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Whether on the streets or in the courtroom

By Joan Claybrook, former President of Public Citizen

As I reflect on our early days as Nader’s raiders, I am stunned at how brash and confident we were to think we could make a difference in determining the policies of this nation.  We followed the examples set by Ralph, and urged on by him, we jumped into the fray and elbowed our way in to became part of the American political system.  It’s an amazing story.

We had no money, no power base, minimal experience and few allies.  We just started making our demands—lobbying Congress, holding press conferences, filing law suits, submitting petitions and FOIA requests to government agencies—under the guidance of a master who helped set our sails and let us fly.  The learning curve was huge.

We knew we were part of something new in America but were so busy trying to succeed with our particular projects we rarely had time to evaluate the broad implications of this new citizen action role.  But Ralph did.   He’s truly the Johnny Appleseed of advocacy organizations, helping to start and fund so many of them.   The more the better.

Citizen action is now ingrained in America’s policy decisions, with thousands of advocacy organizations at the neighborhood, local, state and national levels pushing all sorts of causes.   All of us in public interest organizations, and especially Public Citizen, have been so privileged to do this challenging and widely recognized work.   And new generations of advocates are bringing their great talents and determination to holding the powerful accountable because it is so essential, so energizing and so exciting.

But the work never ends.  With each new administration and new congress we need to be there, right in the middle of the debates, researching the facts, educating the decision-makers, lobbying and if necessary suing to assure the public has a voice.   Of course we don’t always win, and there are disappointing setbacks, but that’s why we must be “on our game” and “in the game” year after year.

To the wonderful funders of our work and our boards of directors who are here tonight—thank you so much for making it possible for us to lead and continue these critical battles.  Let me assure you that we never give up—persistence and perseverance are the Public Citizen brand.  Sometimes we fight for years, as we have in protecting the public with efforts to limit the number of hours a truck driver must drive—we are now in our 20th year.  Airbags also took 20 years to secure in all U.S. cars, but it was worth it—they now save 2500 lives and countless injuries annually here at home and even more if you include cars worldwide.

For me this work is a perfect fit.  Advocacy challenges all of our faculties and capacity.  I marvel at my chance meeting with Ralph in 1966 when Representative James Mackay of Atlanta Georgia, for whom I was a Congressional Fellow, asked me to read “Unsafe at Any Speed” and track down Mr. Nader for him – not an easy assignment.  He wanted to discuss federal legislation to reduce the number of teens being killed in car crashes.

Ralph was even harder to find then than now.  I got his telephone number at his rooming house from Morton Mintz, the fabulous Washington Post writer who covered regulatory and corporate issues.   But Ralph never answered the phone.  Mr. Mackay was getting irritated, so one night in desperation I called at 11 pm.   Finally, night owl Nader answered the phone.   This was the beginning of a 45 year friendship and mentorship with a few “minor” disagreements along the way.  This chance meeting has given me opportunities I could never have imagined.   And not coincidentally, I helped Ralph by pushing some parts of his broad agenda across the finish line.

Public Citizen is such a strong organization because we are not looking to win popularity contests.  Ask Dr. Sid Wolfe if he wants praise from the drug industry.  We have the skills and tools to secure our goals.  We have grown and matured organizationally from an ad hoc group to a permanent and widely-respected presence.  In the beginning to survive financially we shared a long distance telephone line with dozens of users, used carbon paper instead of Xerox, and sat on old donated chairs. Today we own free and clear two great buildings in Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill and are fully electronic, communicating across the world every minute.

We have tackled many sacred cows and taken down many wealthy adversaries.  We have challenged oil industry prices and subsidies and tax breaks, pharmaceutical safety and pesticides, government secrecy and campaign money and nuclear power.  We have been ethics watchdogs, pressing for jail time for former House Majority Leader Tom Delay and enforcement against other errant federal officials. We have argued 60 tough cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, winning about 60% thanks to the long leadership and training of our young lawyers by Alan Morrison.   There is not a corporation or government agency that is not aware of Public Citizen’s prowess.   And they fear us because they cannot buy us.

We are a model for other public interest organizations.  We take no business or government funds and we tackle problems in every government forum, allowing us to follow an issue to successful conclusion.

And we helped to lay the factual and strategic groundwork for Occupy Wall Street and other protesters today who are mad as hell at the corporate stranglehold on government policies—securing corporate bailouts from our tax dollars, cutting taxes for the rich, subsidizing corporate welfare, stopping public health and safety regulations, shoving families out of their homes with foreclosures, shackling college students with debt, and letting the economy and employment sink.  We have inspired young people to join the fray and make a difference—whether on the streets or in the courtroom.  And we have a new young leader in Rob Weissman who knows how to tackle future challenges.

It is impossible to imagine today what America would be like without Public Citizen on the job. Your support and contributions will ensure that we don’t have to imagine that nightmare and that our work and commitment to giving citizens a voice will grow.

Thank you.

The above remarks were given by Joan Claybrook, who served as president of Public Citizen for nearly three of the four decades of progress that supporters gathered to celebrate on October 20, 2011 in Washington, D.C. To learn more about this event, Claybrook’s leadership and the history of the consumer movement please visit: www.citizen.org/40gala.