Once upon a time, Ralph Nader really believed Oklahoma stood on the forefront of the progressive movement.
"As someone who worked with Sen. Fred Harris, I thought this would be a renaissance," Nader said, in the office of local Green Party candidate Dr. Ed Shadid before a Sept. 9 speech in Oklahoma City about election ballet access.
One of the state's more liberal politicians, Harris, the former U.S. senator who represented Oklahoma from 1965 to 1972, was a major player at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, co-chairing Vice President Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign. Harris was Humphrey's second choice for a running mate.
But not long after Harris left politics in the mid-1970s, Oklahoma began its slide to a more conservative Republican state.
"If I had to attribute it, it's the oil industry out organizing everyone," Nader said. "They had an energy to enter into politics that confronted an unorganized population, and that's who wins. There was a real lack of a fight on what was left of progressive liberal Democrats."
Nader came to town to speak about the state's highly restrictive laws concerning independent and third-party candidates' ability to get on election ballots. The four-time presidential candidate found out firsthand how difficult getting on Oklahoma's ballot can be.
"This is the most craven national Republican Party I have ever seen," he said. "If you look at the insipid, vapid dialogue of (U.S. Sen. Mitch) McConnell and (House Minority Leader John) Boehner, they have the same 20-second spiel, whether it's health care or financial reform: 'This is a job-killing, budget-busting bill.' They talk in conclusions."
An attorney, Nader became well-known for his consumer advocacy starting in the 1960s. His actions led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
He has kept his eye on Oklahoma for a long time.
"It's one of the most remarkable changes in state political history I have ever seen," Nader said. "Oklahoma was the No. 2 populist, progressive, farmer revolt state after Texas. Teacher pensions, help for the needy " these were popular referendums. Now it's gone from this progressive history into the most draconian restriction of voter choice and candidate rights to get on the ballot. To me, that should be a criminal offense."
Currently in Oklahoma, a candidate must gather signatures equaling 5 percent of the total votes cast in the previous presidential or gubernatorial race, which could number in the tens of thousands.
"Oklahoma is the highest per capita of signatures required," Nader said. "If you ran for president as an independent, it's now over 44,000. If you run as a party, it's over 70,000. It's a strange thing. There is nothing compared to Oklahoma."
On the current state of politics, Nader sees the Tea Party as simply a fight within the Republican Party.
"It's basically the conservative wing of the Republican Party rebelling against the corporate-dominant part of the party," he said. "Here is how the corporate Republicans played the conservative wing: They basically said, 'The (party) platform is yours, put in whatever you want, recover the Panama Canal,' but the subtext is, 'We're going to Washington, and we're playing Wall Street.'"
Nader believes the Tea Party started out as a protest against big business, but has been pushed in a different direction.
"The leaders of the (Republican Party) are trying to steer it for anti-government, not anti-big business," he said. "That's the dramatic struggle that is going on. They are vulnerable to certain slogans that are thrown at them. They want tax cuts, and they want to get rid of the deficit. Good luck."
And his view of President Barack Obama?
"He's too concessionary to big business," he said. "With health care, he should have at least a public option. On Wall Street, very, very weak bill. It covered most of the ground, but it was very thin. On foreign policy, there has been a seamless transition from George Bush." "Scott Cooper