While George W. Bush, Al Gore and others slug it out in the main event, onetime Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra will battle a field that includes consumer activist Ralph Nader on one of the undercards in the New York presidential primary.
Biafra, the spoken-word artist and founder of the Alternative Tentacles record label, is a candidate for president on the New York State Green Party ballot. That means he's following in the footsteps of Al "Grandpa" Lewis from the '60s TV show "The Munsters," whom the party backed in New York's gubernatorial election in 1998.
"It's a far greater honor [being linked with Lewis] than being linked with Bill Bradley or Gore, let alone King George II," the ever-sharp-tongued Biafra said.
The 41-year-old singer, born Eric Boucher, did not seek the nomination and said current legal difficulties with his former band will preclude him from campaigning. The New York primary is on March 7. The first primary was held Tuesday (Feb. 1) in New Hampshire.
"I'm sort of on a tightrope, because on one hand it's a great honor," he said on Thursday from Colorado, where he was visiting family and fighting a cold. "On another hand, I hadn't budgeted the time, plus I don't want to be seen as somebody on an ego trip interfering with Ralph Nader."
An Early Hero: Ralph Nader
Nader — whose book "Unsafe at Any Speed," on the dangers of the Corvair auto, thrust him into the spotlight in the 1960s — was the Green Party nominee in 1996. He did not actively campaign.
"Of course, I've been a Ralph Nader fan ever since 'Unsafe at Any Speed,' when I was a kid," Biafra said. "He was just one more political movement that sprang out of the good side of the '60s — consumer rights against corporations. I'm hoping, I'm assuming, he'll be the real nominee. I'm hoping he will campaign a little harder this time."
Biafra does, however, have a running mate and a platform, which includes enactment of a maximum wage that Biafra would cap at six figures, explaining, "You can live pretty damn well on a hundred thousand bucks." Other planks include free health care, education and public transportation, including air travel, for all — which he said a maximum wage would help support — and drug decriminalization.
Biafra said he got the first of those points, which he has long incorporated in his spoken-word performances, from the Green Party itself. "I never even thought of such a thing," he said, "till I saw it in, I think, the very first bulletin I got from the Greens in California. After I signed up. I thought, 'Wow, what a great idea, nonviolent extermination of the rich!' "
For a vice presidential candidate, he picked Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist on Pennsylvania's death row for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. In announcing that choice, Biafra said he wanted to focus attention on Abu-Jamal's fight for a new trial — a cause that also has been taken up by rock bands such as Rage Against the Machine — and on his own opposition to the death penalty.
Biafra was nominated for the presidential ticket by Don Hickok, a 34-year-old innkeeper from Orange County, N.Y., who said, "Ever since I first heard the gentleman sing, actually, it occurred to me, 'My God, he definitely tells it like it is, he should be president.' It was a no-brainer.
"The Dead Kennedys and Jello Biafra were probably more educational to me than school was," Hickok said. "I learned more about the electoral process, about the political process, a whole gamut of things from listening to the Dead Kennedys and Jello Biafra. I've always felt that he just goes right for the throat of an issue, just tells it exactly like it is."
From Punk Legends To Litigation
The Dead Kennedys formed in San Francisco at the height of the punk movement in the late '70s. They melded politicized, satiric lyrics with a hard-driving approach on such songs as "Kill the Poor" (RealAudio excerpt), "California Über Alles" and "Holiday in Cambodia," presaging the hardcore sound of such bands as Minor Threat and MDC.
Biafra is enmeshed in a legal battle with his former Dead Kennedys bandmates, who are suing him for control of the band's catalog. The case goes to trial in April.
The suit, which Biafra attributes to his refusal to license "Holiday in Cambodia" for use in a Levi's commercial, is "far worse and far nastier" than a 1986 attempt to prosecute him and his bandmates for distributing "harmful matter" — the Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album — to minors, he said. (The 1986 charges were dismissed.)
Seasoned Political Veteran
Biafra is something of a veteran of the political arena, having run for mayor of San Francisco in 1979, in what he called "an act of sabotage, pure and simple — and it worked." He got 6,605 votes and takes credit for forcing the two major candidates, Acting Mayor Dianne Feinstein and Quentin Kopp, into a runoff. Feinstein won the runoff and is now a U.S. senator.
Other musicians who have tried their hand at politics include country singer Jimmie Davis, who co-wrote the country standard "You Are My Sunshine" but started out in the 1920s and '30s as a singer of bawdy tunes with such titles as "Tom Cat and Pussy Blues" and "High Behind Blues." He served as governor of Louisiana from 1944–48 and again from 1960–64.
More recently, rock singer/songwriter and producer Sonny Bono — who was half of Sonny and Cher — served as mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., and later as a Republican representative in Congress.
"Every time a genuine alternative candidate who appears to have their sh-- together pops up on the national radar screen, people crawl out of the woodwork to vote for them," Biafra said.
"A viable party with real candidates and good policies can act as a magnet to bring the vast majority of disenfranchised Americans out of the woodwork. And even if only a few people get elected ... that can sometimes be enough to be a swing vote," he said.
"What if neither the Democrats nor the Republicans controlled the House because the balance of the 20 or 30 seats went to the Greens? The Greens would be in the catbird seat."