Gary Sellers, 71; Onetime Ally of Ralph Nader

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007

Gary Sellers, 71, the first lawyer hired by Ralph Nader's organization in the 1960s who went on to form a group opposing Nader's run for the presidency in 2000, died March 13 in a single-car accident on Route 211 in Rappahannock County, near the Fauquier County line.

Mr. Sellers was returning to his home in Lake Barcroft from a cherry orchard he owned near Flint Hill, Va., when his sport-utility vehicle flipped over a guardrail and crashed down an embankment.

In 1968, he joined Nader's nascent movement, becoming one of the first of Nader's Raiders, an influential group of young idealists who sought governmental reform in consumer protection, labor laws and social justice. The two grew close in the five years they worked together, and Nader was Mr. Sellers's best man at his first wedding.

Mr. Sellers later spent 15 years on Capitol Hill as a congressional aide and played a major role in drafting the landmark Occupational Safety and Health Act and laws protecting coal miners. After retiring in the late 1980s, he volunteered with the American Civil Liberties Union on legislative issues.

In recent years, he was content to tend his cherry orchards, first in West Virginia and later in Rappahannock, until he was spurred back into political action by Nader's candidacy as the Green Party nominee in 2000.

Mr. Sellers saw that Nader could take enough votes from Democratic candidate Al Gore to tip the election in favor of George W. Bush. With several other former Nader proteges, Mr. Sellers organized Nader's Raiders for Gore and accused his former mentor of breaking a promise not to campaign in battleground states where he could affect the outcome of the national election.

"I love the man," Mr. Sellers said in October 2000. "He's a marvelous person. He was the best man at my wedding. But he is not keeping his pledges. . . . And we want him to drop out in those states where he'd make a difference."

In an open letter to Nader, Mr. Sellers and other members of his group wrote: "It is now clear that you might well give the White House to Bush. As a result, you would set back significantly the social progress to which you have devoted your entire, astonishing career. . . . It would be a cruel irony indeed if your major legacy were to erase the victory from the candidate who most embodies your philosophy, Al Gore."

Nader responded by saying: "All these good people who have succumbed to the lesser-of-two-evils syndrome are setting themselves up for another cycle of political betrayal."

Mr. Sellers made his case on network news programs and debated one of Nader's most vocal supporters, talk-show host Phil Donahue, on NBC's "Today" show.

"The consequences are really profound," Mr. Sellers said on "Today." "It will take 30 years to undo the harm that Ralph is going to do in the next 12 days."

Nader garnered about 3 percent of the national vote, including more than 97,000 votes in Florida. Bush won the disputed election when recounts determined that he carried Florida by 537 votes. Nader's presence on the ballot also appeared to secure narrow Bush victories in New Hampshire and Oregon.

After the election, Mr. Sellers said of Nader: "He has alienated his closest friends. And he's done it with a clear understanding of the consequences." He and Nader never spoke again.

Mr. Sellers was born in Detroit and graduated from the University of Michigan and its law school. He came to Washington in 1965 to work in the Office of Management and Budget in the Johnson White House.

He joined Nader as his first general counsel in 1968, working with him for five years, when Nader's influence as a public watchdog was at its height. Mr. Sellers later worked for three Democratic U.S. representatives from the same California family -- Phillip Burton; his widow, Sala Burton; and his brother, John Lowell Burton -- and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Inspired by boyhood memories of his grandparents' farm in Michigan, Mr. Sellers operated an orchard for several years in West Virginia before opening the Cherries on Top orchard near Flint Hill in the early 1990s. It became a popular mountaintop destination where people were invited to pick their own fruit.

Mr. Sellers was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington and had a second home in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

His marriage to Dorothy Sellers ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 18 years, Sara-Ann "Sally" Determan of Lake Barcroft; two stepsons, Dann Determan of Falls Church and David Determan of Spotsylvania County; a brother; and four grandchildren.

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