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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

3rd Parties Weave Dreams on the Fringes

Backers of the electorally obscure pursue politics with a passion, convinced their ideals will make it into the mainstream eventually.

October 20, 1998|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are not like the rest of us; that, of course, is precisely the point.

Richard Becker, a lifelong member of the Peace & Freedom Party, believes government's sole priority these days is to "meet the needs of corporate America" to the detriment of everyone else. Libertarian voter Richard Lowry takes a dim view of the war on drugs and thinks government treats Americans like children.

John Reynolds, a member of the Natural Law Party, argues that the federal deficit really hasn't been erased, that America is "a bankrupt nation . . . [and] just continues to print money that's not real, that should be backed by gold and silver, but it's not."

As they race headlong toward the November election, not all of California's voters obsess about things like classroom size and crumbling campuses, teacher training and standardized tests. Not all of them sit around at home engulfed by apathy, wondering whether to cast a ballot at all.

Toiling far below the radar of traditional media, California's thousands of third-party voters--perhaps America's most persistent practitioners of democracy--instead are working hard for candidates whose names most people never have encountered, men and women who probably have a better chance of winning lottery millions than a major election.

Barely registering when ballots are counted, scorned by the nation's major parties, these voters point proudly to the ideas that floated in from the fringes of minority politics before lodging firmly in the mainstream of American thought.

The abolition of slavery, suffrage for women, the progressive income tax, an end to the Cold War, they argue, all were pushed first by people accused of "wasting their votes" on the margins of politics.

Today, those who turn their backs on Republicans and Democrats hope for policy home runs from their current agendas: the teaching of transcendental meditation in prisons, for example, or a ban on the importation of coral products, the "democratic control of major industry," or maybe government based on proportional representation.

And for the most part, they do not feel like they are throwing their votes away when they bypass candidates they scorn as "Republicrats" and "Demopublicans" to follow their inner political voices. Even when those voices tell them to support people who rarely snare more than 4% or 5% of the vote.

"Oh, God, no," says Suzanne Reynolds, a newcomer to the Natural Law Party. "I believe that all it takes is one vote. I've found a party that stands for everything I believe in in my life, what I've been working for for the past 10 years. . . . I'm politically on fire."

And just a little unsure. Waiting for the start of a recent debate among the five minority candidates for governor, Reynolds says that she stumbled onto her new party just two weeks before in the pages of a spiritual periodical, called their offices, was told about the event at Chapman University in Orange County and decided to attend.

"I've never been to a debate," she says with a laugh. "How do you dress?"

Casually, of course. The debate ran long and began late, after Green Party candidate Dan Hamburg's ponytail bobbed in half an hour after the scheduled start, and he was the first to slide denim-clad legs behind a lectern with an "Oooh, this looks official."

If you don't believe that the California ballot provides alternatives for disaffected voters like Reynolds--those 750,000 or so adventurous souls registered to parties outside the mainstream--consider one particular exchange at this event.

First, the audience question: As governor, what would you do to ease the pain of the victims of California's tough three-strikes law--the men and women behind bars and the families they've left behind.

Steve Kubby, Libertarian: "It's absolutely the governor's responsibility to exercise his power of pardon."

Gloria La Riva, Peace & Freedom: "I'm very much in solidarity with the prison movement in this country. Prisons are prison camps for the poor."

Harold Bloomfield, Natural Law: "Transcendental meditation is proven to reduce recidivism by 20% to 40%, and yet there's been difficulty in trying to get meditation taught in our prisons."

Hamburg: "I will do everything in my power to eliminate three strikes and eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing."

American Independent Party representative Nathan Johnson was the only candidate to give the tough-on-crime front-runners in the race for governor anything close to a run for their money.

"The people who belong in prison should be there," Johnson said, still coming up just a little short of Republican Dan Lungren and Democrat Gray Davis, who bicker through their television ads over which man really, really, really supports the death penalty. "If it takes three strikes to get people off the street so your grandma can walk to the store in peace, so be it."

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