Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Major-Party Status

Local Libertarians gathered at Mystic Lake Casino to fine-tune their message, play the slots, and practice the Ransberger Pivot

And to Libertarians, that stings. Especially given that Ventura, who just a year ago was courting this state's Libertarians for an endorsement, has put the "freedom" party on his hit list.

"Libertarians, at least the ones here in Minnesota, they're anarchists," Ventura erupts. "Their philosophy is a great thing. But in practice, in many ways it's a dream world. They enjoy bitching. They enjoy sitting out there on the sidelines waving their flags. They enjoy standing out on the capitol steps protesting. But the point is, they don't want to win. They had an opportunity to win when I asked for their endorsement. They could have had their name right up there with mine."

Dasbach is quick to point out that Libertarians don't endorse candidates outside the party: If a Reformer like Ventura isn't willing to carry the Libertarian flag and only the Libertarian flag, it does little good for the organization. He does admit, however, that the party in Minnesota did squander the chance to capitalize on Ventura's upset: "If this had been a state where the party had been in a position to be more aggressive, it would've been an opportunity," says Dasbach. "If there were more candidates in place, we could have reached out to those voters who hadn't traditionally been involved in the political process but who came out to vote for an independent."

A former public high school science teacher who campaigned for presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972 and marched against the bombing of Cambodia, Dasbach devised the curriculum for the Success conferences back in 1997. By the time the 2000 election rolls around, he, Harris, and national campaign manager Aaron Starr (who was unable to attend the Minnesota seminar) will have brought their pitch to more than 20 states, in the hope of equipping their troops to surf the next populist wave, regardless of ideology.

"We're trying to build a majority. And we can't build a majority based on our destination," Dasbach tells the faithful as they furiously scribble notes on pads emblazoned with Mystic Lake's blue-and-white logo. "We must agree on a direction. Direction unites us; arguing about destination divides us."

 

As well-rehearsed as it is basic, the two-day crash course focuses on fundraising, grassroots organizing, and media relations--areas in which moderation and professionalism are a necessity. (Dasbach recommends avoiding "Libertarian macho flash.")

Participants are told that in order to win they must master the five vowels of organization: A-ctivity, E-xcellence, I-nfrastructure, O-utreach, and (sometimes) Y-ou. Dasbach admits upfront that this is not sexy stuff. But he stresses that knowing how to format a fax, solicit campaign contributions from family and friends, cold-call local reporters, and properly recruit and train prospective candidates for lesser offices (first step: "Make sure they've read the platform") is as important to the Libertarian movement as the free market was to Thomas Paine. To keep people from falling asleep, he and Harris slather the bare bones with well-rehearsed slogans and canned humor: "Nobody will give you money unless you ask them." "Media doesn't produce success; success produces media." "Complaining doesn't get things accomplished; doing gets things accomplished." "Good communication is not only knowing what to say, but knowing what people hear."

Sitting arrow-straight, nodding enthusiastically, the best-dressed member of the congregation is Larry Fuhol. And for good reason. In the short term, at least, the 44-year-old factory worker from Isanti, who came to the party in the late Eighties after being cited by the IRS for a tax-code violation, stands to gain the most from Success '99. This past summer Sen. Janet Johnson (DFL-North Branch) died, leaving a vacant senate seat in the state's 18th District. A special election is being held in November and Fuhol, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Rep. James Oberstar's Eighth District seat in 1996, is counting on local name recognition (at present he's serving as planning commissioner for Isanti Township), anti-stadium sentiment, suspicion of the state's light-rail plans, and a general disdain of taxes to help him pull off a stunner. There are no polls to support his claim that victory is a "real possibility," no indication that he'll even be able to raise enough money to buy lawn signs. Still, Fuhol feels it.

On Saturday afternoon, after everyone has munched on the macaroni salad, iceberg lettuce, and most of the meat group at Mystic Lake's all-you-can-eat buffet, Sharon Harris launches into a presentation on the Ransberger Pivot. In 1992, Harris explains, California Libertarian Ray Ransberger got his name etched in party history books when he devised a strategy for dealing with hostile questions. The rhetorical dance comprises a few basic steps: Listen to the question, take a deep breath, decide what the inquisitor's concerns are, empathize, then formulate an answer that addresses those concerns. Don't preach. Don't bore the audience with platitudes. Tell them what they want to hear; try not to abandon your ideals; move on.

Fuhol, his jet-black locks greased into a ducktail, his body starched stiffly in a blue sportcoat and tie, is the guinea pig. Forrest Wilkinson, a freelance handyman and Fuhol's volunteer campaign manager ("I'm a jack-of-all-trades, master of several"), throws out a question every Libertarian has heard a thousand times. "Larry, is it true you Libertarians want to legalize drugs?"

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