LP03: New Board Takes the Helm
by Ari Armstrong, May 6, 2003
Is the Libertarian Party of Colorado in trouble?
Some of the signs are ominous. I talked with the new chair, Norm Olsen, this evening, and he said the monthly income for the organization, now around $600, is about a third of what he would like it to be.
One problem is that the national party is in debt and hasn't regularly been making its payments based on the joint membership program. When somebody from Colorado pays basic dues to the LP, half that money is supposed to come back to the state affiliate.
Another problem is that credit card billing for the party is "steadily dropping," from around $900 per month to the current $600, Olsen said. Finally, fund-raising efforts at the state convention, often above $6,000, this year brought in less than $3,000.
Of course, the lackluster economy has hurt all kinds of nonprofit and political organizations. It doesn't help, though, that the state party has not sent out a fundraising letter in nearly two years. Nor does it help that three poor-quality newsletters were mailed to the membership since the 2002 convention.
The current LP board is stuck with a "chicken and egg" problem. It's not going to raise any money until it convinces the membership the funds will be used to advance libertarian policies. But it has no money to awe the membership.
Olsen's comments reflected this tension. He said the financial situation indeed looks "kind of bleak." At the same time, he said, "I think the outlook is good." The goal is to "convince people we're actually doing things -- which we are."
Here's the good news. Michele Poague is working on a fundraising effort, though Olsen said she has to "start from scratch" with stationary and the like. The state party has struck a deal with national to accept flats of the publication "Libertarian Viewpoint," an eight-page mini-paper that explains the libertarian perspective and the Libertarian Party, in exchange for the delinquent membership funds. David Aitken plans to help distribute copies of the publication as newspaper inserts and at events like the People's Fair in Denver.
Nobody doubts that Rand Fanshier has the makings of the greatest Outreach Director the state LP has ever seen. If, as Olsen hopes, the state party can increase paid memberships in the LP, the state's share of the membership funds should start to increase. (National made one recent payment, which hopefully is a sign its financial problems are being resolved.)
For a while, I flirted with the idea of taking over the newsletter again. But those talks didn't go anywhere (and they reminded me of some of the reasons I stopped doing it in the first place). What is happening with the newsletter is peculiar, though.
At the April 22 meeting of the Board of Directors, Gregg Miller, who appeared in the "unity photo" of the new board and its assistants, quit as newsletter editor. He had wanted the board to force out Publications Director Steve Gallant and put him in the position. According to Gallant, Miller never got around to specifically proposing that, but he finally resigned nevertheless.
Miller's plan had been to produce a four-page, quarterly newsletter and print 20,000 copies of it (about four times the number of registered Libertarians in the state) for mass distribution. I was always skeptical of this plan, but nevertheless I sent Miller a very short (150-word) article for inclusion in the publication along with a disk full of photographs I took of the convention.
Somehow, Legislative Director Paul Tiger took over the task of creating the newsletter. That the Legislative Director found it more important to work on the newsletter during the final days of the 2003 legislative session than, say, follow the legislature, further convinces me that board position is basically worthless.
Tiger has plenty of computer experience but no design experience. According to Olsen, the newsletter "hasn't been finished yet," though it is expected to be finished within the week (which means it will be mailed on May 19 at the earliest).
Olsen is contemplating some changes. He proposes finding one person to do the editing, and another to design the product. I think he will soon find these positions are not easily separable. He wants to send out an eight-page newsletter every quarter.
Is a quarterly publication sufficient to communicate with the membership? I doubt it. I suggested a six-page issue published every other month. A six-pager makes sense because it is a single piece of paper, trifolded, which entails only a front-and-back print run. If sending the newsletter to the entire list is too expensive, the mailing could be alternated between the full list and the list of dues-paying members. (Of the more than 5,000 LP members in Colorado, no more than 20% of them pay dues.) The other nice thing about a six-page newsletter is that it can easily be bundled with a fundraising letter.
Olsen does have a point about spending funds on outreach and elections rather than on an elaborate newsletter (such as I used to produce). I do think the quality newsletter I oversaw brought a lot of benefits the current board is overlooking. (And some people joined the monthly pledge program specifically to fund the newsletter.) On the other hand, Olsen can reasonably believe spending substantially less on the newsletter and more on other projects strikes a better balance. (Fortunately, the Colorado Freedom Report currently publishes far more material than could be included even in an ambitious state LP newsletter, and from an independent and critical perspective.)
