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Fringe candidates party on beyond the mainstream

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Never mind November. At this point in the election cycle, the American people already seem to have made their choice.

None of the above.

President Obama's approval ratings have stalled below 50 percent, an ominous augur of incumbent vulnerability. Republican voters have been so meh about their primary candidates that they've resorted to playing Whack-a-Frontrunner, with each GOP contender — plus Donald Trump — popping out of their hole for a deceptive instant at the top.

American people: It's time to look harder. Much, much harder. Fact is, there's a vast universe of political alternatives out there you might not be aware of.

Take, for example, the Prohibition Party.

The nation's oldest third party, the Prohibitionists stand against the Federal Reserve System, in favor of building a Mexican border fence and — here's where things get interesting, if perchance you enjoy the taste of beer — committed to reviving the 18th Amendment. Since its 1869 founding, the party has run a candidate in every presidential election; four years ago, its nominee was Gene Amondson, a minister from Washington state.

The bad news? Mr. Amondsonreceived 643 votes, finishing 69,456,254 shy of Barack Obama.

The good news? Mr. Amondson comfortably surpassed the 477 votes received by HeartQuake '08 Party candidate Jonathan Allen. (And yes, we also assumed that HeartQuake '08 was the title of a Loverboy reunion concert tour. Live and learn.)

"Our goal for this election is to remain alive for another year," said Jim Hedges, secretary of the Prohibition Party's National Committee. "We don't need a lot of votes, but we do need to remain visible."

For Mr. Hedges and other denizens of the political fringe, election seasons are a harsh reminder of a fundamental American political truth: Despite its representative framework, our national government is essentially a duopoly. Republicans and Democrats. Right and left. McDonald's and Burger King. A binary status quo.

But fear not.

If you've ever felt that Washington doesn't care enough about decriminalizing marijuana, criminalizing tobacco, ending all overseas military commitments or adopting a communist economic policy, don't fret.

If you've ever surveyed the looming challenges facing the republic — high unemployment, higher deficits, an upcoming seventh season of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" — and concluded that what America needs right now is to build a base on Mars, chin up.

And if you've ever felt like the problem with Mr. Obama is that he isn't socialist enough, take heart.

Chances are, there's a party just for you.

"I got people to vote for Obama in the last election by saying he was a socialist," said Kevin Akin, the interim chairman of the Peace and Freedom Alliance, the national branch of the leftist, California-based Peace and Freedom Party. "Unfortunately, his actions since taking office have given us very little reason to believe that.

"When we hear Republicans call him one, it makes us roll our eyes. We want to support someone who is the real thing."

Politics as unusual

The Libertarians. The Greens. The Communist Party USA. The United States Marijuana Party. The Boston Tea Party (not to be confused with the actual historical event, nor the general tea party political movement). The Jedi Party (based in Louisiana; membership, 12).

From the neo-Nazis to the old school Socialists, the Modern Whigs (yes, really) to whatever Lyndon LaRouche is calling his followers these days, the nation is home to dozens of minor parties, each with its own political philosophy and pressing set of pet issues.

Case in point No. 1: Green Party presidential primary contender Roseanne Barr — yep, that Roseanne Barr — is for single-payer health care, eliminating corporate personhood, jailing Wall Street miscreants, reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, getting rid of the Electoral College and treating nonviolent drug abusers instead of jailing them. Announcing her candidacy on "The Tonight Show," she said that she would not run as either a Republican or Democrat because both parties "suck and they're both a bunch of criminals."

Case in point No. 2: Mr. LaRouche is for constructing the aforementioned Martian outpost, which he considers a moral imperative, and for ending the tyranny of Mr. Obama, whom he insists is neither Socialist, Marxist nor Kenyan neo-anti-colonialist, but rather the brainwashed puppet of the British Empire — and who knew the British still had an empire?

Case in point No. 3: The New York City-based Rent is 2 Damn High Party — founded by karate expert and Vietnam War veteran Jimmy McMillan, who has run for mayor three times and received 40,000 votes in the state's 2010 gubernatorial election — is inalterably opposed to, well, rent being too damn high.

