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A long, strange trip comes full circle after 23 years

Posted: May 2, 2015 - 11:15pm

Exactly how I ended up in a trendy little restaurant on the fringe of Emory University campus on Tuesday, listening to the nation’s elder statesman of progressive activism and consumer protection, is a long story.

The reason for my trip to Atlanta actually begin in 1992, which is the first time I met Ralph Nader, who had been persuaded to give the commencement address that spring for the University of Georgia Law School. The persuader behind Nader’s visit was class president, Stephanie Stuckey. (If you know what a pecan roll is, you will known why that family name seems familiar.)

Stephanie happened to be a friend and on this occasion she asked a favor. Nader needed a ride to the Atlanta airport after his speech, so she made the logical leap that I should drive him.

If memory serves, the car was a Cadillac, borrowed from her father, former U.S. Rep. W.S. Stuckey Jr. (D-Eastman). How could I say, “No.?” I couldn’t.

I remember that I had the big American sedan floored as we tore down Highway 316 and Interstate 85 trying to make the flight time, while the author of “Unsafe at Any Speed” snoozed in the plush back seat.

That we survived that trip is why we were all back in Atlanta on Tuesday. Well, that and the other thing that happened on that same day in 1992, which played a much bigger part.

After the commencement speech and before the race to Atlanta, Nader went to a reception. Among those there was Augusta lawyer John C. Bell.

As Bell tells it, Nader put him and several others in the room on the spot, challenging them to put up the funds to establish a public interest law firm in the state. Bell and a few others kicked in $10,000, including Nader who offered up his honorarium to create the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest. The organization brought a number of ground-breaking environmental lawsuits to Georgia courts and in 2007, changed its name to GreenLaw.

“It has filed numerous clean water cases among other things. It has stopped the building of some nasty coal fired power plants,” Bell said. “It has done a lot of good. Nobody has ever gotten rich off anything done at GreenLaw, but the public is much richer and the environment in Georgia is much richer.”

Now Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, who has served as the director of GreenLaw for many years, is stepping down to become the City of Atlanta’s Director of Sustainability.

Nader had come Tuesday to see her off and encourage the group to continue its mission.

“If you see how small GreenLaw is compared to what it is done, it teaches a valuable lesson,” Nader told those gathered. “That when the people are silently on your side it doesn’t take many people to make changes that are realty important. There is a much bigger consensus in the country than the practitioners of polarization would like us to believe.”

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