Flanked by signs reading “Clowns to the left” and “Jokers to the right,” the vice chair of the Libertarian Party of Florida was revving up the troops.
“We gotta make sure we get the message out there,” urged Alex Snitker, 37, a burly, bearded firebrand in a three-piece suit who in 2010 was LPF’s first-ever Senate candidate. A predominantly white, predominantly male group of about 80 people had gathered to hear him in a meeting room at the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel in downtown Tampa, where the state party held its convention May 16-18.
“Because for all the good things that are going on? The media’s not going to report on that stuff. They’re not going to talk about you. The revolution will not be televised. It will not be written down by mainstream media. It’s going to be told by people like you, the regular citizen.”
Then he launched into Amendment 2, the medical marijuana initiative on November’s ballot. He claims that, because of the amendment, 700,000 newly registered voters will go to the polls simply because “they wanna get high.”
“They don’t care about Charlie Crist, Rick Scott, Adrian Wyllie. They don’t care if it’s Lucas Overby or David Jolly...They don’t care! They just wanna get high! Use that and explain to them, take that issue, which is a defining issue with this party — take that issue and tell them why all the other things we do relate the same way, explain freedom to them using that issue, because that’s their issue.”
Freedom to smoke marijuana has been a signature issue for Libertarians over the years. Wyllie, the party’s gubernatorial candidate, jokes that when he used to tell people he was a Libertarian, the response generally was, “Oh, you mean a Republican who likes to smoke pot?” But LPF officials say it’s Americans’ continued disgust with the two-party system that has opened up more voters to their message.
That’s debatable, but the Libertarians do seem to be enjoying some blowback from the country’s alienation toward both Republicans and Democrats. According to LPF Secretary Lynn House, Florida’s Department of Elections said there were 22,655 registered Libertarians as of January of 2013. A year later, she says, the DOE’s list had 24,000 names, a 7 percent increase. In just the past two months, election officials in Democrat-majority Palm Beach and Orange counties have reported that there are now more voters registered with no party affiliation (NPA) or minor parties than with the Republican Party.
And in this fall’s gubernatorial campaign, the Libertarian candidate might actually pull in enough votes to make a difference in the outcome.
Libertarians believe in limited government, free markets, individual rights, and more recently, ending the Federal Reserve and opposing foreign wars. And most have a serious thing for Ron Paul, the now-retired Texas Congressman whose cult-like following (he ran for president on the Libertarian ticket in 1988) went a bit more mainstream in 2007 when he pursued the Republican nomination for president, and increased in 2011-2012 when he ran for a second time.
Paul was the Libertarian gateway drug for many of the convention delegates.
William Alexander Copps of Hallandale Beach, a cherubic-faced 30-year-old, said Paul’s 2008 campaign led him to realize how attuned he was with the party’s philosophy, especially post-Iraq.
LPF’s current chair, Dana Moxley Cummings, was a huge Obama supporter in 2008 while living in Tallahassee. But early in his tenure she decided the president was not who she thought he was, leading to a crisis of confidence in the FSU poli-sci major’s belief system.
Then a friend who worked with Students for Sensible Drug Policy asked her about Paul. “That crazy Republican?” was her first thought. But after researching the Texas Representative’s record, she came away impressed by both his opposition to the war and his opposition to the war on drugs.
Cummings — blonde, stylish, 35 — sounds a bit starstruck when talking about Paul. “The more I learned about Ron Paul, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s right about everything.’” Along with a group of former Obama disciples who called themselves “the Blue Republicans,” she traveled the state in 2011-2012 on Paul’s behalf.
Although there are Libertarian candidates running for Florida governor, attorney general, and in two Congressional races in Florida, Cummings’ philosophy is that the party needs to build itself up by running — and winning — in smaller races. “Start with your neighborhood, start with your city, try to get people involved with city politics, then move from the county.”
She says the party has had an influence in Tallahassee on issues like medical marijuana and red light cameras, allowing the party to break through to the mainstream an issue at a time. “It’s insane to think we can take over the federal government,” she says. “It’s too big. We don’t have that type of influence.”
It’s hard for any third party to gain influence, given the way that our current political system is built. But surprisingly enough, Wyllie has (as of now) been invited to participate in the October 15 gubernatorial debate at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale.
