LP Leaders Discuss Strategy
by Ari Armstrong, January 24, 2002
What I found remarkable about a January 19 informal meeting to discuss strategy for the Libertarian Party of Colorado was the sense of optimism.
Libertarians meet January 19 to discuss strategy. Back, l-r: Frank Atwood, Tony and BetteRose Ryan, Ralph Shnelvar, and John Berntson. Front: David Aitken, Adam Katz, Mike McKinzie, and Rand Fanshier. Not pictured: Norm Olsen, Bo Shaffer, Judd Ptak, and me (Ari Armstrong).
It could have been otherwise. After a spectacular 2000 season with a record number of candidates, the Stanley campaign threatened to rip apart the state LP in 2002. Apart from the victories in San Miguel County, 2002 didn't seem to present a lot of progress. And now LP leaders fear the legislature is trying to shut down minor parties with bill 1142. Why the hell do Libertarians seem to be so happy?
Norm Olsen serves as Campaigns Director for the Libertarian Party of Colorado.
Part of it, of course, is that Libertarians are motivated primarily by a set of ideas, not by a desire for political power. Thus, elections are not the only measure of success. The general sense is that libertarian ideas aren't faring that badly. Another libertarian economist was recently awarded the Nobel. TABOR is practically worshipped by state Republicans. The "liberal" Denver Post recently called self-defense a "human right." While the government's reaction to 9/11 has certainly been bad for civil rights, the reaction has been not nearly as frightening as it might have been in earlier decades. Frank Atwood described the "tipping point," the idea of critical mass. I cannot escape the feeling that success is possible and even likely (regardless of how the LP fits into it).
I was also encouraged that the two camps got along very well. The Stanley hearing and other issues had created a great deal of animosity. While I'm sure some bitterness remains beneath the surface, I got the sense everybody is eager to put aside past disputes and forge ahead.
Norm Olsen moderated the event. He began by observing more Libertarian candidates ran active campaigns in 2002 than in 2000. (Five of the 13 attendees were candidates this last election, including Olsen.) Interestingly, Olsen said he is considering running for Congress again next year. Biff Baker, who earned over 6% of the vote in Colorado Springs for Congress, has said he's also thinking about running again. At least one candidate for state house has pitched his hat in the ring already.
All the candidates reviewed the high and low points of their campaigns. Ralph Shnelvar, the candidate for governor, said he made several mistakes. An event with Koleen Brooks didn't go as planned. He tried to use humor to poke fun at Democratic proposals in a speech and the crowd was not receptive. He also overestimated his ability to get the votes of marijuana rights supporters. Also, "I stopped raising money, and that was a mistake." Still, Shnelvar attended numerous debates and ran radio ads in Grand Junction and Northern Colorado.
Mark Holden could not make the meeting, but he sent along his written review with Atwood. Holden writes, "I learned the boundaries, demographics and affiliations of my district. I walked the streets and knocked on doors, I stood outside grocery stores talking with the people, I had a newspaper interview and interviews with labor unions, and I even gave a Sunday 'sermon' at a church." On the down side, "I spread myself way too thin" without a campaign manager or enough volunteers.
Adam Katz, another Congressional candidate, said, "I was very proud of my campaign... I did something every day." When Tom Tancredo made headlines about immigration, Katz also spoke with the press, though he wishes the papers had printed more of what he had to say.
Olsen said "I was too nice." He said if he runs again he will be more aggressive in pointing out the shortcomings of his opponents. He said Libertarians have "got to give people a reason to want to kick the [other] guy out."
Olsen then turned the discussion to the future. He pointed out that John Gurley ran a great campaign for sheriff in Mesa County -- "he did everything right" -- yet an inactive candidate in Boulder did about as well. Somebody else pointed out that a sheriff's race attracts more attention than other county races. (I didn't mention that Gurley was running against an especially popular Republican.) Yet the LP picked up two significant victories in San Miguel County. Olsen said organization is key: "If we build an effective organization, the good candidates will come to us."
Rand Fanshier pointed out the LP could do a lot more work reaching out to other organizations. David Aitken urged Libertarians to build their resumes by becoming active on local service boards. Olsen also wants better training for candidates.
Judd Ptak said, "It's easier to turn activists into Libertarians than to turn Libertarians into activists." While BetteRose Smith noted the state LP does seem to have a higher percentage of activists than other parties, the overall numbers are so small the pool of activists can be numbered in the dozens.
Everybody in the room agreed higher standards are needed for LP candidates, even if that means the number of candidates declines significantly. Candidates should agree to fill out all (reasonable) surveys, provide a quality photograph, and respond promptly to calls from the media. (Obviously, candidates should agree to serve if elected.) Ideally, candidates will also attend all forums to which they are invited.
At this point, two ideas by Atwood and Aitken seemed to converge. Atwood thinks the LP should run state-wide candidates who focus their efforts in Colorado's smaller, more Libertarian-leaning counties. Atwood pointed to ten such counties: San Juan, Hinsdale, San Miguel, Gilpin, Park, Clear Creek, Lake, Gunnison, Teller, and Delta. Few seemed to see the value in running a state-wide race to do well in those counties, but most participants liked the idea of trying more local and county-wide races there. Atwood described his approach as working around the edges, building success, and moving on from there.
Aitken wants to purchase the publication Libertarian Viewpoint in bulk and send it to people either as part of an ad packet or as direct mail. The obvious extension was to try this strategy in one or more of the small counties mentioned by Atwood.
State Chair John Berntson said the state LP has about $8,000 in the bank -- partly because the newsletter has gone out only three times since the last convention. Thus, he said, some funds are available for a project like Aitken describes.
I think three plans described at the meeting sound pretty good. First, ask LP candidates to meet higher standards, even if that reduces the total number of candidates. Second, focus outreach efforts on smaller counties that tend to lean Libertarian anyway. Third, try a few experiments sending out literature and see if any method gets results. Mostly, I liked the fact that those present seemed excited to take the message forward.
What needs to be avoided, though, are more "silver bullet" strategies. Those have been tried, and they have failed, throughout the history of the LP. And the state LP now faces hardship if 1142 happens to pass. My fear is that some LP members get so caught up with internal organizing they forget to interact with the real world. For example, at a recent meeting hosted by the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, exactly two of my Libertarian friends showed up -- and both of them are now active in Republican circles. (In addition, CUT's president, Penn Pfiffner, used to be a Libertarian before he became a Republican state legislator.) I continue to believe the LP can be a force in state politics. But that has to be the goal. Too many treat the LP as a social club. There is a need for that, too, but the problem comes with confusing social functions with political advocacy.