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Late last year, Lee Kreindler, a leading aviation attorney with a swank Park Avenue practice, pledged $10,000 to the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader. And then he took it back. Kreindler gave $11,000 in contributions to Democratic candidates in the last election cycle and is one of about two dozen trial attorneys who are withdrawing funding from consumer watchdog groups affiliated with Nader, including Public Citizen. The reason: They believe Nader’s failed presidential campaign cost former Vice President Al Gore the White House. “I think what he did in the political arena will cost us for a decade,” says Fred Baron, president of the 56,000-member Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA). According to Nader, about two dozen contributors have defected from Public Citizen and other Nader-affiliated groups — pulling roughly $100,000 in funding. Kreindler, a name partner with New York’s Kreindler & Kreindler, says that earlier in the election year he had sent a letter to Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP), warning the group of his concern that Nader’s candidacy as the Green Party nominee was threatening Gore’s chances of defeating Republican contender George W. Bush. “It didn’t get better. It got worse,” says Kreindler. “So [my firm's partnership] decided unanimously to not make a contribution this year.” To make up for Kreindler’s decision to take back the $10,000 donation to the aviation group, Nader says he personally wrote a check for the full amount. What’s at stake for Nader is not just the financial viability of a few of his not-for-profit organizations, but his political future. In battling against Gore and the Democrats, Nader may have gained tens of thousands of young, idealistic admirers, but in the process lost the support of some of his more politically seasoned and moneyed stalwarts. For his part, Nader acknowledges the monetary hits, but notes that even at a total of $100,000, they account for less than 1 percent of Public Citizen’s annual donations of $10 million to $12 million. The cutbacks won’t mean the end of Public Citizen, ACAP, the Center for Auto Safety, or the Center for Study of Responsive Law — four of the groups affected by the backlash. “It isn’t the sum, but the foolishness,” says Nader, referring to the withdrawal of some longtime contributors. Nader argues that the backlash against him is misplaced, noting that while trial lawyers donated $1.6 million to the Democrats during the last campaign cycle, “there’s never been one instance where a Democrat has taken the floor in defense of civil justice. The Democrats are taking their money and not fighting against federal pre-emption on state tort law. [The Democrats] don’t want to be tainted as tools of trial lawyers.” Nader, who notes that trial lawyers accounted for less than $20,000 of the $8 million he raised for his White House run, says that he doesn’t feel responsible, much less remorseful, for Gore’s loss. Of course not everyone is pulling support from Nader-affiliated groups. William Trine, a plaintiffs’ attorney in Boulder, Colo., says this year he gave $1,500 to Public Citizen and $10,000 to the Appleseed Foundation, a grass-roots justice system reform group founded by Nader in 1994. “Probably a lot of trial lawyers are looking at their own pockets thinking that there is going to be tort reform, that they are not going to make as much money,” says Trine, who believes that Democrats are as much swayed by corporate interests as Republicans. “They don’t see what courage it took for Ralph to step up to the forefront.” ATLA’s Baron says he won’t be funding the Center for Study of Responsive Law — where Nader currently works — but is advising members not to punish Nader’s other groups for their founder’s so-called spoiler role in the last election. Still, Baron is hardly welcoming Nader back into the fold. “He won’t be able to draw flies at an ATLA convention,” says Baron. “In fact, he might need some protection.” Pat Maloney, a personal injury attorney with the Law Offices of Pat Maloney in San Antonio, says he has given Nader groups between $5,000 and $10,000 annually, but won’t be throwing any money their way this year. Maloney calls Nader “obsolete” and “a victim of his own ego.” He says that other trial lawyers he knows share his animosity for Nader. “Ralph was a strong voice because he spoke for so many; now he speaks for a few.” (Nader says Maloney hasn’t made any donations in a few years.) Nader has announced plans to help the Green Party run 1,000 Green candidates for local, state, and national office in the 2002 election — a move that ATLA’s Baron thinks will do nothing more than take away votes from Democrats, assist Republicans in getting their candidates into office, and ultimately ensure a tort-reform friendly Congress. “That would give Bush a Republican Congress and then Bush will be able to do whatever he wants,” says Baron. But Nader says that the plaintiffs’ lawyers should realize that their staunch alliance with the Democratic Party isn’t doing them much good, pointing out that under President Bill Clinton 11 tort reform measures became law. “The collapsing base of civil justice protections was not discernable to many of the trial attorneys,” says Nader. “[If the trial lawyers'] beloved Democrats are what they think they are, they can stop any tort reform bill from going through the Senate.” While Nader and the trial lawyers realize that they are stronger united than they are divided, neither side appears willing to make the first move. Nader has a plan, though. “I’m going to try to tutor them back into rational behavior,” he says. Tort reform advocates, meanwhile, couldn’t be giddier about the prospect of a breakdown in the alliance. Victor Schwartz, a partner with Crowell & Moring and general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, says that he’s looking forward to attacking “the turtle without its shell on it. That’s Nader. They’re abandoning a man that stood with them for 32 years through thick and thin.”

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