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CAMPAIGN JOURNAL : Third-Party Candidates Trying to Get to First Base With Voters


When Jerome McCready walks into a restaurant and proclaims that he will be the next governor of California--as he is inclined to do these days--dinner service doesn't exactly come to a halt.

"Some people think at first that it is a joke," said McCready, a deep-voiced licensed Baptist minister who works as a maintenance supervisor for an apartment company. "But I wear a button with my picture on it, and it is a rather expensive button. It costs two bucks apiece. So after about a half a second, they realize I am not joking."

The McCready for Governor campaign operates out of a three-bedroom house in Castroville that the 41-year-old former truck driver built with his wife, Betty, four years ago. McCready drives to Salinas when he needs to use a fax machine, and his wife answers the campaign phone--which doubles as the household phone--while he is at work.

If Betty McCready is not home? "They have to call back," her husband of 21 years said unapologetically.

McCready is running as an American Independent, one of three so-called third-party candidates competing for the state's top job against Republican Sen. Pete Wilson and Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Also on the ballot are Libertarian Dennis Thompson and Peace and Freedom Party candidate Maria Elizabeth Munoz.

Taken together, the three parties represent just under 250,000 Californians--almost 2% of the state's registered voters.

The three underdogs won party primaries, collected 150 signatures to qualify for the ballot and have 200-word statements published in the official ballot pamphlet along with those of their Republican and Democratic rivals. The pamphlet listed the wrong phone number for McCready. But otherwise, all five candidates--from Wilson at the top of the Nov. 6 ballot to Munoz at the bottom--have been officially treated the same.

Equity in the gubernatorial contest, however, ends there.

McCready, Thompson and Munoz together have been able to raise less money than it costs Feinstein or Wilson to broadcast a single 30-second television ad. They have been excluded from the Wilson-Feinstein debates, and this week, when public television stations across the state air interviews with each of the gubernatorial candidates, the third-party segments will be broadcast two days later than the Wilson and Feinstein interviews.

The three underdogs rarely appear on television news shows or in the newspaper--a sore point with each of them--even though they have been stumping faithfully in the distant shadows of their mainstream counterparts. The dearth of media coverage, they complain, is just one of many ways the system conspires against them.

"Quite frankly, I am surprised you even called me," Thompson said in a recent telephone interview.

Munoz, a third-grade bilingual teacher near downtown Los Angeles, got some of the best visibility of her candidacy last week by forsaking the campaign trail for the classroom. Munoz caught the attention of reporters when she wore a green armband during a visit to her school by Princess Alexandra of Great Britain. Munoz was protesting the repression of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

"As a Chicana, I know what it is like to be treated as a second-class citizen in your own country," said Munoz, an Ivy League graduate and a former counselor at a shelter for battered women in the Bronx. "I wanted to teach my children something about protesting and their right to do that."

Typically, electioneering for Munoz does not begin until school lets out at 3 p.m., and then far from the media spotlight. She spends weekends and evenings in front of supermarkets, walking door-to-door in her native East Los Angeles and at party rallies setting forth the only socialist alternative on the ballot.

As such, the 33-year-old Munoz doesn't mind standing out. She recently hired a handful of former gang members to register voters in some of Los Angeles' toughest neighborhoods, and she promises that her first act as governor would be to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for improved social services for the poor and sick.

"I would like to be able to cost Dianne Feinstein the election," said Munoz, who runs her campaign from a corner desk and filing cabinet in a friend's Los Feliz apartment. "That would send a very clear message to both parties that there is a third party here, and if they don't start supporting some of the issues that people in California need and want, the people are going to start voting for progressive independent candidates."

Libertarian Thompson also professes that the time for a third-party governor has arrived, although, predictably, he doesn't see a "progressive independent" as the alternative. Thompson has been parading up and down the state, dropping in on candidate forums and radio talk shows espousing the evils of taxation and the virtues of individual liberty.

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