Independent vice-presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez sits attentively in the front row of UC Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium, waiting for an introduction to 400 political science students who overwhelmingly support U.S. Senator Barack Obama. His pinstriped suit is in subtle conflict with his hair, which hangs loosely over his ears from a middle part. A hardback copy of Tom Sandqvist's Dada East, a historical account of the avant-garde art movement, is tucked under his arm.
Gonzalez walks slowly to the podium where, in his trademark soft-spoken style, he spends the better part of 40 minutes relentlessly bashing the voting record of the students' favored presidential candidate.
"Do you know that in 2005 the Energy Policy Act, which had enormous giveaways to oil companies, tax breaks, subsidies, etc., was on the table, and Senator Hillary Clinton voted against it, Senator John Kerry voted against it, Senator John McCain voted against it?" Gonzalez says.
He pauses for a beat. "Barack Obama voted for it."
He goes on to question Obama's conservative senatorial votes on war appropriations, the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, a Mining Act amendment, and the approval of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. At one point he cites a quote from a political blog: "Senator Barack Obama speaks like Martin Luther King Jr., but votes like George W. Bush."
Gonzalez really seems to get the students' attention when he contrasts Obama's antiwar rhetoric with his voting for billions in Republican-proposed military appropriations. Obama's voting record, he says, has resonated favorably with defense industry executives. Since February, they have contributed twice as much money to Obama's campaign as they have to the pro-war McCain's, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"If you think the Democratic candidates are against the war, you're not listening to them," Gonzalez tells the audience. "Obama saying he wants to leave 150,000 private soldiers in Iraq is not leaving Iraq. Leaving 60,000 troops in the region to carry out targeted strikes against al-Qaeda is not leaving Iraq."
After Gonzalez finishes speaking, a student yells out from the back of the auditorium that the political left cannibalizing itself is unproductive: "Why are you attacking Obama so much? Aren't the Republicans the problem?" The questions get sustained applause.
"I don't want Senator John McCain to be the president of the United States, but you know what? I don't want Senator Clinton or Senator Obama to be president either," Gonzalez says. "I would say to you that George Bush's policies, which we all abhor, could only occur with the votes of Democrats. I feel very strongly there should be an accounting."
Gonzalez was once the most promising Green politician in the country. The disciplined campaigner and popular city supervisor was elected president of the Board of Supervisors in 2002. In 2003, he nearly won the mayoral race against Gavin Newsom, the much-better-funded darling of the national Democratic Party. Gonzalez then stunned his supporters in 2004 when he decided not to seek a second term as supervisor, opting instead to start a private law practice specializing in civil-rights issues.
Last year, Gonzalez' supporters were hopeful he would run for mayor again, but he decided to sit it out after early polls showed that Newsom's sky-high approval ratings made him impossible to beat. But Gonzalez still seemed to have a promising political future if he wanted one. Many believed that, with his sharp mind and appeal to younger voters, Gonzalez had the potential to be the second Green elected to a state legislature and possibly Congress.
Gonzalez threw a curveball in February when he announced he would be leaving the Green Party to serve as independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader's running mate. San Francisco is one of the most liberal strongholds in the country; some progressives, many of whom believe Nader tipped the 2000 election to George W. Bush, thought Gonzalez might not only ruin his political future, he also might contribute to another Democratic presidential loss. Even his old allies on San Francisco's left criticized him for taking part in yet another Nader presidential campaign.
Gonzalez says he wasn't considering his political future or that of the Democratic Party when he decided to run on the Independent ticket. Rather, he was thinking of the public good. The Republicans are unacceptable, he says, but the Democrats are simply not a good enough alternative — and if they lose in November, it will be their own fault, not Nader's.
Nader and Gonzalez say they plan an aggressive campaign to create public debate about issues on their agenda, which include single-payer healthcare, a crackdown on corporate crime, election reform, cutting the military budget, and ending the war in Iraq. But according to strong showings in recent polls, the Nader/Gonzalez ticket could have a greater impact on the presidential race than providing discussion topics.
The day after Ralph Nader named Matt Gonzalez his running mate, the two appeared on the KQED radio show Forum. In a nearly hour-long interview with Rachel Myrow, they put forward their agenda and discussed the failings of the Democrats on the war, trade, environment, and workers' rights.
One caller hit a raw nerve by accusing Nader of being responsible for the Iraq War because his 2000 candidacy helped elect George W. Bush. "This is bigotry, and I won't listen to it anymore," Nader erupted. "Stop! This is political bigotry, period ... "
Gonzalez stepped in and spoke directly to the caller with the calm and reasoned tones that helped bring him success as a trial attorney. "We don't know what would have happened if Al Gore was elected," he said. "We don't know that 9/11 would have happened. There's a problem when somehow every problem that exists in the country is laid at the feet of someone who ran for office in a democracy."
Nader, who had calmed down, added that the Democrats in Congress ceded their authority to declare war to President Bush, and have sustained the war by voting for every military appropriations bill the Republicans put before them.