It’s a sad prospect to ponder: the plight of this election season’s crippled underdogs. Shunned by the cruel reality of the political process, they languish from lack of money; as far as the mainstream press is concerned, they go almost unnoticed. Without the benefits of rich backers, name recognition, or ideas for which the time has come, Middle Tennessee’s third-party candidates and our otherwise handicapped campaigners for federal office have virtually no reason for optimism.
These candidatesnamely those running as independents, plus Republican Steve Edmondson, who’s taking on popular Congressman Bob Clement, despite the Fifth District’s solid Democratic traditionare like a junior-high kid who dares to keep his pants pulled up around his waist, even though all his peers are wearing theirs down past their butts. Despite the statistical impossibility of being elected, it’s the bravery and nonconformity of these candidates that persuade us to hear their stories. What’s more, simple respect for the democratic process weighs in heavily, demanding their arguments to be heard.
These days, most voters keep their fingers poised on the remote-control mute button. At any second, they can shut out the political commercials and sound bites that they find most annoying and repetitious. For candidates who don’t have the money to spend on publicity, such signs are encouraging. They would have us believe that a quiet revolution is now under way.
We may not know it, they say, butlike the 1930s Socialists whose ideas gradually became more accepted by the society at largethey are the people whose ideas will eventually begin to ring true for voters. It may not be this year, or even two years from now, they say, but they are confident that it will be someday soon.
The revolutionaries in question are the Libertarians, who, for the first time in Tennessee’s history, have fielded candidateslisted on the ballot as independentsfor all nine of the state’s congressional seats and for the U.S. Senate. The party’s ideologies merge the extreme right and the extreme left to form a lean, mean platform that would have the government sell off its national parks, its oil rights, and even its foreign properties. The Libertarians would shatter the Democratic ticket’s broken-record pledge to “protect Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment” by eliminating the health care plans, the federal education department, and all regulations concerning the environment.
They would legalize drugs and end welfare. Instead of simply cutting taxes as the Republicans suggest or “blowing a hole in the deficit,” à la Al Gore, the Libertarians would blow up the Internal Revenue Service. The party only advocates government involvement that is directly mandated in the U.S. Constitution.
As Libertarian Party presidential nominee Harry Browne, from Franklin, put it in a recent interview with the Scene, “You can sum up Libertarianism by saying we favor individual responsibility and freedom from government on all issues at all times. Force is the least efficient way of solving social problems, and government is force. If there’s a problem, [Libertarians] don’t say, ‘How can government solve this problem?’ We say, ‘How did government cause this problem?’ ”
Despite their radical platform, Libertarians say their greatest challenge isn’t in persuading people to adopt their ideas. They say their biggest job is convincing people that the Libertarian Party is really a valid choice at the ballot box.
“Overwhelmingly, people agree with Libertarian principles,” says Greg Samples, a macrobiotic counselor from Lenoir City who’s running for U.S. Senate against Republican Fred Thompson and Democrat Houston Gordon. “They really think what we’re saying is the correct course. The biggest problem is that we have to teach them that they’re not wasting their vote if they vote for us.”
The Senate race
As a macrobiotic counselor, Samples, 46, says he “teaches people how to take control of their lives by making lifestyle changes.” He hopes to use his Senate candidacy to gain a foothold for the Libertarian Party in East Tennessee. The party was founded nationally in 1971 in Denver, Colo., in the home of business executive David Nolan, who had pulled together a group of disaffected Republicans, Democrats, and independents. In Tennessee, the Libertarian Party has an active, albeit small, membership. But until this year it had not tapped its resources in the eastern end of the state, Tennessee’s most strongly Republican region.
If nothing else, Samples says, his campaign for the U.S. Senateand the resulting exposure he’s gained for himself and the party on radio talk showswill start East Tennesseans talking about the party’s principles.
“My hope is, once the election is over, we’re going to start here in Knox County with grassroots recruitment right away. This is really just the beginning,” Samples says.
During their one and only debate a few weeks ago, Thompson and Gordon spent a futile 10 or 15 minutes arguing about whether Thompson supported the selling off of Tennessee’s lakes and dams. Meanwhile, Samples doesn’t hesitate to tell voters where he stands on the issue that has also become a hot topic for the Sixth District’s matchup between incumbent Democrat Bart Gordon and GOP challenger Steve Gill.
The answer for Samples is simple: As a Libertarian, he would vote to sell off every government-owned lake or dam, field or stream, pond or creek, and put the proceeds toward shrinking the nation’s deficit.
“There’s not a lot of fluff in this party,” he says. “We’re very straightforward. We have a principle, and we really believe in it.”
Samples has raised approximately $2,000 for his campaign, not even enough to require him to file a financial disclosure statement with the Federal Election Commission. His meager collections are anemic compared with the $1.5 million Thompson has on handor even the $565,000 Gordon has spent.
