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Peace, Freedom Party Still in Fray After 20 Years on Ballot

January 11, 1988|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

The gathering was remarkable for its diversity.

At one end of the room, a man wearing a gray business suit argued politics with a bearded compatriot in blue jeans and red flannel work shirt. Nearby, a woman wearing a purple thrift-store headband mingled with another draped in an expensive fur coat. And cruising wide-eyed through the crowd, a teen-age girl with bright orange hair sported earrings shaped like peace symbols and skeletons.

"I thought of joining Kiwanis," said Bobbi Kay Burgess, 15, who described herself as a "death rocker" and Garden Grove high school student. "But I think I like this better."

"This" was the birthday celebration of the Peace and Freedom Party, an avowedly left-wing group that began in the 1960s and is still around today.

Young and less young, affluent and otherwise, about 200 politicos from all over Southern California descended on the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach last weekend to participate in the anniversary event, billed as "radical 1960s nostalgia" and "rebellious 1990s visions."

It was 20 year ago this month that the Peace and Freedom Party first qualified for the California ballot and, despite the dwindling of its radical following, has remained on the ballot ever since. Feelings among those who helped that happen range from pride of accomplishment to disappointment at the failures to a passionate belief that the best for the party is yet to come.

"The mere fact that we've been on the ballot for 20 years is an accomplishment in itself," said Maureen Smith, 45, who works for the Santa Clara County Transportation Agency and is the party's state chairwoman.

Said John Donohue, a 62-year-old retired Long Beach shoe salesman who has run for Congress seven times under the Peace and Freedom banner: "We are magnificent failures. We're like David and Goliath, only our stone missed."

In fact, that proverbial stone was first aimed at a time when it seemed to have some chance of hitting. That was in 1967 when, despite the rising tide of grass-roots opposition to the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared to have the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination sewn up. So, electorally inclined members of the anti-war movement, many of them longhaired hippies who drove multicolored vans and wore paisley pants, started a voter registration drive that they believed would radically alter the American political landscape forever by creating a major national third party dedicated to peace and racial equality.

For almost a year, it seemed that they might succeed. Surprising political pundits by collecting nearly 90,000 registrations in California alone, the new Peace and Freedom Party easily qualified for ballot status here and in 19 other states.

Candidates Overwhelmed

But then came the actual election, and the party's hopes were dashed. Its two candidates--Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in California and comedian Dick Gregory in several other states--polled a combined total of only about 344,000 votes. That was far below the 9.7 million received by Alabama Gov. George Wallace's American Independent Party (which also is still on the California ballot) and not enough to make Peace and Freedom a major factor in the election, which Richard Nixon narrowly won.

Four years later, the party did even worse with pediatrician Benjamin Spock as its standard bearer. That year Peace and Freedom registrations dipped to a low of 14,000 and the party lost ballot status in most other states. But in 1976, members say, the party's California registration began rising once again until today it stands at about 41,000, or 0.34% of registered voters. And by consistently garnering at least 2% of the vote in statewide elections and maintaining a minimum of 9,000 registrants, the party has been able to retain its California ballot status all these years.

Today the Peace and Freedom Party, which has an estimated 150 to 200 active members statewide, consistently runs candidates for most state and national offices. Except for a handful of nonpartisan City Council and school board seats in Northern California, the party has never won an election. Yet members point proudly to what they consider two major accomplishments: a successful 1974 lawsuit that resulted in the right of candidates in California to submit signatures in lieu of filing fees, and a ballot initiative drive that they believe helped influence the Legislature to give 18-year-olds the vote.

Takes New Positions

Although the party still emphasizes peace and equality as its major themes, it has taken a battery of new positions in recent years, including support for feminism, national health care, mass transit, AIDS education, homosexual rights, full employment and government aid to the homeless. Conversely, the party has adamantly opposed U.S. aid to the Contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua.

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