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Where are the Libertarians?
The Libertarian Party of Allen County ran almost a full slate for Fort Wayne City Council in 2007. This year… not so much
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Back in 2007, the Libertarian Party of Allen County seemed poised to become a significant player in local politics.
That year, they put eight candidates for Fort Wayne City Council, the largest number of city candidates fielded by a third party in as long as anyone could remember.
The candidates were a somewhat random bunch — FWR’s own Gloria Diaz was one — but there were some familiar names among the novices, like William Larsen, a former GOP primary candidate for US Representative; Robert Enders, then the LPAC treasurer and the 2006 Libertarian nominee for State Representative (District 80); and Doug Horner, then the LPAC secretary. Horner was also the host of Libertarian Perspective and Libertarians At Large on channel 57, and as befits a talk show host, his skills in the “extemporaneous speaking” department are as sharp as any experienced office holder.
And the results? Well, at the risk of sounding condescending, we’ll say the votes garnered by some of the LPAC candidates were respectable for a third party in Fort Wayne with very little of the financial or organizational support that the major parties are able to tap into.
So, they didn’t win. But the bigger point of running such a large slate was made: it was a show of strength, organization, and commitment from a third political party, and it also helped draw attention to the fact that many of the Libertarian Party’s key issues — broadly, how much control the government should have over private business and personal property — were a lot closer to the mainstream than the party is often given credit for. “In the end, our goal is to run candidates,” Doug Horner told us in 2007. “We’ve been building for three years. We’ve grown, we’ve stayed in power… Let’s get an organization going.”
It also seemed to bode well for the future of the local party. It was not inconceivable that, given continued momentum and the right candidate, the Libertarian Party of Allen County might one day have a seat at the Fort Wayne City Council table.
But in politics, momentum can be a fickle mistress. Just ask Karl Rove after the 2006 mid-term elections. Or the Democrats after the 2010 mid-term elections…
Or any true believer who pledges allegiance to a third political party.
This year, just before the deadline, the Libertarian Party of Allen County put up a single candidate for an at-large seat on Fort Wayne City Council — 22-year-old Alex Avery. Avery has been a Libertarian his entire life, though of course the first national election in which he was eligible to vote was in 2008, when he pressed the button for Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr. Avery is still researching some of the local issues he wants to make part of his platform, and dealing with being, in effect, the face of the party. “It’s kind of a bigger responsibility than I was expecting,” Avery says. “I thought there would be a bigger field of candidates.”
Doubtless, a lot of people involved with the LPAC hoped there would be a bigger field of candidates, but Doug Horner says finding candidates was difficult. Horner, the LPAC’s vice-chair these days and the Indiana Libertarian Party’s 3rd district representative for the state, ran four years ago, and says he would have run again except he is probably moving out of the city limits sometime soon.
Horner says he didn’t do a lot of recruiting this year, but among the people he talked to, the biggest problem was simply time. “They have a family, they have a job, they have other commitments to deal with,” he says. “If you want to do it right, it takes a reasonable commitment of showing up at debates, talking to the media, actually going out to get signs made and asking people to put them up… it can be some real work. I give a lot of credit to all of the candidates that are able to do that.”
“I think that’s the advantage that the old party has, of the Demopublicans and the Republicrats. They have a very well-oiled machine. The have their precinct people, and say we want to put a hundred signs in your precinct for candidate X, and they can get that done. It’s a lot more work for us as a small party.”
He adds: “I think a lot of people, they take pride in what they do, every citizen and worker does that. They understand that they do not quite know what they’re getting into but they know it’s a lot, and they want to do a good job and it will take more time than they have.”
But a larger issue might be that the political landscape has changed a bit since 2007. A cornerstone of the Libertarian platform is fiscal conservatism and responsibility, which is one of the reasons the party seems to attract people who describe themselves as former Republicans (at least in our part of the state). These days, of course, conservatives who want to express their indignation at what they see as out-of-control government spending and excessive taxation have somewhere else to go — the “tea party” movement. “I think the tea party has actually drawn away from our momentum,” says Paul Leslie, Chair of the Libertarian Party of Allen County. “A lot of their message is in line with what we say.”
Robert Enders, the LPAC’s Treasurer and a candidate in 2007, adds: “We were doing the tea party thing before it was cool. In 2007, before anyone outside Alaska had heard of Sarah Palin, we dumped a garbage bag full of paper into the St Mary’s.” (And yes, Enders is quick to point out that they retrieved the bag afterwards).
But to be frank, most tea party people are Republicans, especially in our part of Indiana. Despite some noises here and there across the nation about forming an organized “tea party” party, the tea party is not a third party. They want to see Republicans elected to office. Especially conservative Republicans, maybe, but Republicans. When Leslie went to a meeting of a “tea party” group in the area to discuss candidates, he got a strange reception. “The questions just kept coming back to ‘but aren’t you just taking votes away from Republicans who can win?’” he says.