Despite their differences, alternative parties have one thing in common: They're mostly marginalized, the lingerie football game counter-programmed opposite halftime of the two-party Super Bowl.

Accordingly, political life is different on the fringe.

Consider Bill Hammond. Four years ago, the Colorado resident and Unity Party national chairman ran for Congress. Crisscrossing his district in a hybrid SUV to collect the 800 signatures required to appear on the electoral ballot, knocking on doors in 37 communities, he found himself practicing literal retail politics — standing outside grocery stores stumping for a balanced federal budget and replacing income tax with a carbon tax.

Enduring rain, cold and countless funny looks, Mr. Hammond eventually collected 1,245 signatures, 899 of them valid. His hard-won advice? If you don't have a Las Vegas casino-owning billionaire filling the coffers of your super PAC, it helps to have a friendly dog.

"I have a 60-pound white boxer named Jack," Mr. Hammond said. "He was a great asset, a nice icebreaker. One morning at a farmer's market, I left him in my truck. I wasn't getting any signatures. I had to go back and get him.

"The other thing I learned gathering signatures was to always make sure the page you show has at least two signatures already. If somebody sees a blank page, they ask why. That's the first hurdle. I always made sure one of my friends would sign the top page."

American elections follow the Golden Rule: He who has the gold, rules. While the Democrats and Republicans are expected to spend more than $6 billion on the upcoming elections, carpet-bombing the airwaves with slick television ads, third parties get by with the equivalent of couch cushion spare change.

In 2008, Mr. Obama's campaign spent just more than $760 million, about $11 per vote; John McCain's campaign spent about $358 million, roughly $6 per vote. By contrast, Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin spent just $234,000, about $1.17 per vote — and alas, presidential politics is not "Moneyball."

And the Prohibition Party's total 2012 budget? About $7,000. Which according to online blue book values, won't even get you a used 2010 Toyota Camry.

"I'm sure we'll spend some tens of thousands of dollars this year," said Mr. Akin, the Peace and Freedom Party chair. "But in political terms, we have no money. We have the backing of absolutely no millionaires, let alone billionaires. That makes it very difficult for us

"We do have volunteer labor. And we have the advantage of putting things on the web for free, just like everybody else. We may spend eight bucks for a domain name."

Mainstream exposure is similarly hard to come by. During the 2006 Alabama gubernatorial race, glib and quick-witted Libertarian candidate Loretta Nall wasn't allowed to participate in debates; during the current GOP primary, on the other hand, cement-tongued Texas governor Rick Perry was. Repeatedly.

"It was unfair to not include me, and it's hard to overcome not being on the stage with the other contenders," Ms. Nall said. "During debates, I would live blog answers to the questions. It's hard to be taken seriously when you can't get your message out."

To escape the media invisibility cloak that typically envelopes minor party candidates, Ms. Nall relied on two unique assets: humor and cleavage. After a local newspaper printed and subsequently apologized for a photo that showed the buxom Ms. Nall in much of her glory, the candidate was offended — that is, until she decided to use the incident to her advantage.

Ms. Nall wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper, thanking him for "introducing the twins to the people of Alabama." The founder and former head of the U.S. Marijuana Party, she also began selling T-shirts and marijuana stash boxes featuring a photo of her in a dress with a plunging neckline, as well as pictures of her Republican and Democratic opponents.

Below Ms. Nall's image, a caption read, "more of these boobs"; below an image of her opponents, a second caption read, "and less of these boobs." The clever pitch became a national news story, with Ms. Nall appearing on Fox News and MSNBC to discuss her cleavage — as well as her platform of legalizing marijuana, opposing the Patriot Act, extending tax credits for private and home schooling and withdrawing the Alabama National Guard from Iraq.

"They wanted to focus on anatomy, all right, we'll focus on boobs," Ms. Nall said. "But not mine. I had fun with it, but it was a serious campaign for me. And I got more national attention than all of my opponents combined.

"If you make people laugh, they'll remember you. And if they remember you, they might pay attention to what you're saying."

Totally stacked

In the subsequent election, however, Ms. Nall received just 235write-in votes — far short of the 718,327 votes amassed by Republican winner Bob Riley.

