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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.

Small Parties' Hopefuls Strive to Be Heard


In Indonesia, aligned with pro-democracy forces, she was trailed by government agents. In Brazil, her protests against a dictatorship got her deported. In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, she demonstrated against regimes backed by death squads.

Today, longtime activist Medea Benjamin finds running as the Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate just as daunting, though not as dangerous. "It's certainly less threatening," said Benjamin, 48. "But I wouldn't say it's easier."

Overlooked by the pundits, struggling for crowds, running on shoestring budgets, the third party candidates for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Dianne Feinstein have their work cut out for them.

"It gets really frustrating, especially when money is as scarce as it is," said Gail Lightfoot, the Libertarian candidate from Arroyo Grande, near Pismo Beach.

In a state where a single statewide advertising blitz can easily cost $2 million, Lightfoot, a retired nurse, figures she has raised about $15,000 and spent all but a couple grand. "The gasoline is what's eating up the money," she said.

With three weeks to go before election day, Lightfoot has put 20,000 campaign miles on her 1995 Ford Explorer. And "I still have a lot of trips planned," she said.

So does Reform Party candidate Jose Luis "Joe" Olivares Camahort. "October is filling up," Camahort, a retired engineer and scientist, said recently.

Wednesday he was in Santa Cruz. Today, San Mateo. Next Tuesday, he has events in San Francisco and San Rafael.

And Southern California? "Probably later this month," said Camahort, who lives in San Jose.

Camahort, 62, has never before run for office. Neither has Benjamin. But in this field, they are in the minority.

Lightfoot, 63, has four times been a candidate for Congress and once--in 1998--for California secretary of state.

"One reason I run is . . . that I have a name that resonates with voters," said Lightfoot. "And name recognition is a big part of voter decision-making."

In the March open primary, Lightfoot won more votes--120,622--than any of the other alternative party candidates. But the "try, try again" approach hasn't worked that well for some others.

American Independent Party candidate, Diane Beall Templin, an attorney, ran for Congress in 1978, the San Marcos City Council in 1980, the state Assembly in 1994, president in 1996 and state attorney general in 1998.

Physician Brian M. Rees of the Natural Law Party ran for Congress four years ago and the Senate two years ago.

Last spring, Templin and Rees finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in the primary.

"A lot of people ask my why I am running," said Templin, 53, of Escondido. "Well, I am running for Senate to give people a choice.

"I hear . . . people criticizing the government and the elected officials we have," she said. "But I figure, unless you do something about it, unless you run or help someone else to run, you don't have a right to criticize."

Rees, a family practice doctor in San Luis Obispo, said he continues to run for office to help shape the political debate.

"I have no illusions about winning this race," said Rees, 46. "In fact, leaving San Luis Obispo for Washington, D.C., would be purgatory."

But as a candidate, Rees said, he can raise issues, offer solutions and, most important, challenge voters as well as major party candidates to attack old problems with new ideas.

"I think the 'third party' parties--Reform, Natural Law and the others--are fairly responsible for some of the campaign finance reform rhetoric that Sen. [John] McCain [of Arizona] has embraced," Rees said.

"So we don't mind being co-opted--that's fine," he said. "The idea is to get these ideas out there and force the major parties to address them, one way or another."

That's not to say that he and the others do not face almost daily frustration in spreading their messages. "I didn't realize how hard it would be to be taken seriously by the press, by the pollsters," Benjamin said.

Though known in some circles for her political activism and endorsed in the primary by alternative publications such as the L.A. Weekly, Benjamin said she found herself essentially shut out of Senate race coverage by mainstream media.

"This is a big state, and you need access to the media to get out in a big way," she said.

Lightfoot agreed, adding that the pressure to just get noticed can prove overwhelming. Every day, she said, there's a poll that doesn't mention the alternative party candidates or a forum that doesn't invite them or a government meeting or town hall that they would like to address--if only they were notified. "It is endless," she said.

Answering correspondence, working on her Web site, polishing up campaign materials, candidate Templin was showing the strain recently.

"I am feeling pretty stressed right now," she said. "It seems like there are lots of deadlines--today, for example, I have multiple questionnaires [from groups] about my platform . . . [and] I just can't say, 'Look it up on my Web site.' "

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