WASHINGTON – Libertarian Chairman Robert Johnson phoned around to his tiny party’s sympathizers late last year, after being dispatched from an August picnic to corral congressional candidates against Maryland Democrats’ near-monopoly.
He asked the potential nominees three questions: “Are you against the war in Iraq? Are you against the Patriot Act? Are you against the war on drugs?” If the answers were yeses, members were invited to the party’s convention in March for final vetting. About 20 candidates and party officials showed up at Squires, an Italian joint in east Baltimore.
Johnson managed to field a nearly full slate, but the objective wasn’t to win races — 2 percent would be a victory, he said — but to send a message to the Democrats that one-party rule won’t stand in Maryland anymore.
Libertarian candidates like Lorenzo Gaztanaga, of Baltimore, say the major nominees, including four Democratic incumbents who haven’t been seriously challenged in three or more cycles, must answer voters on issues like the financial bailout, and live up to their campaign promises, such as ending the war in Iraq.
Two-party states, where politicians hug party lines to win votes and few new ideas emerge, are bad enough, said Gaztanaga, whose district is among the most Libertarian in Maryland with more than 0.2 percent of the electorate.
“However, here in Maryland, it’s even worse. We have a one-party state,” said the former Democrat, Republican and independent whose family moved to the U.S. from Havana, Cuba, when he was 12.
If he wins even a small percentage of votes, his candidacy will be a wake-up call for Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Democrat incumbent in the 2nd District, Gaztanaga added.
Democrats make up 56 percent of Maryland’s 3.2 million voters, while Republicans are only 28 percent. Republicans have not had much luck gaining ground in statewide and congressional elections in recent years. Former Gov. Robert Ehrlich is a notable exception, moving from the 2nd District congressional seat to the governor’s office in 2003.
The Libertarian Party’s other candidates are Richard Davis in the 1st District; Thibeaux Lincecum in the Fourth; Darlene Nicholas in the Fifth; Gary Hoover in the Sixth; Ronald Owens-Bey in the Seventh; and Ian Thomas in the Eighth.
One-party government could also be hazardous for practical reasons.
For example, if Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is elected president, he will appoint Cabinet members and other federal officers, but he’s unlikely to draw many from a state dominated by the opposite party.
“There’s a lot of talent in the state who could be chosen,” said Paul Herrnson, the director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
But observers are hard pressed to point to potential Republican appointees.
“If the Republicans win, Bob Ehrlich might get an appointment,” Herrnson said, trailing off.
The state’s projects, too, could be held at a disadvantage as those from a state with more political clout win attention and funding.
Third-party activists in Maryland also say Democratic hegemony allows elected officials within the party to avoid scrutiny while in office and to make campaign promises that they don’t live up to.
“The only reason we’re here is that major parties don’t do what they say they will, and we pick up the people who don’t like that,” said Libertarian Doug McNeil, of Baltimore.
Like other members and candidates in his party, McNeil pointed to the war in Iraq, which Democrats pledged to reign in during their 2006 campaigns.
Libertarians have typically tried to pick-off disaffected Republicans with their conservative views on fiscal policy and gun rights. Now that the Libertarians find themselves on the Democratic side of the war and social policies, like abortion, they are going after Democrats, too, party officials said.
“Actually, Republicans tended to be more open and more supportive of fair ballot access than the Democrats. They have almost the status of a minority party themselves,” said McNeil, who was an expert witness in the 2003 Green Party v. Maryland case that eased the election board’s rules for getting candidates on the ballot, making this year’s Libertarian run possible.
In the 1st Congressional District, Libertarian candidate Davis, a Hurlock dentist whose sparing campaign has decided not to accept contributions, is taking on state Sen. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, and Stevensville Democrat Frank Kratovil, the state’s attorney for Queen Anne’s County.
Davis plans to join the mainstream candidates at debates this fall, and Johnson noted that Harris has been a valuable advocate for third-party candidates, encouraging Davis to join the debates, and pushing ballot access reform during his tenure in the state Senate.
Like Gaztanaga, Harris grew up savvy to the dangers of one-party rule. His parents are Czech and Ukrainian immigrants.
“At the heart of every democracy is access to the ballot,” said Chris Meekins, the Harris campaign manager. “Andy’s parents lived under communism. He understands freedom.”
This year, ballot access barriers to the Libertarians were mostly self-inflicted, said Johnson, the Libertarian chairman, since some candidates waited until the last day to register as candidates in Annapolis.
“Most of the ballot access problems in the past have dissolved,” said Jared DeMarinis, the director of the candidacy division at the Maryland elections board.
One of the Libertarian candidates, said DeMarinis, Sebastian Sassi who would have run in the 3rd District, simply didn’t turn in his certificate of nomination on time.