WASHINGTON – Intensity defines Kevin Zeese’s actions — from his culinary abilities to his passionate commitment to politics outside the two main parties.
Even though he is a distant third in the polls in Maryland’s U.S. Senate race, he is running to win.
Zeese, 51, who considers himself as the only anti-war candidate and is representing an unprecedented three parties in Tuesday’s election, is trying to break into a campaign largely divided between Democrat Rep. Ben Cardin and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, with no more than $60,000 in his pocket.
It is a testament to his persistence and determination that he was included at least in three major debates in the race.
“Our country is going in so many wrong directions that we need a change, and I don’t see either of the status quo parties would make that kind of change,” Zeese said. “They are too indebted to the money special interests.”
Zeese is not new at campaigns: In the 2004 presidential election he was the press secretary of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who later encouraged Zeese to run.
“He’s done what no one else has done before” by representing the Green, Populist and Libertarian parties, and by getting into the major parties debate, Nader said. “I go around the country and for a Green candidate who is being excluded from a debate I would give Kevin as an example of how if you persist and you have a sense of strategy, you get on the debate.”
More people should do what Zeese is doing to “to break the two parties’ elective dictatorship,” Nader said, “so the voters will have more voices and choices.”
In his Takoma Park house, wearing a blue suit with a tie and no shoes, Zeese describes himself as a third choice, and he is exasperated when Cardin and Steele call themselves independents. “They sound like me!” he said.
His passion for politics is evident everywhere he is. At his home, books about economics, politics, history and law are piled from the entrance up the stairs to the second-floor studio. A collection of campaign buttons, plus photos of Zeese with former candidates or activists, and family photos, fight for space on the walls and in the bookcases.
“Every one in this house is politically motivated,” he said.
Linda Schade, with whom he lives, is an activist and former Green candidate for Maryland’s State House. He has two sons: Alex, 23, who works on his campaign, and Daniel, 18, who is the not-that-into-politics side of the family yet became a senator at Virginia Commonwealth University, Zeese said proudly. He and Dina, his ex-wife, were married for 20 years.
Originally from New York, Zeese grew up in a politically active house, where his father was teacher and his mother a nurse. Very articulate since a teenager, Zeese was popular and a good tennis player, said Elise Walton, a childhood friend. He was a good square dancer, she recalled, especially of The Virginia Reel.
“He is very agnostic about what he chooses to support, but it all comes from his principles,” Walton said. “He is not going to go for an argument because it’s going to buy him a favor or a connection with a group of people.”
Zeese got into politics when Republican John Lindsay ran for mayor. “In those days Republicans in New York were liberals,” he said.
After that campaign, Zeese voted Democratic until 1996, when he first voted for a third party. “There are a whole series of things that Clinton did that I didn’t like,” he said. “I didn’t like the corporate globalization where he was empowering corporations, and weakening the environment and labor. I didn’t like the welfare reforms that really made it very hard for people to survive.”
Zeese moved to Washington, D.C., in 1977 to study at George Washington University Law School. Although he was planning to be a criminal defense lawyer, he ended up working for advocacy groups. Looking for an internship, Zeese was shocked by what he learned about drug policies — the laws got tougher and went “way in the wrong direction,” he said.
He was an indefatigable worker and an effective speaker, said Robert Field, who worked with him in Common Sense for Drug Policy, a group Zeese founded.
One day, facing one of the most conservative audiences in Pennsylvania, Zeese tried to shake them up by asking who thought the drug policy was making the country a better place than 10 years ago, recalled Field. “No one raised their hand,” he said.
“He has an ability to talk straight and make his point. He is charismatic,” Field said. “He is selfless. Considering his abilities, he doesn’t work for paychecks,” he added. Field is glad Zeese is running for Senate because it “really brings out the full range of his talents.”
Zeese also co-founded TrueVoteMD, a group that works for transparent elections in Maryland by ending paperless electronic voting.
At a conference in 2002, Zeese met Schade, also involved in advocacy work. “It was clear immediately that we had a commitment with social justice and making the world a better place,” Schade said.
“He is a great public speaker, a great strategic thinker, and he is passionate and committed to the values and issues he cares about,” she said.
Politics was a bond for the couple, as Zeese helped Schade through her campaign for state delegate. He also worked for Peter Camejo, Green Party candidate for California governor, and in 2004 he joined Nader’s campaign.
After 30 years of working in Washington, Zeese felt Congress did not listen to people.
“They ignore us, and they listen to the money, not to the people, and that is exactly what is wrong with the country,” he said.
That feeling pushed Zeese — currently on leave of absence from his work as director of the national anti-war group Democracy Rising — to run for office.
Although he calls for an immediate military and corporate withdrawal from Iraq or wants to stop talks about bombing Iran, his name rarely is front page in the newspaper. That is his main problem, he said.
“Corporate media are just as corrupted as the corporate parties,” he said. “They don’t treat candidates accurately,” he insisted, and people cannot know there are other choices.
A candidate’s life has a price and it’s his neglected garden that’s paying for it, Zeese said. He misses his summer house in New York and having friends over for dinner, perhaps cooking his signature lamb dish for them. Still, he manages to share some family dinners and discuss their passion: politics.
“We are trying to bring more balance,” Zeese joked. The last movie he saw was “The Man of the Year” where actor Robin Williams plays a third-party presidential candidate. “He was almost saying my speeches. It was my story!”