Throwback Thursday: Ed Fallon reflects on endorsing Ralph Nader for president

Before #BernieOrBust or any other hashtag existed to convey some activists’ feelings about the Democratic Party’s establishment candidate, there was Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign.

Iowa’s best-known politician to endorse Nader rather than Al Gore was State Representative Ed Fallon. The Des Moines Democrat had found himself at odds with the rest of his Iowa House colleagues before. Some of his politically inexpedient decisions have aged well, most famously his heartfelt speech before voting against our state’s Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

Supporting Nader caused more intense fallout.

Though Fallon no longer considers himself a Democrat and has devoted most of his energy lately to environmental activism, he still endorses some Democratic candidates, including Bernie Sanders before this year’s Iowa caucuses.

Fallon spoke with Bleeding Heartland recently about his decision to back Nader, how that choice affected his subsequent bids for public office, and his advice for activists drawn to Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein instead of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota persuaded Fallon to endorse former Senator Bill Bradley before the 2000 Iowa caucuses. However, Fallon wasn’t “very active” in Bradley’s campaign and was inclined to support Gore once the front-runner wrapped up the nomination. He recalled meeting the vice president along with a large group of Iowa Democratic lawmakers for a photo-op.

What turned him against Gore later?

Well, you know, Gore is clearly a leader in climate change, something I care deeply about. But you wouldn’t have known that back in 1999/2000. He never talked about it. I was working hard with 1000 Friends of Iowa to try to advance legislation controlling urban sprawl, and Gore had just authored a piece in the Kansas City Star calling for smart growth. I was very excited about that, so I reached out to him, to his campaign, and I can’t tell you how many times I tried to get a response. And it was like, it was like they were trying to run away from it.

Disclosure: I became acquainted with Fallon through my support for 1000 Friends of Iowa. He co-founded the non-profit organization and was its executive director when I joined the board.

Gore probably said what he really felt about the issue [smart growth] and then proceeded to not just ignore but kind of distance himself from anybody who was working on the issue. I was really offended that he would advance a really solid opinion and then back off it completely. […]

It just really put me off that he would totally backtrack from an issue that made a lot of sense, and didn’t even seem to me all that controversial. And it was really important to me in terms of what I was working on [for 1000 Friends]. […]

But what really offended me was when he chose [Senator Joe] Lieberman as his running mate. I could not believe–I felt, OK, he’s running as a conservative, he’s running as a Clinton New Democrat, at least he’ll try to balance the ticket with somebody that we progressives could feel better about. And then he chooses the worst possible running mate, who actually has gone on to be a Republican vice presidential candidate [sic], you know, I mean–Lieberman’s colors are pretty clear, and it just was shocking to me and others that the Gore would do that.

Fallon was “fed up and frustrated” when Nader called him “shortly before the election” to ask for his support. He stood with Nader at a press conference in Des Moines, then traveled to Iowa City to appear at a joint press conference there. (Johnson County is by common consent the most liberal area in Iowa and had been the strongest county for Bradley in the 2000 caucuses.)

It was kind of a knee jerk, frustrated with Gore reaction. And in retrospect it wasn’t the best decision politically. It was more of a–well, if I’m going to get stiffed by our Democratic nominee, I’ll align myself with someone else. I never thought it would be quite that–I mean, I still have people who are mad at me about it sixteen years later, which is incredible.

Looking back, Fallon sees Nader as “brilliant” and “passionate” but lacking “a good sense of what it takes to win a political campaign.” Although he might have been a great president, he didn’t have the “whole different skill set” needed to be elected. Fallon doesn’t believe Gore ran a great campaign either.

Gore was alienating a lot of Democrats. I mean, if Gore had run like the progressive he is, I think he would have nailed it. I don’t know why Democrats for years–and maybe this is starting to change–have felt that they have to try to be Republican-lite. It does not not work very well normally.

Later in our conversation, Fallon said of his choice,

Again, it wasn’t the best call. It was done hastily and out of anger at the way Gore was refusing to respond on a key issue that I thought we agreed on. And more importantly, his choice of Lieberman. That put me over the top. I probably wouldn’t have done anything if Nader hadn’t–I wasn’t actively […] going out, looking to support Nader. He called me and asked, and I said sure, whatever.

Fallout was “swift,” Fallon remembered. The Polk County Democrats kicked him off the central committee, and then House Minority Leader Dick Myers demoted him as ranking member of the House Local Government Committee.