Some old-school party members find the possibility of electoral success a bit discomfiting.
The amendment slated for this fall is looking good in the polls, prompting Melbourne resident James Ray to admit, “I’m not used to this winning thing.” In jest (but not completely), he suggested he might have to reconsider his positions in light of this newfound camaraderie with mainstream audiences. “As a Libertarian, you get used to losing. You start rooting for ‘Let’s lose after a decent fight.’”
Brooksville resident Charles McBrearty says he became a Libertarian after watching the party’s 2008 presidential candidate, Bob Barr, speak on television. He said Barr blasted the government’s reckless expansion, excessive spending, and invasions of our lives and personal privacy.
Isn’t that the GOP’s shtick?
“Republicans don’t really act on it,” says McBrearty, 27, who was considering a run for county commission in Hernando County but doesn’t think he’ll qualify because he can’t come up with the fee required. “A Democrat might spend a billion dollars on something. A Republican might spend $950 million. It doesn’t really make a difference. It’s a drop in the bucket.”
Similar sentiments were freely expressed back in 2009 as the Tea Party evolved into a national movement. But unlike the Libertarians, the Tea Party has never adopted a formal party structure. And even though in their early days Tea Partiers called a pox on both sides, they have almost always sided with the GOP.
Wesley Chapel resident (and Tennessee Ernie Ford lookalike) Nick Rizzo, 64, joined the Libertarian Party during the convention weekend. A former Democrat and Republican, he says he’s come to the realization that “both parties are useless and corrupt beyond reason.”
Plant City resident Joel Mountain has been a party member since 1985. A 52-year-old laboratory quality manager, he expressed frustration at the convention, saying it was more about party rules than really trying to change things. “We always talk about getting candidates. The problem is — nobody is going to vote for us,” he lamented.
While nobody expects him to prevail in the fall, the fact that Lucas Overby is the sole opponent in David Jolly’s CD13 re-election campaign is intriguing. The 27-year-old Clearwater resident garnered 5 percent of the special election vote earlier this year. And now, because of the debacle that led to the Democrats having no candidate to challenge Jolly in November, Overby appears a little more attractive.
During a speech at the convention, he said his staff had been approached by a Pinellas County union member who wanted to offer him support, but when asked later by CL to provide the would-be supporter’s name, Overby demurred.
It’s not surprising that he should attract interest from a traditionally Democratic bloc like organized labor. After all, he calls himself a ““Left-atarian,” and said at a press conference that he had never voted for a Republican in his life. And he spoke more harshly about the late Bill Young than he ever did during the special election.
“Bill Young, while he did a whole lot of good work, he also spent an egregious amount of money, buying his seat for the next election. So I can’t support that, or the social agenda of the Republicans ever,” before adding that he’s more in sync with the GOP on economic issues.
The most high-profile Libertarian candidate this year is Wyllie, the 41-year-old Palm Harbor president of an IT consulting firm. At the convention, he boasted about getting arrested by Pinellas County sheriff deputies for driving without a license after three years of trying, all so he could obtain legal standing to challenge the state’s Real ID program in court. He considers the ID program, which places driver’s license photos into a national database, a violation of the 4th Amendment.
In addition to giving him the chance to fight in court (his arraignment date is June 6 and he plans on pleading not guilty and asking for a jury trial), Wyllie acknowledges it was a nice bit of publicity. “So this gives a really good opportunity to quite frankly get a little more name recognition,” he admitted at the convention.
Wyllie could end up playing the part of a spoiler in the gubernatorial race — and help Rick Scott get re-elected. A Mason/Dixon poll late last month showed Rick Scott and Charlie Crist tied at 42 percent each, with Wyllie taking 4 percent.
Pollster Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research thinks some of the vote you might assume would go to Crist could leak over to Wyllie. “Obviously Scott’s a Republican, and Crist? They [Democrats] don’t necessarily embrace him after all these years as a Republican, so I think if you’re throwing a protest vote to a Libertarian candidate right now you’re probably more inclined to be left-of-center rather than right-of-center.”
Although 4 percent isn’t much, it would be the highest share of the gubernatorial vote in Florida for a third party in nearly a century. And it could make the difference in this election.