Russell Peterson, former governor of Delaware, ardent environmentalist, lifelong Republican until a few years ago when he switched to being a Democrat, was appalled when I told him I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Al Gore.

Tell it like it is, Ralph.

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He gave me the undeniably rational argument. George W. shows no sign of either knowing or caring about the environment. If he is president, especially if he’s blessed with a Republican Congress, our environmental laws will be decimated. Anyone who has watched Washington for the past six years has seen the Republican Congressional leadership work unceasingly to clear-cut the national forests, gut the Endangered Species Act, and let the polluters write the pollution laws. Gore may not be the dauntless warrior for the environment we would like, but at least he will probably, like Bill Clinton before him, veto most of the worst ideas of the anti-environmental right wing.

I assured Peterson that I have no intention of voting for George W. (In my household we have the terrible habit of calling him “George the Gerbil.”) I will vote and work for Democrats for Congress. I am sick of Republican committee chairs trying to give away overgrazing rights on public lands, privatize national parks, drill for oil in wildlife refuges. But for president I’ll vote for Ralph Nader.

Russ Peterson’s jaw dropped. He’s in his eighties now, but he’s as energetic and forceful and political as ever, and so he bore in on me. But that will put Bush in office! Nader will draw votes away from Gore, not Bush. How can you do that?

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Lean and green.

Not only do I sympathize with his argument; I’ve made it to myself. Why waste a vote on Nader, who is not even a serious candidate? He spent $5000 on his last presidential campaign (and got 800,000 votes in what must be one of the best votes-to-dollars ratios in history). He says he’ll spend $5 million on this one — a drop in George W.’s overflowing campaign bucket. How will you feel, Peterson asked me, as I had already asked myself, if you ditch Gore and then have to watch Bush for four or eight years take away abortion rights, build prisons, promote guns, and enrich oil companies?

But what does it mean to waste a vote? I may disagree with Bush on just about 100 percent of all issues, but I disagree with Gore on maybe 50 percent. He promotes free trade and the WTO — two of the worst things I can imagine for the environment. He has done nothing to push for auto fuel-efficiency standards or regulations on genetic engineering or a strong enough climate policy to actually stabilize the climate. The Greens are the only party talking seriously about solar energy or stopping corporate welfare or real campaign reform. Isn’t it worse to waste your vote on a spineless party patsy, up to his neck in his own overflowing bucket of campaign contributions, than on a guy who will at least speak and fight for what you want fought for — no matter what his chance of winning?

Tim Russert asked Ralph Nader that very question on May 7 on Meet the Press: “So if you wake up in November of 2000 and the Green Party has gotten 5 percent of the vote but Al Gore has lost and George W. Bush is the next president, you’ll consider the day a success?”

Takin’ it to the streets.

Nader answered, “The Green Party will get more than 5 percent of the vote, number one. Number two, there’s nothing preventing Al Gore from grabbing hold of these corporate power issues: corporate welfare, strong labor laws, crack down on consumer fraud, corporate crime, challenging autocratic forms of government like the WTO.

“The two parties are converging more and more into a huge vested interest money pot and are turning their backs on very important needs of the people. So we’re appealing to conservatives, liberals, all the people who feel they’re losing control in this country over everything that matters to them — their government, big business, environment, the workplace, the marketplace, even their own children being seduced by corporate hucksters and entertainers.”

Sometimes he sounds like a real candidate, sometimes like he’s just trying to knock the Democratic party back into its one-time groove. Too bad. If Ross Perot could get 19 percent of the vote, Nader, who is modest, well-spoken, well-informed, steady, of unassailable integrity, and actually working for the public interest, should be able to do much better. If he could become visible. And if people voted for what they want, instead of what they think can win.

What is a vote, anyway? A chit we use to play political games, figuring the chances, trying to choose the least distasteful candidate who has some chance of coming out on top? Or our one straight signal to our government telling it what we — we who pay the bills, we whose interests the government is supposed to represent — really want?

I hope Russ Peterson will forgive me.