As many Libertarians see it, this really does nothing to shake up the two-party mindset, which many perceive as a false comparison anyway. Enders, Horner, Leslie, and other Libertarians we talked to say they give the tea party movement a lot of credit for putting a spotlight on fiscal responsibility — like we said above, it’s an issue the Libertarians have pushed for years. Horner says that he’s thrilled that there is so much talk about the national debt and deficit spending these days, but he doesn’t think it’s going to last. “I think in the next few years, the only hope that Republicans have is the ‘tea party’ movement,” he says. “But I don’t think (the tea party is) going to make it; that’s just my cynicism. In a few years the ‘tea party’ is going to fizzle out, it’s going to be co-opted by the Republicans, and they’re going to be just as disenchanted when they can’t get the things they want because the party has obligations.”
Besides, though the tea party movement may be in line with the Libertarians on fiscal matters — or at least say they are — things diverge quite a bit in other areas. Horner points out that for all the hard-line talk about the national budget, “you’re not going to save diddley-squat unless you talk about cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the military.” That last item, the military, is an important point; many Libertarians argue that our military is strong enough as it is, and that anyway, the US rarely has any business getting involved in foreign conflicts. And as to the first three items that Horner lists… “Trying to get even Republicans candidates to say ‘I’m going to cut 3,000 jobs in my own district because I’m going to cut programs…’ That doesn’t go over real well. Once they get in office, it’s ‘which one of you wants to be the one who says we’re going to have to cut Medicare spending?’ That’s a hard sell.”
Also, Chris Spangle, the Executive Director of the Indiana Libertarian Party, says that it’s the Republican stance on social issues that drives many younger voters to the Libertarian Party. He cites gay marriage as an example. “When they’re out of power, the Republicans talk like Libertarians, and they have talked a great game lately about economics,” he says. “But from 2001 and on, Republicans have really beat the drum for a ‘defense of marriage.’ We’re a young party. I’m part of the millennial generation. We grew up with openly gay friends. We look at politicians like Mike Pence and just think ‘this guy could not be more out of touch with the issues we consider important’.”
“Pence’s message plays well to his base, but it’s pretty… gutsy to tell other people how they should or shouldn’t live. (Gay marriage is) an issue that Libertarians… well, I don’t want to say it’s a litmus test, but it gives us a pretty darn good insight into what people think of individual rights and liberty.”
Spangle, a former television producer and reporter, grants that things are a little slow for Libertarians in Indiana this year, but says that 2010 was a particularly busy one for them, and 2012 appears to be even more so. “Next year is a presidential year; last year was our ballot access year,” he says. “We’re run by volunteers, people with jobs and everyday lives. Politics can eat up a lot of time and energy. We do have fewer candidates across the state, but I don’t think it’s indicative of any party shrinkage. We worked our behinds off last year, and we know next year is a presidential year, and a gubernatorial year, and there’s a senate race, and all the house races… people are just saying ‘I’m going to work really hard on putting my name on the ballot next year’.”
A third party in Indiana has a pretty tough battle. “Someone described the Indiana election code as the Noah’s Ark of election codes: everything marches two-by-two,” he says. “Election laws across the nation are written to favor two parties. After Ross Perot, that’s when after many of the really tough ballot access laws were written, including here in Indiana.”
Spangle has an interesting perspective on the state of the Libertarian party in Indiana and across the country. For one, while he says that in our state most Libertarians describe themselves as conservative, in other parts of the country, you’ll find a lot of members from the other side of the political spectrum. “If you go to LA, for example, a lot of the party there is made up of former liberals. They respond to our message of non-intervention in people’s personal lives and in the foreign affairs of other countries.”
He says he sees that changing a little in Indiana, too. In an exit poll, the recent Libertarian candidate for US Senator, Rebecca St. Burris, scored high among those describing themselves as liberal, a result Spangle attributes to her stance on abortion (“she said ‘it should be safe, rare, and legal’.”) and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Democrats and liberals responded to her because she talks like Barack Obama the senator, not Barack Obama the president.”
Despite the Libertarian’s “fatigue” in 2011, Spangle and those involved in the LPAC believe interest in a viable third part is growing overall. The Libertarian party has only been an organized part in the US since 1971 — granted, forty years is hardly a short time, but the other two parties have quite a head start. But getting out the message via the internet and social media is easier than ever. “It’s theoretically possible that somebody could run a viral video campaign,” Robert Enders says. “That will probably happen eventually, and that can take a lot of the money out of politics.”
But while Spangle is second-to-none in his enthusiasm for the opportunities that the internet and social media offer to the Libertarians, he says the party in general has seen its best results in local races from a strategy that’s much more old-fashioned. “This is something I’ve preached from day one: go out and knock on doors,” he says. “We had a candidate in Topeka, Kansas that took that advice, and he’s now on the Topeka City Council. He knocked on every door in his district and won his council race. You’re never going to win the money game, you’re never going to get the media exposure you need, but if you knock on as many doors as you can, and make personal connections with people, then you’re going to start to grow.”
For the Libertarian Part of Indiana, visit lpin.org