The Fifth District
Republican Steve Edmondson’s dress-casual outfit probably blends in easily in the teacher’s lounge at Lebanon High School, where he teaches social studies. For the moment, however, he’s standing outside the Kinko’s near Hickory Hollow Mall, explaining why he’s taking on political giant Bob Clement.
“If you’ve got ideas you really believe in, you should try to present them. It’s no wonder Republicans never win in this district; they don’t try,” the 34-year-old Edmondson says.
Like Mike Childers, the Libertarian candidate in the Fifth District race, Edmondson has been frustrated by the fact that Clement has been able simply to sit back and rely on his incumbency and his popularity in his bid to win re-election.
“My view is that [Clement is] basically trying to cruise through without having to say anything and ask any questions,” Edmondson says. On the other hand, he concedes that Clement is not an overly controversial figure. “You can’t call him a hard-core liberal, but on the other hand he seems to just hold the seat.”
If Edmondson could have it his way, he says, he would cut congressional salaries by 10 percent, and he would eliminate congressional pensions and reduce congressional staff sizes by 25 percent. He supports the GOP’s balanced budget amendment, just as he is all for tax reform and a strict protectionist immigration policy. As the message on his answering machine“and remember, unborn babies are people too”makes clear, Edmondson is pro-life.
In fact, Edmondson was able to bring former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, a conservative pro-lifer, into town last week to help raise funds for the Edmondson campaign at a Sugartree Clubhouse event that drew about 50 people.
“One of [Buchanan’s] local people had said he was going to be campaigning for different candidates across the country and that he was interested in coming to this area,” Edmondson says. “He asked me if I was interested in having him come, and I said yes.”
Until that point, the only high point in the Fifth District race had come when Clement sent a small bombshell Edmondson’s way. Clement wrote a letter to the GOP neophyte, explaining why the incumbent congressman was not willing to limit spending during his campaign. At the close of the correspondence, which was also sent to reporters, Clement wrote, “You do not reside or work in the Fifth Congressional District, yet you used an Antioch address.... I find it puzzling that you would want to represent people in a congressional district in which you do not reside or pay taxes.”
Edmondson, who ran for the Fifth District seat in 1992 as an independent, argues that it is well within the law to run for any congressional seat, even if you don’t live in the district. Further, he says, he lived in Nashville most of his life and now lives in Murfreesboro, only nine miles outside the Fifth District.
The Fifth District’s other underdog is Libertarian Mike Childers, a 44-year-old financial advisor with John Hancock Financial Services. He has raised even less money than Edmondson, and he has created even less of a splash in his token race against Clement.
“We’re all poor,” Childers says of himself and his fellow Libertarian candidates. “We’re not rich politicians. Harry Browne turned down matching funds as a matter of principle, and the rest of us don’t have time to fund-raise while we’re making a living for our families.”
A Libertarian since 1983, Childers is a former drama teacher at Fisk University, and he has worked as director of performing arts for the Tennessee Arts Commission. He left the state arts agency, he says, when he realized that so much of the agency’s budget went for administration.
“By the time what started out as a dollar ended up in the hand of a violinist, it couldn’t have been worth more than a nickel. And who has the right to tell me as a taxpayer that I must give a dollar to a violinist? That should be my choice. That’s Libertarianism,” Childers says.
The Sixth District
Perhaps the nastiest campaign in recent Tennessee politics is the one that pits six-term incumbent Bart Gordon against his politically ambitious Republican opponent, Steve Gill. Gordon has done his best to paint a picture of Gill as an extreme conservative who buddies up to controversial U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. At the same time, Gill, who lost the Sixth District race to Gordon by 2,000 votes in 1994, has tried to characterize Gordon as one of the most freewheeling big spenders in Congress. Meanwhile, Libertarian Jim Coffer has been waiting quietly in the background.
An articulate voice for his party, Coffer, 42, is a businessman who, in 1986, founded The Realty Association, a Nashville-based real estate brokerage firm. He has stood his ground and has performed surprisingly well in the few debates that have involved Sixth District candidates.
While Gill and Gordon have raised a combined $2.2 million in their Sixth District campaigns, Coffer hasn’t raised anything to speak of.
“I have to work for a living,” says Coffer. “About half my income goes to taxation. My four children were born with about a $20,000 debt apiece. We Libertarians take our politics very seriously, but at the same time we don’t believe we’re entitled to anything. We don’t take government funds to run our campaigns. We have absolutely zero special-interest support.”
Coffer’s frustration over the funding of the political process pretty much sums up the problems that plague all third-party candidaciesparticularly Libertarians. The very heart of the Libertarian Party’s platformopposition to any kind of corporate or government support for elections, or anything elseis its noblest attribute. But it is also what makes its efforts futile and, time after time, unsuccessful. It is the reason that the outsider’s message, however worthwhile, continues to go unheard.
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