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US Elections: Undecided Voters Suddenly Sexy

Saturday Night

To go to a Global Exchange/KPFA Free Speech Radio benefit in Berkeley is to see 30,000 years evaporate right before your very eyes. A thousand greyhairs in their Birkenstock sandals shed 30 years and become again the young radicals that made Berkeley famous from the '60s onwards for the Free Speech Movement, protests against the Vietnam war, and establishing People's Park. The other 500 people in the audience ARE the young radicals who will make Berkeley famous again and, they hope, America whole again - rid of its globaloney, its corrupt money in politics, its manipulation by the greed of 1/20 of 1 percent of the population who have undue influence in what should be a democracy.

"Plutocracy is not government by another planet" is one of the chapters in the book that's being promoted tonight by its author and KPFA's invited speaker for the evening - Jim Hightower. He's a Texan, who once served in office as a Democrat, but who's touring the country promoting his book and speaking out in support of Nader and local Green candidates such as Medea Benjamin, who is standing against the incumbent Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, for one of the Californian seats in the US Senate. Hightower is a radio broadcaster, has a website, an old-fashioned newsletter that comes in the mail, and a down-home country wit that tickles like a sockful of scorpions.

He bills himself as an agitator - that column in the center of the washing machine that gets the dirt out - and he urges everyone else to be agitators too. He quotes the disillusionment he's met with when interviewing people in low-paid jobs who won't vote because they don't think democracy is about people like them, it's just about money. Big money. Politics in America is so tainted with the way campaign funds are raised that, Medea Benjamin says, when Global Exchange hosted some neighbours from south of the border during the US primaries in March, the Mexicans said that wasn't the model of democracy they wanted for their country, thank you very much.

Benjamin is a dynamic speaker and founder of Global Exchange, a San Francisco based human rights organization which is slowly but surely convincing corporations that they can switch to buying, for example, coffee from growers at a fair price that benefits the economies and people where the coffee is grown. Praising Starbucks is not something you want to do around 1500 people who are somewhat anti chain coffee shops because they're putting independent, local coffee shops out of business, but she gets away with it because Global Exchange has convinced the multinational to buy coffee from 'trade aid' sources. Now she's at work trying to turn tech giants in silicon valley on to the idea of 'freedom of association' for their workers - a little something that's been around in international law as a basic human right since 1919 but has somehow been overlooked in the hi-tech industry.

The battle that Benjamin is engaged in for Feinstein's Senate seat is an interesting one. Strongly tipped to be chosen as Gore's running mate, Dianne Feinstein was the first woman mayor of San Francisco, from 1978 to 1988. In 1992 she became California's first woman US Senator, receiving the most votes cast for a Senator in US history. Not surprisingly nobody challenged her in the primaries for her party's nomination as this year's Senate candidate, whereas the Republicans had to choose between three hopefuls.

The winner of that battle was Tom Campbell, who is currently the member of the US House of Representatives for a district based on San Jose. To date, his one claim to fame came this week when he appeared on television complaining bitterly that Dianne Feinstein's campaign strategy was not to campaign. If no one reported her, then no one would report him and she'd win by default. His complaint came across as a bit churlish - after all, Feinstein had hurt her leg in a fall some weeks ago so you'd hardly expect to see her out on the campaign trail. And blow me down, the next day - the very day that George W. was in town talking to a silicon valley high school - the Feinstein campaign announced she was going into hospital to have her broken leg operated on. So much for compassionate Republicans.

Each state has two representatives in the US Senate, which is entrusted with curtailing unbridled power being wielded by either the President or the House of Reps. In contrast, the number of reps a state gets in the House is based on its population, so California has quite a sizeable force up there in DC. And nobody is taking for granted the House seat vacated by Campbell in his quest for a Senate seat. Bill Clinton himself was out here this week stumping for Mike Honda, the Democratic hopeful, and Bush's visit couldn't have harmed Jim Cunneen's bid to hold on to the San Jose seat for the Republicans.

I don't know what Republican nosh-ups cost but Clinton's sushi-fest in a private home was $1,000 a plate - mere small change compared to the price of the chicken and three veg reportedly served at a recent fundraiser Novell's CEO held for Gore, at $25,000 a plate. Oh, but you got Elton John on piano and to meet Sharon Stone (famous Berkeley student) at that do.

It's this fundraising stuff that causes all the problems, you see. A whole industry has grown up around ensuring that the complicated rules about 'who' and 'where' and 'how much' aren't innocently flouted or - Deity forbid - found out to be knowingly disregarded. And it's the American people's disillusionment with money politics that supporters of the Greens - like Jim Hightower - find is such fertile soil for their message. The turnout to vote in the US is tiny not just because election day is during the week but because people don't even bother to register, convinced they have no voice and that their lives won't change whoever is elected.

"We the people" has been supplanted by "We the [substitute rich lobby group of your choice]", creating a world in which America's prosperous but Americans are not. So says Jim Hightower, author of "If the gods had meant us to vote they'd have given us candidates". The sting in that particular tail is his comment: "The gods don't give us candidates - we have to create them ourselves." Lucky old Greens got nothing to do. They'd have you believe that Bush and Gore are creating future Green candidates and current supporters at the speed of light beer - a brewer being rumoured to be the sole sponsor of the presidential debates on Tuesday.

With the polls showing Gore and Bush neck and neck, undecided voters are suddenly sexy - giving a whole new meaning to the acronym formerly known as 'sports utility vehicle' (Ponsonby tractor, to you). Nader has 3.4 percent and Buchanan has 0.7 percent in those same national polls but they both have strong messages and are the spice that brings out the true flavour of the eggplants about to eat up Tuesday airwaves. It may be that what happens outside the debate venue and in demonstrations across the nation at the time it takes place that will be the true measure of where this election is heading.

Lea Barker California Sunday 1 October, Pacific time.

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