At a hastily arranged convention in an Irving, Tex., hotel, Ralph Nader yesterday accepted the Reform Party's nomination for president, and the ballot lines in seven states, including Florida and Michigan, that come with it.
The event is something of a formality. Nader was nominated by national chairman Shawn O'Hara in a telephone conference call in May and is only being reaffirmed to satisfy a Florida election law that requires nominees to be selected in person.
"This is just to prevent any more court litigation with our brothers and sisters in the Democratic Party," O'Hara said, alluding to legal squabbles in several states where Democrats fear Nader will siphon votes from their nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.).
To many longtime Nader backers, the alliance with a party that has struggled since the withdrawal from public life of its founder, Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, is an unlikely, and some say unfortunate, marriage of convenience.
In its heyday, the Reform Party had ballot lines in every state except New York, according to O'Hara. But while Perot won more than 8 million votes as its nominee in 1996, membership is now about 1 million, he said.
The party nearly dissolved after splitting into two factions during the 2000 campaign and nominating separate candidates: conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan and physicist John Hagelin.
A court recently ordered the party to repay the Federal Election Commission $333,558 owed from the 2000 election. According to an Aug. 11 report filed with the FEC by its then-Treasurer William Chapman Sr. -- who asked the regulators to terminate the party's national status -- the Reform Party had $18.18 in its coffers.
"It shows how desperate Nader is, to have to join up with these people. He basically has nothing in common with them, aside from an anti-corporate leaning and a desire to rehabilitate his image," said Cal Jilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas who has written extensively on third parties. "And when a party nominates Buchanan one election and Nader the next, it shows there's no there there."
Nader spokesman Kevin B. Zeese sees it differently. "It's actually surprising how much Ralph and the Reform Party agree on," he said, citing electoral reform, ending corporate welfare, and opposition to the Iraq war as examples.
Zeese acknowledges disagreements on some topics, such as immigration and health care. "But remember, they're endorsing us." he said. "We're not endorsing them."
Throughout the 2004 campaign, Nader -- who ran on the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000 but was denied that party's endorsement this year -- has drawn criticism for seeking or accepting help from those of all political stripes.
Republicans, who think Nader's presence in the race helps President Bush, have gathered signatures for his petitions to get on the ballot in states such as Michigan, where officials refused to recognize his Reform Party endorsement. Nader is suing to reverse that decision.
He won the backing of the Independent Party of Delaware. He is said to be wooing the Natural Law Party in California, where he previously sought the nomination of Peace and Freedom Party, which instead chose activist Leonard Peltier, who is serving a life sentence for murder. In West Virginia, Nader's overtures were turned down by the progressive Mountain Party.
But in the Reform Party and its leader, Nader found a willing partner.
O'Hara, who recently moved the party's headquarters to his hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., said in an interview that he courted Nader to top the ticket.
A wealthy perennial candidate, O'Hara has run unsuccessfully for various offices as a Democrat, Republican, Reform Party member and Independent. He once ran for governor against his father. During a 2002 campaign, O'Hara argued for the dissolution of the FBI, the CIA and the U.S. Department of Education to the Hattiesburg American newspaper. He also assisted with the legal defense of Sam Bowers, a former Ku Klux Klan leader convicted in 1998 of ordering the murder a civil rights worker in the 1960s.
In an interview in which he stressed that he was speaking for himself and not his party, O'Hara, who is running for Congress this year, said he favors a constitutional amendment banning abortion, and that "anyone who violates it should get the death penalty."
"The party is basically now a vehicle for people on the fringe like O'Hara, and I guess, Nader, to pursue their personal ambitions," said L. Sandy Maisel, a professor at Maine's Colby College who studies third parties.
Zeese decline to comment on O'Hara, except to say: "Look at [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Terry McAuliffe and his corporate ties. I am sure he has more skeletons."
O'Hara said the party will focus on Florida, which has a Sept. 1 deadline for filing papers on Nader's behalf, and where Nader received more than 97,000 votes in the 2000 race. The Ballot Project Inc., a group of attorneys working to keep Nader off the ballot in numerous states, is considering asking the FEC to rule that the Reform Party is no longer a national party and should not be able to place Nader on the Nov. 2 ballot.
But according to O'Hara, the party is on the rebound and is circulating petitions that will allow it to gain ballot lines in Rhode Island and four other states he would not name.
"Keep in mind, 80 out of 100 people did not vote for a Democrat or a Republican in the [primaries], so that is who we are appealing to," O'Hara said. He added that the first batch of signs listing Nader and running mate Peter Miguel Camejo above the Reform Party name were to be distributed to Florida last week.