.
``[Shaf] was always testing you,'' Ryan says. ``He did that with Ralph. By the time Shaf got done with him, Washington didn't have a chance.''
Shaf died in 1986. Ralph's Winsted project is part of an effort to carry on his work.
His enthusiasm was whetted by the battle over the old school. (Some even see the project as his revenge.) There were bitter accusations on both sides.
But the Naders and their opponents do agree on one thing. People aren't involved the way they used to be. ``There is practically a town meeting every week,'' school committee member Tom Botticelli says with exasperation. ``Nobody ever comes.''
Ralph thinks that can change. The biggest step, he says, is a full-time staff. Then people won't get burned out trying to fight city hall in their spare time.
Nader's face is craggy now, and visitors comment on his bemused, gentle manner. But the veteran warrior is still an eager one - unable to shrug off injustice, still capable of scathing invective, as when he accused Congress of ``galloping greed'' on the pay raise.
Taking a visitor through town, Nader shows the reflective side not always evident in his public crusades. He worries that parents aren't spending enough time with their kids, and that radio, with rock music up and down the dial, has drifted ``out of the linguisitic frame.''
He talks about Costa Rica, where children accompany their parents to the polls to vote in non-binding referendums. And about a movement in Scandinavia called ``The Future in Our Hands,'' in which people are trying to cut their consumption and waste.
Nader even admires Winsted's 19th-century entrepreneurs. Mr. Gilbert, who owned the Gilbert Clock Company, bestowed the Gilbert High School that Nader attended. The Beardsley Library, where he spent many hours as a child, was another bequest.
``It's amazing, the lack of philanthropic awareness among the rich in this country [today],'' Nader says. ``The conservatives have a point'' regarding voluntary well-doing. ``But they never follow up on it.''
Such people are always saying problems should be handled locally. ``Then they let the power brokers in the local areas do it or dominate it or thwart it,'' he says.
Unlike Shaf, Ralph is not well known in Winsted. He walks down Main Street virtually unnoticed. ``I don't know if anyone says `hi','' Mr. McCarthy says.
But as a symbol, Nader arouses strong feelings here, as in the rest of the country. Some people think he should get lost. Others feel, as Helga Wooden, who runs a bed-and-breakfast on Main Street, puts it, that Nader is ``doing the Lord's work.''
His first step in Winsted was a truly Naderesque undertaking, an eight-page citizen survey. The response was impressive. Wathan delivered some 4,000 questionnaires, and got back more than 750. ``It kinda tells you something,'' says McCarthy. ``It wasn't a five-minute deal.''
People unloaded on everything from town roads (``They're shot to hell'') to condominiums (``They should be burned'') to how to get more people to attend town meetings (``Maybe give a door prize'').
Why don't Winsted residents speak up more often? ``It will fall on deaf ears, so why bother,'' one respondent said.
Local politicians are not too enthusiastic about a Nader project in their midst. But they aren't about to become his foil, either. O'Meara, a shrewd and articulate man who owns a construction-supply business, says he hopes the questionnaire becomes a ``focus for the community.''
``He loves a good fight,'' says Bill Buxson, of the Register-Citizen, suggesting that interesting times may lie ahead.
Nader will soon release a report on his survey. Meanwhile, he can take comfort from one response. Asked if she would volunteer for town commissions or boards, this individual wrote, ``It's about time I got involved, especially after answering this questionnaire.''