[The Des Moines-based weekly] Cityview anointed me as “the politician you’d most like to publicly flog.” So I thought I’d go along with that. So [in the summer of 2001] I held a fundraiser with me being publicly flogged in Nollen Plaza [in downtown Des Moines] and gave half the money raised to my own campaign and half the money to the Polk County Democratic Party.

Fallon raised about $500 from roughly 100 people who showed up for a “really fun event.” Someone dressed as a troll pretended to whip him as he was restrained in stocks. Ahead of time, Fallon had slashed his shirt and put red paint on his back, so when he turned around after the flogging, he appeared to have open wounds. Crowd members were also able to throw tomatoes at him.

Didn’t do anything to mend fences with the Democrats. The Polk County Democrats refused to promote it, refused to come. They did take the check, though. (laughs)

Democratic leaders including several sitting state lawmakers supported a challenger to Fallon during the next election cycle. Michael Terry was “well-funded,” in part by local developers who didn’t appreciate Fallon’s efforts to reduce urban sprawl. Terry started knocking on doors in June 2001, a year before the primary. Fallon was no longer representing about 70 percent of his former constituents because of redistricting after the 2000 census, so he had to work hard in a “totally different district.” At the doors, voters rarely brought up his past support for Nader; the issue was “something that the insiders in the party cared about.” Fallon won that 2002 primary by a two to one margin, despite being outspent, and didn’t face a Democratic opponent in 2004.

Fallon ran for governor in 2006 rather than for an eighth term in the Iowa House. As a volunteer encouraging others to support him in that primary against Chet Culver and Mike Blouin, I remember some people griping that Fallon had backed Nader for president, but Fallon says he didn’t hear much about it on the campaign trail. “It didn’t really come up a lot until I ran for Congress” against Representative Leonard Boswell in 2008. During that campaign, Nader “was Boswell’s main theme against me, basically crediting me with not just electing George Bush but causing the Iraq war, which is incredible.”

Having closely followed that third Congressional district primary, I can confirm Fallon is not exaggerating. The Nader endorsement was the Boswell campaign’s main argument. The incumbent mentioned it on television, in e-mail blasts to Democratic voters, a radio ad, and at least three direct mail pieces. Some text from the first: “Fallon helped elect George Bush by endorsing and actively campaigning for Ralph Nader. […] With nearly 4,000 of our soldiers killed in Iraq, rampant corruption throughout our government, health care costs out of control and an economy in shambles, Ed Fallon’s support for Ralph Nader is unforgivable.” It took some chutzpah for Boswell, who voted for authorizing the use of force in Iraq, to blame Fallon for thousands of American soldiers’ deaths. A second direct mail piece pressed the same case:

When Ralph Nader said there was no difference between Al Gore and George Bush, Ed Fallon believed him. In 2000, Fallon endorsed and actively campaigned for Ralph Nader, helping elect George Bush.
Unfortunately we found out how wrong Nader and Fallon were.

-A trillion dollar war

-A collapsing economy

-A disappearing middle class

-Huge tax cuts for the wealthy

For those who are wondering, Boswell did vote against the first Bush tax cut package in March 2001. He later voted for some bills extending most of those tax cuts.

The Boswell campaign’s last direct mail piece before the primary included a quote from Fallon, published in the New York Times on October 29, 2000: “If I had three hands maybe I could hold my nose, my gut and my mouth and vote for Al Gore. But in good conscience, I can’t, I won’t, and you shouldn’t either.”

Boswell’s message glossed over the fact that in spite of one state lawmaker’s actions, Iowa’s seven electoral votes went to Gore. “People seem to forget that Gore actually won Iowa,” Fallon told me. True, though not by much: the Democrat received 638,517 votes to 634,373 for Bush. Nader won 29,374 votes, about 2.2 percent of Iowa ballots cast.

Since 2008, Fallon has mostly left electoral politics behind to focus on activism, especially the battle against climate change. I asked what he would say to the small percentage of Bernie Sanders supporters now leaning toward Jill Stein for president. How might endorsing Stein affect their future participation in Iowa Democratic politics or the progressive movement?

