Friday, June 02, 2006

Feature: Drug Reformers Take the Third Party Path in Bids for Statewide Office

Loretta Nall


Frustrated by the two major parties' indifference -- if not downright hostility -- toward ending the decades-old war on drugs, at least three prominent drug reform leaders have launched bids for statewide office as third party candidates. In Alabama, US Marijuana Party founder Loretta Nall is running for governor on the Libertarian Party ticket. In Connecticut, the state's most prominent drug reformer, Cliff Thornton of Efficacy is running for governor as a Green. And in Maryland, Common Sense for Drug Policy's Kevin Zeese is running a unity campaign under the banners of the Green, Libertarian and Populist parties.

While the odds of any of them actually winning their races are long, all three told DRCNet they are in it to win -- and to show the major parties they risk voter defections if they fail to address growing public disaffection with the drug war. And while none of them are so far being accorded the dignity of having their candidacies measured by major opinion polls, all hope to break that barrier between now and November.

Down in Alabama, Loretta Nall is adding pizzazz to a campaign already replete with notable characters -- one of the leading Democratic contenders, former Gov. Don Seigelman, will be in court on corruption charges on next week's primary day. Challenging Gov. Bob Riley for the Republican nomination is former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who hopes to transform his stance against the Constitution and in favor of placing the 10 Commandments in courthouses into a path to the statehouse. Early polls show Riley defeating both Moore next week and either of the Democrats in November.

In Alabama, Nall will be facing off against the two major party candidates to be decided next week -- if she can get enough signatures to get on the ballot by primary day, June 6. "Right now, I'm focusing all my energy and money on getting signatures. It's going to be a nail biter," she said. "The Republicans and Democrats don't have to gather signatures, but third parties do, and if we get on the ballot and don't get 20%, the party loses its status and has to re-qualify with more signatures," she said.

For Nall, it all started with drug policy, and the issue remains central to her campaign.

"Drug policy is a huge part of my campaign and I don't back away from it. After all, I got my start from the cops kicking down my door," she said, referring to the minor pot bust that started her on down the path to activism. "I work it into all my speeches; it's the first thing I talk about in candidate forums. Because the drug war is so pervasive, I can connect it with all sorts of issues."

Nall is working other issues as well, running as a pro-immigration reform and anti-Patriot Act and Real ID Act candidate, but the media is fascinated with her drug policy stance, she said. "People want to know where I stand on issues like immigration and education, but the reporters always want to ask about drugs. The public knows where I am on drug policy."

Although running under the Libertarian banner, Nall doesn't quite fit the mold. "I'm a libertarian, but not a big L one. In fact, I find myself agreeing with liberal Democrats more than anybody. I would say I'm liberal socially and conservative fiscally," she said. "I want our Alabama National Guard troops out of Iraq, and that resonates -- if the rednecks down here are tired of whipping brown skinned peoples' asses [Iraqis], Washington needs to take notice," she said. "We also need to make biodiesel a big issue -- we can't afford this $2.50 a gallon for gas business. And we need education reform and Washington out of our classrooms."

In Connecticut, Cliff Thornton is facing off against Republican Gov. Jodi Rell and Democratic challenger Dannel Malloy, the mayor of Stamford. Things are off to a good start, he told DRCNet. "The campaign is going pretty well, although we don't have a lot of money in the coffers," said Thornton. "We've been getting great media attention and real good articles. Since I announced in January, we've had pretty close to an article a week somewhere in the state. The media likes what I'm saying."

The mainstream candidates aren't addressing key issues, Thornton said, and part of his role is to redirect the focus. "I want to get these people to talk about the issues," he said. "How many people are talking about the war in Iraq? How many people are talking about the war right here? How many people are talking about the race issue?"

