By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In Texas, third parties can qualify everyone together on a state level. To do so, in the previous election cycle one Libertarian had to draw either 5 percent of the vote in any statewide race or 2 percent of the vote in the race for governor. It's a nice loophole, one I figured I would exploit. (I also bought books on this, including Running for Congress and Congress for Dummies. Seriously.)
There was a snag, though. For the first time in 15 years, the Libertarians didn't meet those qualifications. The only recourse was to comply with the stipulations of another, tougher state law that dictated they must get more than 45,000 petition signatures during a 75-day window in order to get the party on the ballot. The Green Party faced a similar hurdle two years before and exhausted all its money and manpower trying to meet the goal. It failed, and the party was essentially wiped out in Texas.
I asked a Libertarian Party official what it would take to get it done. She said it would require many volunteers, which they didn't have, and a lot of money, maybe as much as $150,000, which they also didn't have. It sounded grim.
That's why I was surprised when the Libertarians delivered some 80,000 signatures to the secretary of state in Austin, thereby placing 30 U.S. congressional candidates on the Texas ballot, more than either the Dems or the Republicans. It was an unexpected coup, and it momentarily made me feel good about the party with which I had casually affiliated myself.
That didn't last.
At the ice breaker/happy hour the first night, Chris and I sat and stared: Old women with scraggly, salt-colored hair ate unidentifiable hors d'oeuvres while men in bad suits (male alternative uniform: sandals and T-shirts with pit stains) talked about the evils of government intrusion. There were some people who looked relatively normal, but mostly it was a party of Napoleon Dynamite-types munching on tater tots and trying in vain to fit in. Later, during the convention, the same people held workshops titled "Annexation: Texas Style" and "Katie Get Your Gun." They sold bumper stickers that read "Guns didn't make America unsafe, Congress did" and "Don't trust a government that doesn't trust you."
Chris, when he wasn't screaming about John Kerry being a "dangerous shit-bird," struck up a conversation with one of them. His name was Kris Overstreet, and he could have been John Malkovich's doppelganger--bald head, pasty white skin, an ample gut. He had on a fanny pack, and he was sweating so much through his white shirt that everyone at the party could see his nipples. He also writes porn comic books, information he divulged to Chris within five minutes of meeting him.
Overstreet is a hard-core Libertarian. He ran for vice chair of the state party and lost. But he also ran for vice convention chair and won, and served as the platform chair, too. He represents one division of Libertarians--policy wonks with serious knowledge about procedure and party issues but questionable interpersonal skills. On the second day of the convention, when the delegates gathered for platform debate, Overstreet delivered this message: "I've stepped on a lot of toes over the past five years, and I've been called a number of names by a number of people in this room, none of them nice. But I've never been called a slacker. I took Polk County from dormant to an active part of our party with three or four members."
The other faction within the party, smaller but more powerful, is controlled by people like Geoff Neale, who has held a number of titles within the party. He came off as bright and shrewd, as if he knew he was surrounded by a bunch of mental patients and, with a little effort, could manipulate them like a real-life Nurse Ratched. I asked him about whether the Libertarian Party was handicapped because it had too many oddjobs and not enough real politicians who could put a professional face on the effort.
"It's like fishing with a net," Neale said while smoking a cigar, every word slipping out of his mouth accompanied by a puff of heavy smoke. "You try to find the big fish, but most of the time you find small fish, and you want to throw them back. We're down a third in membership from 2000. If we're keeping with the paradigm of fish as life, we'd like to get our numbers up, but unfortunately we keep getting some who swim into the net even though we don't want them to. It's a fact of life."
It was the most interesting statement I'd heard at the entire convention, and I was beginning to think that maybe the Libertarians weren't so stunted after all. Then I overheard Neale saying something to one of the conventioneers: "Whites have a tradition of politics. Not Russians or Chinese...they're still living with the mind-set that the tallest blade of grass gets cut first."