Published on Saturday, October 28, 2000 in the New York Times
An Experienced Hand Leads Nader's Youthful Legions
by Somini Sengupta
WASHINGTON - Long before a wave of youthful adulation made Ralph Nader and public service work seem hip again, Theresa Amato was spending long days fighting in the trenches.
She fought for lower photocopying rates for public documents, exposed the overcharging of tolls on Illinois highways and advised citizen groups on the state's Open Meetings Act.
Then in February, Ms. Amato found herself in a job she had never imagined she would be in.
With a throaty laugh, Ms. Amato said of her current job: "I didn't have any experience running a campaign, much less a presidential campaign."
But if this Harvard graduate, former litigator with Mr. Nader's group, Public Citizen, and founder of a Nader-backed advocacy group in suburban Chicago, felt daunted, it took only a few seconds for Mr. Nader to sign her up.
"I've known him for 10 years," Ms. Amato said, in an interview here in a third-floor office of the brick house that serves as Nader headquarters. "He didn't have to give an explanation. He knew what I could do."
In 1993, when Mr. Nader asked her to set up a pilot project in community advocacy in Chicago, he approached her with the same no- nonsense confidence. She was 29 years old at the time. "He said the mission was to build democracy," she recalled. "I was like, `O.K.' "
Her eyes widened.
"He said: You understand what an injustice is. You're a lawyer; you know how to confront that injustice. That's what you do," she continued. "He didn't have to say more than that."
Today, at 36, Ms. Amato, a second-generation Italian-American who grew up in Itasca, a largely Republican suburb of Chicago, is among the oldest members of Nader's campaign staff of 100. The average age is about 24, she said with a chuckle. The roster includes community organizers from across the country: one from a Texas environmental organization, another from the Alaska Public Interest Group, a third from Ozone Action in Washington.
There are also 900 campus coordinators for the Nader campaign. But that was hardly surprising to Ms. Amato. She has watched Mr. Nader speak at hundreds of colleges, and she has watched a new generation of young people get charged up about seemingly arcane details of global trade agreements.
"They see him as one of the leaders in the fight for citizen participation in the negotiation of these trade agreements," she said. "He appeals to their idealism. He doesn't condescend or pander. He speaks very directly about the consequences of not getting involved."
Neither her father, a doctor, nor her mother, a schoolteacher, was politically active. Ms. Amato's political odyssey began in high school. When her current events teacher, who was active in a union organizing effort, was barred from speaking to a student assembly about ways to effect social change, she led a student walkout. As an undergraduate at Harvard University, she organized protests against the school's male-only clubs. She attended New York University Law School on a public-interest scholarship, spent three months investigating child labor on sugar cane plantations in the Dominican Republic, served as a clerk for a federal judge and joined Public Citizen, specializing in litigation around public access to government records.
In 1993, Mr. Nader asked her to start a project to provide legal guidance to community groups. She moved back to the Midwest, and in a storefront in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst founded the Citizen Advocacy Center. She helped local groups understand town charters, explained the Freedom of Information Act to them and reviewed their cable television franchise agreements. She is on leave from the center and is scheduled to return on Dec. 1.
BUT if the world of presidential campaigning is unfamiliar territory, Ms. Amato seems unfazed, even by the latest attention to the Nader campaign.
On Thursday, Vice President Al Gore in Madison, Wis., a Nader stronghold, suggested that oil companies wanted people to "vote for George Bush or in any case vote for Ralph Nader."
Ms. Amato was interviewed about Mr. Gore's statement at a television news station here. Every screen in the control room was lit up with headlines exploring "the Nader factor" or "the Nader effect."
So was that exciting? Unexpected? Did it send a current of electricity down her spine?
Ms. Amato shrugged, sitting at her cluttered desk, the sun filtering through white shuttered windows. She said she found Mr. Gore's suggestion absurd. She also found his efforts to "scare" voters into voting for him unpleasant. But beyond that she did not seem concerned. She was more interested in the civics lesson that the campaign, now and after the election, could offer.
"You're coming at it from a horse race perspective, a race," she said quietly. "I'm looking at it as a marathon.
"It's about building the civic movement so that fundamentally, there's a shift in power from corporations to citizens who want to take back their government. That's the real kernel of it, that shift in power."
O.K., fine. But how would she feel if she helped elect George W. Bush? Three times, the question was asked. Three times, she shrugged.
"I'm really not focused on Bush and Gore," came the unflappable response. "I'm focused on the Nader campaign."
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company