"I love a challenge," Ms. Nall said. "Nothing worth having is easy to get. But the deck is totally stacked against you."

For politicians outside America's major parties, it has always been thus. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson echoed the sentiments of fellow founders James Madison and George Washington, calling political parties an "avenue to tyranny."

Four years later, Mr. Jefferson was the leader of the Democratic Republicans, a counter to the Federalist Party.

The reason? Mr. Jefferson was principled, but no fool. In America, two-party rule is the rule, thanks largely to our electoral system.

In nations with proportional representation — that is, the number of legislative seats won by a party is proportional to their percentage of the popular vote — third parties thrive. On the other hand, American winner-take-all voting encourages the formation of two large, heterogeneous parties while limiting the ability of smaller, more eclectic parties to compete.

To wit: A victorious party gains self-sustaining power and prestige. A second-place party can position itself as a credible alternative for the next election. And a third-place party is pretty much out of luck.

In 1992, Reform Party presidential candidate H. Ross Perot ran one of the most successful third-party campaigns in American history, capturing 19 percent of the popular vote. His reward? Zero electoral votes.

"It's nowhere written in the Constitution that there is a two-party system or that the Democrats and Republicans have to be those two parties," said Mr. Hammond, the Unity Party chairman. "But with the Electoral College and winner-take-all system, there will always be a pull to two major parties. That's how you win the presidency."

The most third parties typically can hope for is to play the role of vote-splitting spoiler. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party divided the Republican vote and put Woodrow Wilson in the White House; in 1992, Mr. Perot likely tipped the election to Democrat Bill Clinton; in the ultraclose 2000 election, Ralph Nader probably did the same for Republican winner George W. Bush.

In 1892, the People's Party defied the odds and pulled off one of the most successful third-party challenges in American history, winning four states and 11 congressional seats. Four years later, they were co-opted by the Democrats, endorsing nominee William Jennings Bryan.

Even when third parties win, they lose.

"When I told my family I was running as Unity Party candidate, my father supported me," Mr. Hammond said. "The rest were like, 'Good luck with that.' They're members of the major parties.

"A lot of people are not going to vote for a third-party candidate because they don't think we can win. But you know, one day that can change. I'm in this for the long haul. Once you cross that threshold where people think you can win, it's an entirely new ballgame."

Planting seeds

Ms. Nall was under no such illusions. She knew she couldn't win. Winning wasn't the point of her candidacy. Change was.

Inspired to enter politics after a 2002 police helicopter raid on her house and subsequent arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession — Ms. Nall maintains her innocence — she began her campaign to end marijuana prohibition by attempting to persuade her own family, a "very long line of deeply Christian, hard core Republicans."

The drug war, she argued, is a colossal failure — overcrowding prisons, expanding the size of government, infringing on civil liberties, splitting up families, draining the treasury.

"Being able to turn them on and around on drug policy was probably the biggest challenge I faced," Ms. Nall said. "But they got it. If it had been a Democrat proposing the same thing, they would have just said, 'Oh, that son of an [expletive] is crazy.' They have a prejudice against the other team. It's like football.

"When I first started doing this, an article would come out in the paper about marijuana legalization, and 99 percent of the comments would be negative. Now, 80 percent of the comments are positive. I feel like the gubernatorial campaign helped. It planted seeds." Ms. Nall laughed.

"No pun intended," she said.

Third parties are the idea lab of American politics. Once upon a time, women's suffrage was a fringe notion. So was the minimum wage. Third parties made both happen.

Twenty years ago, a presidential candidate proposing the elimination of America's overseas military bases — all of them — would have been laughed off the stage as a crackpot; today, that same candidate is GOP contender Rep. Ron Paul, who once ran for president as a Libertarian.

"It's like Steve Jobs said about Apple products," Mr. Hammond said. "People don't always know what they want until you show them. Right now, you get the choices that the Republicans and Democrats show you. But neither party is set in stone."

Mr. Hammond has a point: In the 1830s and 1840s, the Democrats and Whigs dominated national politics — that is until the emergence of a third party, one opposed to slavery, a once-fringe group that won the presidency in 1860 behind a prairie lawyer from Illinois. They called themselves Republicans.

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