At one point, Michael McKinzie, elected as Campaigns Director, flirted with the idea of running for chair. He wasn't sure a printed newsletter was needed at all. However, the state LP could reach only a fraction of its total membership if it relied on the internet. The web page, though marginally better than it used to be, contains virtually no current news about the LP. Ralph Shnelvar has argued a quality, printed publication is important for giving the organization (and its events) credibility.
When I called Olsen, he was at an election party at Aitken's house. Aitken ran for the Election Commission in Denver, but he didn't make the runoff. As Campaigns Director for two years prior to his ascent to chair, it's not surprising that Olsen takes elections seriously. After all, the purpose of the Libertarian Party is to bring the libertarian perspective to electoral politics. Indeed, my only fear about Olsen is that he'll invert the priorities, and make winning elections more important than promoting libertarian values.
Even though Olsen was unchallenged for the position, he requested a secret ballot. He asked people to vote for him only if they would also commit to building a stronger, more effective Libertarian Party.
"I'm not running for God of libertarians," he said prior to the April 6 vote. He said he doesn't want to see people arguing about who's more libertarian than whom. "We're not going to be judging, we're going to be building." He said the board cannot be a committee of nine to run the party: members have to contribute both their time and money to make the party a success.
McKinzie too won in an uncontested vote. (Outgoing board member Floyd Bilderback argued in favor of None of the Above on the grounds that McKinzie previously quit a board position.)"We're going to do a little healing in this party," he said. As Campaigns Director, one of McKinzie's goals is to target races, including county-level races. "If you want stability, vote for NOTA," he said. Rand Fanshier was then elected to the board without contest.
Bo Shaffer, also the sitting chair of the Boulder County LP, ran against Samantha Kelley for the position of Records Director. Shaffer, citing his experience in the LP and his competence with computers, won the seat. The vote was 25 to 22, with 8 votes for NOTA.
Desiree Hickson ran against Jeff Oliver for Media Director. I spoke in favor of Oliver, while granting either person would do a good job. Hickson won 31 to 28.
Even though nobody ran against Tiger for Legislative Director, the vote was nevertheless contentious. The previous day, Shnelvar had raised eyebrows by criticizing Tiger in a speech designated as a "keynote" address. Shnelvar had finished his main speech, and he used the extra time to argue in favor of a board steeped in libertarian principles.
Shnelvar said Tiger wanted to ban cars in Boulder. I have not seen the e-mails in which the conversation originated, but in subsequent conversations Tiger indicated he was speaking in a hypothetical or utopian sense. Shnelvar was later taken to the woodshed by the convention's organizers for his remarks, which I agree were not appropriately timed. I am willing to give Tiger the benefit of the doubt, but I trust the libertarian instincts of other board members more.
Oliver tossed in his hat again for Treasurer and won handily over Bud Martin, who was not in attendance. Oliver said he is "quite well grounded" in libertarian theory, having attended the Free Enterprise Institute in Los Angeles. He's a computer programmer, too, and, he said, "I do certainly know fundamental accounting."
For Fundraising Director, long-time party activist (and former chair) Michele Poague entered the race against Dana Wagenhoffer. Poague won by a large margin, but I was impressed by Wagenhoffer's sincerity. I recently got an e-mail from Wagenhoffer announcing LP events, so obviously she is taking an active role in the party.
Finally, Steve Gallant captured my old position of Publications Director without contest.
I was especially glad to see the addition of Oliver, Poague, and Shaffer to the board, because (I think) they bring a deeper awareness of libertarian theory to the organization. I am also happy with the dispositions of Olsen and Gallant. McKinzie, Fanshier, and Tiger are known more for their energy than for their grounding in libertarian ideas.
So, yes, we can hope for a happy marriage of theory and action. I've never been moved by the notion we should separate people into categories of armchair theorists and concrete-bound activists. Indeed, several people on the board epitomize the integration of intellectualism and activism. The LP will never be effective if it shuns either sound theory or productive action. The goal, then, is to put theory into action.
Will the board deliver? That question will be answered by the actions of its members.