Let’s play politics — or would you rather have a root canal?
Just for the sake of argument, however, take a minute to consider what it means to define yourself politically.
We’re not talking strictly Republican vs. Democrat, either. Our local ballots this year will include both Libertarians and Reform Party candidates. (What you won’t find represented, however, is the Natural Law Party, or the Green Party, or the Constitution Party, among others.)
Curious about the candidates’ own perspectives, Mountain Xpress asked some of them about the state of politics in these parts.
“The Democrats take all your money and give half of it away, … then feel guilty about not giving all of it away. The Republicans take all your money, give it all away, then don’t feel guilty at all,” joked longtime Democrat Barbara Field, an Asheville City Council member and challenger in the race for state House District 51. Field turned Democrat back in 1960, the year of the Kennedy/Nixon presidential race. “There was no way was I going to vote for Nixon. I learned my politics from Bob Dylan and the ’60s mentality,” said Field.
“I grew up hearing that Republicans are the party of the rich,” said former Democrat Betty Williams, a Republican candidate in the same race. “But that’s not true. What [Republicans] have worked for, they want to keep. With the Democrats, you have to pay your fair shair — but who determines what your fair share is?” she reflected.
And candidates of all parties tend to tell voters what they think those voters want to hear. At a candidates’ forum sponsored by the nonprofit Taxpayers for Accountable Government, Republican challenger R.L. Clark (state Senate District 28) emphasized his impoverished childhood growing up in a mountain cabin. In the same vein, Democrat J. Ray Elingburg (state House District 51 — in all, there are nine candidates running for this district’s three seats) couldn’t help mentioning that he’s the ninth of 12 children. And incumbent Democrat Martin Nesbitt (District 51) couldn’t resist telling this one about a former North Carolina legislator: “Herbert Hyde [used to] say he was born in the log cabin he built himself.”
But forget about log cabins; Reform Party candidates say a bigger issue is money.
“Our political system is one in which special-interest groups take precedence over the public interest,” said Reform Party candidate Lance Kurland (District 51). Major corporations and political-action committees, he pointed out, routinely donate heaps of money to both Democrats and Republicans, and such groups end up having a major say in how our government is run. “We should have a legislature of citizens, [not] lawyers and special interests.”
“We don’t need PACs. We don’t need soft money. [The campaign-finance rule] should be: You can’t contribute if you can’t vote [as an individual],” added fellow Reform Party candidate Jerome Johnson (District 51). “We’ve given up our power over Democracy and turned it over to the corporations.”
But Johnson and Kurland actually represent the Natural Law Party, which formed a coalition with the Reform Party (founded by Ross Perot). Both Kurland and Johnson backed Natural Law Party presidential candidate John Hagelin, who failed to get on the ballot in North Carolina, in part because jump-ship Republican Pat Buchanan wrangled hold of the Reform Party nomination for president. (The American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of “politics” includes this formulation: “Intrigue or maneuvering within a political unit or a group in order to gain control.”) That victory won Buchanan millions in federal campaign monies, effectively knocking Hagelin out of the race nationwide.
“It’s against our rights in the Constitution to keep us from choosing,” declared Reform Party co-Chair Dot Drew. Not happy at all about Buchanan’s jump over to her party, she itched to complain about how hard it is for third parties to get their foot in the door nationally — or even just in North Carolina. To be on the ballot in 2004, third-party candidates must collect at least 10 percent of the vote in North Carolina; other states require only 2 percent. “The Democrats and Republicans don’t want us [on the ballot]. [They] have more name recogition and more money and more power,” said Drew.
The U.S. political system, she argued, needs reform. “You hear all these promises, but very little gets done. We must end special-interest control, and we have to do it through campaign-finance reform.”
“Generally, we all have the same goals, but different ways of achieving them,” said Republican incumbent Lanier Cansler (state House District 51).
There’s some truth in what Cansler says: Pick from a list of hot topics — education, our health-care system, the environment, campaign finance, the economy — and almost any candidate in this year’s election, of whatever party, will agree that it needs serious attention.
Elingburg, however, notes that although every candidate names education as a top priority, they disagree on some key points, such as vouchers (Republicans for, Democrats against).
Cansler naturally believes the Republicans could address education and other issues more responsibly than the Democrats. “It’s been my experience that we [Republicans] will raise taxes only as a last resort. Democrats will not focus on efficiency as much.”
So it seems that we’re back to square one. And then there’s the Libertarian view that “liberal” and “conservative” really have no meaning; that party’s guiding principle is that no one (including the government) has the right to initiate force against anyone else. “Government is inherently violent; we judge what government does based on that. And [the Libertarian] principle pares government down to a minimum,” explains Barry Williams, the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Congress, District 11.
That attitude seems to one-up the Republican commitment to less government. On the other hand, the Natural Law Party holds that we all need to get more involved, regardless of our party inclinations or personal beliefs. “The best solutions come from a group of people who’ll do more than sit back and criticize, and [will] come together and find common ground,” proclaimed state House challenger Michelle Murphy, who’s running on the Reform Party ticket (though she grew up Republican and was inspired to run by Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin).
Murphy concluded: “Without real debates between all party candidates, there is no real democracy. People want choices.”
For information about the bumper crop of political parties out there, the Buncombe County Board of Elections Web site (bcboe.org) provides links to sites representing all the parties mentioned in this article.