Well, let’s make it clear that the Democratic Party is not a progressive party. Progressives in the Democratic Party aren’t welcome. Let me let me just add a couple things there. When I voted for Nader, I was thrown off the Polk County central committee […] demoted from the ranking member position on the local government committee, and flogged. (laughs)

But when [major Democratic donor] Jerry Crawford supports Republican Bill Northey over the Democratic nominee for Secretary of Ag, nothing happens at all. There’s no pushback, not even any negative comments about him. When [major Democratic donor] Bill Knapp supports Terry Branstad, no problem at all. […]

The Democratic Party is not a progressive party. Let’s just be really clear about that. It’s not a progressive party. […] Progressives who want to work within the Democratic Party, good luck. Best of luck to you. I’m glad somebody is willing to have that fight. I’m not. I’m content to work outside of it. But that doesn’t mean I won’t support [some] Democrats.

As for activists on the left who are withholding their support from the Democratic nominee, Fallon commented,

I’m certainly voting for Hillary Clinton, and not because she is a progressive, despite what she said here in Iowa during the caucus. I’m voting for her because the choice is now between the status quo and fascism, and that’s a no brainer.

And what Bernie Sanders did is incredible and sustainable. He’s laid the foundation for some true reforms in our political system, and I’m glad that he’s sticking with the fight. I’m glad he’s doing it the way he’s doing it. I mean, I think it would have been a mistake for him to run as an independent. I think that might have been–you know, that could have very easily assured us of a Donald Trump presidency. And I still think right now, I think this whole election is so volatile and so many people dislike Clinton that it could go that way. I mean, Trump could win. I’m operating on the premise that he could and that we have to do everything to stop him.

So yeah, let’s between now and Election Day, let’s make sure we can stop Donald Trump–I mean, even if you have to just say OK, I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton, I’m voting against Donald Trump. That’s fine, just do that. (laughs)

Some of the most vocal Sanders supporters in Iowa, including a few of his delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, have said they are leaving the party. Fallon commented,

I don’t fault anybody for leaving the party. I mean, I don’t consider myself a Democrat anymore either. […] They don’t represent my values, and I don’t think they represent the people very well. But that doesn’t mean I can’t vote for Democrats when it makes sense to do so.

Voting for Jill Stein makes no sense. I mean, if the Green Party is serious about becoming a viable political force in this country, they need to do the hard core, door-to-door grassroots organizing needed to build the party from the ground up. So do the Libertarians. They’re not going to challenge the Democratic or Republican monopoly–I call it the Democratic slash Republican monopoly–unless they build from the ground up. And neither of those two parties have done that.

As for those who openly back Stein for president,

If they are serious about being involved in the Democratic Party, that’s a bad call. Unless they have a lot of money, because again, Bill Knapp, Jerry Crawford, no problem stepping off the reservation for them, because they’re part of the money train that keeps the Democratic Party in Iowa going. […] If they’re Democratic, young, rich, and want to vote for Jill Stein, they should be ok.

What about the Sanders activists who have committed to taking over the party machinery by seeking spots on the State Central Committee or other Democratic bodies?

I admire that. […] I commend them for that effort. I have my reservations about whether it’s going to succeed. I think the establishment is too tightly in control of the party apparatus to allow that [progressive] element to gain too much control. If it does [work], great. Maybe I’ll rethink my alignment.

Fallon stated before this June’s primary that he would not support Patty Judge or Jim Mowrer for the U.S. Senate and third Congressional district races. (He had endorsed Rob Hogg for Senate and Desmund Adams in IA-03.) Does he stand by that pledge now that Judge and Mowrer are the nominees? “I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet, and I know that whoever I vote for is not going to win,” Fallon responded, but “I can’t in good conscience vote for two people who are just corporate shills.”

Last question: knowing what he knows now, if he could go back in time and field that phone call from Nader, would he attend the press conference?

I probably wouldn’t. But I sure had a fun time talking with him on the way to Iowa City. He’s a great guy, and I felt like I was traveling with a living piece of history.

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  • Progressive?

    Fallon’s definition of progressive doesn’t include private sector workers so I’m wondering what “progressive” means. Shut down big pork? Where those people going to work? No pipeline? Where are these people going to work? There’s terrible poverty in this state so…climate change?
    Green jobs? Years away. Where are people going to work IF these green jobs ever come.

    Maybe advocating for climate change pays better than advocating for workers and poor people.

    I’ll stand with who ever stands with workers. That would mean I’m not a Democrat or a progressive.
    I’m good.

    • I don't think advocating against climate change

      pays well. Ed Fallon had a perfect voting record on labor issues in the Iowa legislature, by the way. Not aware of him voting against bills that would have been good for poor people either.

      I don’t see where you get that Fallon doesn’t see private sector workers as progressives. He sees the Democratic party as unwelcoming to progressives.