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The Greenest street in town

Neighbors on 35th Avenue N in St. Petersburg are getting to know one another since they've discovered they have something in common: Ralph Nader.

By LANE DeGREGORY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Until two weeks ago, 35th Avenue NE between Bay and Oak streets looked a lot like other suburban blocks in this city: ranches and bungalows set back on brown lawns, palm trees and aloe plants and clay pots on porches.

Nothing notable. Not much to catch your eye.

Not so any more.

A string of paper placards has sprouted along this shady stretch of street. They're waist-high and grass-green, stenciled with white letters. Four of the five houses have one. Drivers are slowing to see.

This is Nader Country.

Until two weeks ago, even the neighbors didn't know.

But then Chris Feuerhake took out his trash while Beth Rogers was watering her yard. And Antony Lineberger started talking politics with his buddy down the block. And Don Goodrich staked out his presidential preference with a sledge hammer. And Bill Worley, who lives next door, stepped outside to see.

And the residents realized they're members of the same political minority: They all support Ralph Nader for president.

All except one -- the woman in the yellow house.

* * *

In the 1996 presidential election, fewer than 100 people in Pinellas County voted for Ralph Nader. (Nationally, the consumer advocate earned less than 1 percent of the vote.) Only 223 of Pinellas' 566,000 voters are registered with Nader's Green Party.

But here, on this otherwise ordinary block, 80 percent of the people are pulling for him.

Even they are amazed their activist enclave exists.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw all the other signs out here," Feuerhake said, leaning against the railing on his front porch. "I've never been involved politically before. I don't even know that guy down on the corner.

"But my respect for him has skyrocketed since I saw his sign."

Feuerhake is a window clerk at the Northside Station Post Office. He's 48. He has three cats.

For years, he has been registered as an independent. He switched to the Green Party after Nader took the nomination. He made 15 copies of Nader's acceptance speech, in which the candidate called for "a fresh political movement, one that arises from the citizens, laborers, resources, and dreams, in that order; dreams about what America could become at long last. ... "

Feuerhake gave a copy to Goodrich, who lives next door.

"A vote for Nader is a vote for a two-party system," Feuerhake said. "There's not much difference between Republicans and Democrats anymore. I'm distraught at the corporate takeover.

"I think Ralph is just a good, honest person."

Call Feuerhake during the day and you'll hear this rap on his answering machine: "Now everyone knows, from Zorro to Alf, that Bush and Gore make you want to Ralph!"

He was the first person on his street to plant a Nader sign. He got it from Rogers, 32, a stay-at-home mom who is his back-door neighbor. Across their shared garbage can one evening, after talking about music and books and other neighborly things, Rogers said she was heading to Nader headquarters to make a $3 investment in her beliefs -- a placard for her front yard.

"Get one for me, too," Feuerhake said.

She brought back three.

Feuerhake took the extra to Goodrich. Then Lineberger, who still doesn't know any of his neighbors, stuck a sign in his yard. "Next time I see those neighbors outside," he told himself at the time, "I'm going to use the Ralph thing to meet 'em."

A week later, Worley asked Goodrich, his neighbor to the east, where to get his own sign.

"Lost causes are my cause," said Goodrich, 48, who manages investment properties. "I've liked Ralph ever since the '60s. I'm trying to be more far-sighted than this election.

"My greatest hope is to shake up the two established parties, make them realize they no longer have that power base they've enjoyed since Roosevelt. It's not like I'm having fence-side chats with my neighbors over this. But if a guy asks me to get him a Nader sign, I'm going to do it.

"If our little row of signs here can make people look up, it's worth it."

Worley's placard went up Wednesday. In the entire Tampa Bay region, Nader supporters sold only 350 lawn signs. Four of them occupy a single stretch of street -- plus Rogers' on the block behind.

It's not easy being Green.

But it's a lot easier when your neighbors are, too.

* * *

Nader's name wasn't even on the Florida ballot four years ago. He was a write-in candidate. This year, he's preprinted along with Bush and Gore.

That will help, supporters say.

So will Nader's outspoken stances on starting a national health insurance system, on the U.S. withdrawing from NAFTA, on publicly financed campaigns, say the Greens. They point out his 30-year career of campaigning against dirty meat, unsafe autos, harmful drugs, pollution and corporate power as other assets.

But they don't really believe he'll win.

Even on St. Petersburg's Greenest block, everyone agrees it would take a miracle to put their man in the White House.

They just want Nader to earn five percent of the votes in November. That way, he would get federal matching funds in 2004. Then he might have a prayer of winning the presidency.

"Just because you don't think he'll win doesn't mean you're wasting your vote on him," said Rogers. She was about to take her 2-year-old to the park. She has already taught the little girl to say Nader's name.

"You only waste your vote when you vote for someone you don't believe in," Rogers said. "If enough people voted what they believed in, they could make a difference."

In a small way, Rogers said, she and her neighbors are making a difference. Their block is across the street from North Shore Elementary. Every morning, streams of parents slow to read the signs as they pick up their kids.

"At least they're noticing the names," she said. "That's something. If everyone realized they could make things change, it's just like Ralph says, the people could have the power.

"But that's the problem: People don't believe."

The woman in the yellow house certainly doesn't.

Like her neighbors, she can't stomach the thought of voting for either mainstream candidate. She dislikes Republicans and Democrats, thinks they're all the same, all controlled by corporations. Nader, she said, is the best of the bunch.

But she's as apathetic as her neighbors are idealistic.

"I'd actually vote for him, if I thought it would do any good, and if I did vote. But I don't think it would do any good. And I don't think I'll vote," she said.

"Actually, I don't really think much about politics at all."

The woman in the yellow house is 27, a massage therapist. She said her mother is an immigrant who always lauds America, always urges her to vote. "She made me watch the first debate -- and it was painful," the woman said. Just a bunch of meaningless words.

She said she didn't want her name in the newspaper. No particular reason; she just didn't. Her friend, the man sitting on her sofa, didn't want to be named either. Sure, they said, print what we say. Just don't use our names. We don't believe in politicians, or in politics, and we want nothing to do with the political process.

The woman and her friend are minorities on their block. But they represent a larger and stronger group than either the Gore and Bush people do. They're part of the 46 percent of registered voters who don't vote.

They're just the kind of supporters Nader needs.

"I actually thought about putting a Nader sign out there, just to continue the chain," the woman finally admitted. "But why bother? He doesn't have a chance."

Along with a million other Americans in a million other yellow houses, she's making sure of it.

But neighbors said they won't try to coerce the woman in the yellow house -- the one they've never met, the one whose lawn remains empty. Everyone should make up his or her own mind, they said. "People in our party aren't generally joiners anyway," Goodrich said.

"That's part of the problem."

Even here in Nader Country.

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