For Thornton, who has made a career of calling for an end to prohibitionist drug policies, hammering at the issue makes perfect sense. "Drug policy is a big part of my campaign. That's what I'm known for. Cliff Thornton and drug policy do not separate. After all, drug policy is two degrees from everything. Transportation issues and full health care for all in Connecticut are not drug policy issues, but again we're talking about the money. Programs don't happen because we're spending money on the drug war."
So what does Thornton talk about? "I definitely talk about what we did in Hartford and the white paper that resulted," he said, referring to last fall's symposium bringing together Connecticut political and law enforcement leaders, public health experts, and drug law reformers and the progressive drug policy positions that resulted from that conference. "I also tell them that cannabis should be legalized, that we should have heroin maintenance, and that drug use should be de-stigmatized. This is a public health problem, not a law enforcement problem."

He also talks about crime. "We've had 16 shootings since last Wednesday," he noted. "They're saying they're not directly drug-related, but all these people are coming from drug-infested areas. You have to ask how many of these kids that did these shootings had parents in prison or in the drug trade. How many of them saw the cops continually harassing people?" he said. "The mayor and police chief are talking the same old talk, but you can't just keep doing the same old failed thing over and over again. We've been at the drug war for a century, and we just keep doing the same thing and getting the same results. How can we expect things to change if we just keep doing the same thing?"

Thornton is running as a Green, and beyond advancing the drug policy agenda, he also wants to make the Greens a viable alternative in Connecticut. "As drug policy reformers, we're way ahead of the local party people," Thornton said. "The Greens couldn't get the press to pay attention, but I know how to get the press." If only he could be as successful in fundraising, he said. "We're not so good at that; we've only got about $30,000."

Thornton acknowledged that his prospects for victory are slim, but said he expected to show well. "I want to garner between 10% and 25% of the vote in November. The key is to show that you can lead and win with drug policy reform," he said.

In Maryland, Zeese, a veteran of the 2004 Ralph Nader presidential campaign, is up against Democratic contenders Rep. Ben Cardin and former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume and Republican candidate Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes. Early polling shows Cardin leading Steele by 10 points, while Mfume versus Steele is currently a dead heat. In a close race, a Zeese candidacy could make the difference.

"I'm running on issues of peace, justice, democracy, and prosperity, and the drug issue comes in under justice," said Zeese. "I always mention it. I always mention that Maryland has the most racially unfair drug enforcement system. Of our drug prisoners, 90% are African-American. This is selective enforcement, and we also saw that when Maryland became one of the first states to be sued by black drivers for racial profiling," he said. "But this is an issue that really comes up only with African-American audiences. With white audiences, it's probably more a negative than a positive."

Except, perhaps, on college campuses. "Drug policy reform resonates well on campus," he said. "When I address an audience, I always ask what they want to talk about. Almost always, it's the Patriot Act, Iraq, the deficit, corporate power, but on college campuses, they want to talk about the war on drugs and they want to talk about weed."

For Zeese, the campaign is much broader than drug policy. "I focus a lot on the Iraq war, the divide between rich and poor, and the corruption of our political system," he said. "I talk about how people feel unrepresented, and I hit my common themes on justice issues, civil liberties, the Patriot Act, and the drug war, but the two big issues are war and peace and rich and poor."

Zeese rejected the notion that third party candidacies are "spoilers," and he chided the drug reform movement for not backing his campaign. "I'm always appalled by drug reformers who support Democrats who support the drug war," he said. "We complain about spineless Democrats and then we vote for them. It's really asinine for drug reformers to think the Democrats are going to be their saviors. You're voting for people who want to put your friends and families in jail. Can anyone point me to the Democratic Party's leadership on drug reform? The drug reform movement is showing its level of political maturity by not getting involved in this race," he said. "If you want to talk about spoilers, for the drug reform movement, the spoilers are the two main parties."

Zeese has no illusions about his prospects. "Winning would be a real long shot, but that's what it's about, and it's a lot like pushing boulders uphill. It's a constant battle to be taken seriously," he said, noting that he is beginning to get some mainstream press attention. "I would like to win this battle, but I think I would be successful if I can create a three-way race where I'm included in the polls and debates and my impact on the race is clear," he said. "If I do well, that will be a signal to the parties they are out of touch with the voters." .

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