The old brick building in Northeast Baltimore was once a branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and as you approach it on a recent fall morning, it so looks the part that you half expect it to be enveloped in silence. But the buzzing whine of a power saw fills your ears. A tall, bearded young man, stooping over a pile of wooden slats, sends geysers of sawdust into the air. As he spots you, he stops a moment.
"That's right," says Mike McGuire with a laugh, "I'm also a carpenter. You have to do a little bit of everything around here."
The words might well be the motto of the Green Party, the grass-roots political organization touting consumer activist Ralph Nader as its presidential candidate. McGuire, 27, heads the Baltimore-area chapter, and like the dozens of volunteers he works with daily, he isn't afraid of a little hard work, or of working on behalf of a candidate he knows will not win.
With the election just a few days off, there are calls to make, hands to shake, e-mails to send, postcards to stamp. The wooden stakes he's now fashioning will hold up Nader lawn signs, which will be on display by the end of the day.
It's all part of a movement Nader supporters, many of them as concerned with making a statement as winning the White House, believe is developing with impressive force.
"Ralph's been out there, a tribune for the people, for 35 years," says Laird Hastay, a Portland, Ore., activist in town to help stump for the Nader ticket. "He's been gaining supporters all that time. Now that he's running, they're looking up, seeing each other and saying, `Hey, there are a lot of us. We could make something good happen here.' "
McGuire, who has been a political activist in Baltimore for 10 years, says he has never seen an organization grow so fast. "We have Baltimore activists coming out of the woodwork," he says. For now, McGuire leaves off the sawing and heads inside. Three men sit around a table in a tiled room, as silent as if this still were a sanctuary for reading. They slide postcards into fliers, fold the fliers in half, pile the packets, repeating the robotic sequence again and again.
Volunteers will leave the packets on front porches in the Waverly area tomorrow. "Not too much time left," says Hastay. "We've got to get the word out."
Conventional wisdom - at least among Democrats - is that Nader's candidacy isn't really a candidacy in its own right. In a presidential race he can't possibly win, they say, Nader will only siphon votes from Vice President Al Gore, guaranteeing a victory by Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Nothing triggers more passion among these Greens.
"You hear the mainstream press referring to Ralph as a `spoiler,' " says Jason Morgan, another Oregon-based Green. "That word has a negative connotation right from the beginning. And it doesn't define what Ralph is trying to do."
Hastay has some clear views on what that is. And that's to upset the current campaigning climate, which, he says, is rigged. "It's corporate money that selects these candidates, and it's corporate money that elects them."
Not surprisingly, he decries the exclusion of Nader from the three nationally televised debates; Nader, he believes, just might have won the presidency had he gotten his message out that way.
A plank in the Green platform supports public financing of presidential campaigns, which, they say, would free elections from the hands of the rich and privileged and "democratize" the electoral process.
To Chuck D'Adamo, an activist who has been on Baltimore's progressive political scene since the mid-1970s, the Republican and Democratic candidates may differ on trivial points, but they are fundamentally the same. And their corporate ties, he says, narrow their range of interests.
Indeed, D'Adamo, 51, sees Tuesday's election as a small part of a much bigger picture.
"If Ralph gets 5 percent of the vote," he says, "he qualifies [for millions] in federal funding in 2004." Then, given a stronger financial base, he would have the clout to introduce more, and more widely important, issues into the public conversation. "For us, this election isn't so much about whether Gore or Bush will win," he says. "It's about widening the public discourse, now and further down the road."
For his part, McGuire chooses a colorful metaphor. "Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore," says the soft-spoken activist, "are like a two-headed beast. Maybe one head is blond and the other is brunet, and maybe their faces look different, but they're the same animal."
The issue, then, isn't so much that Nader will drain support from Gore, he says, but that it's no different from draining support from Bush.
`Doing something big'