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Former Nader Press Secretary Kevin Zeese Announces Senate Candidacy On New Third-Party Ticket

Jefferson Jackson Steele
IT’S MY PARTY: Kevin Zeese is launching a Unity Campaign that will bring several minor parties together to support his bid for U.S. Senate in 2006.

By Rodney Foxworth | Posted 6/15/2005

When it comes to elections, third-party candidates are often treated like ugly stepsisters who never get invited to the big dance. But 49-year-old Kevin Zeese, former press secretary to Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign, plans to destroy that analogy in the Free State in 2006.

During an interview with City Paper on May 22 Zeese disclosed his intention of forming a “Unity Campaign” for the U.S. Senate seat soon to be vacated by retiring five-term Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D). Though he has not formally declared for a Senate run (registration begins July 5), Zeese is in the process of drumming up support from established alternative-party leaders and allies. The campaign would bring together various political parties operating outside of the Democratic-Republican duopoly, rallying Marylanders to, as Zeese puts it, “re-establish and reform our democracy.

“I was approached by members of various parties and asked to run,” Zeese says. “I told them I would only consider it if we could create a coalition among many of the third parties in Maryland. So far, it is looking like this may be very likely.”

On May 12, a meeting between Populist and Libertarian party leaders was held
at the Baltimore home of Maryland Libertarian Party leader Douglas McNeil to discuss Zeese’s senatorial candidacy in 2006. Though he acknowledges that the four other Libertarian leaders present weren’t “entirely convinced” to back Zeese, McNeil says there was no considerable opposition, and he pledged to help with the campaign.

“I think that Kevin [Zeese] is very well-qualified and is likely to be an excellent candidate,” McNeil says. “If anyone can pull this off, it’s Kevin.”

Zeese is not a novice in the world of politics and advocacy. He has headed the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and co-founded a group known as the Drug Policy Alliance, the “largest drug-reform organization ever,” Zeese says.

Chris Driscoll, chairman of the Populist Party of Maryland, heaps praise on
Zeese, describing him as “the perfect person to bring various alternative-party forces together.”

“Mr. Zeese has always been a uniter, bringing diverse people together to work for common goals,” Driscoll says. “We think that is what our state and nation need at this time.”

Maryland has traditionally been a Democratic state, but Zeese’s attempt to put a chink in the party’s armor may be well-timed. The Democrats are showing signs of vulnerability in the state—Maryland has its first Republican governor in decades, for example—and according to recent voter-registration records, the Maryland Republican Party gained 4,648 new members since the 2004 presidential election. The Democratic party, on the other hand, lost 450 members. Now the Republicans have set their sights on the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, and George W. Bush svengali Karl Rove and Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman (of Pikesville) are salivating over the prospect of Lt. Gov. Michael Steele running for—and winning—Sarbanes’ seat. In addition, the number of voters who do not affiliate with either party was up by 6,517.

The Democratic Party currently claims 55.1 percent of the state’s electorate, which illustrates a drop from 1988, when the party could claim 64 percent of voters. In contrast, the Republican share of the electorate has increased from 27.6 percent in 1988 to its current 29.4 percent, while the number of voters unaffiliated with either party has nearly doubled, from 8.1 percent in 1988 to 15.4 percent today.

Zeese relishes these figures.

“The Democratic Party in Maryland needs to be threatened,” he writes in an e-mail from his home in Montgomery County. “It has become a machine party that is in bed with many of the same big-business interests as Republicans.”

Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman “totally disagrees” with the notion that the party is vulnerable.

“It’s almost au contraire,” he says. “The Democrats are more alive and active than they have been in years.” Lierman cites examples such as the breaking of the all-time state Democratic Party fundraising record, and the growth of Democratic clubs throughout the state, especially on college campuses. He says the “essence of the Democratic Party is a huge coalition,” one that allows for a diversity of ideas, unlike the Republicans who “walk in lockstep with those who toe the party line.” Lierman says that, contrary to what Zeese or others may believe, the Democratic Party is getting stronger in the Free State.

“Governor Robert Ehrlich and Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele have awakened many, many Democrats in this state because of their divisive policies,” he insists.

In order to win this seat, says Bill Barry, a Baltimore resident who ran for City Council on the Green Party ticket in 2004, Zeese will have to overcome party loyalty—which Barry says has a “compelling, almost irrational, hold on people.” Zeese will also need to gather significant campaign finances and garner media attention, which has traditionally been difficult for third-party candidates to do.

“Campaign financing is an enormous concern,” Barry says. “If a candidate opposes corporate welfare, for example, then the candidate will not sup at the trough of corporation funding. Conventional political wisdom states that money wins elections, and all you have to do is look at the campaign contributions for the state assembly and for the upcoming federal races to see how desperate the candidates are to raise gazillions.”

A. Robert Kaufman, a community activist who has run for multiple political seats in the city and state over the years, is also running for Sarbanes’ seat. Kaufman, who’s running as a Democrat, says inadequate media coverage has made him an “invisible man.”

“If you aren’t a well-financed candidate,” Kaufman says, “meaning one of either two things—either you yourself are already filthy rich, or you kiss up to those who are filthy rich, which means you’re not going to serve the people—then the Sun won’t touch you.”

“I recognize the uphill challenge of this race,” Zeese says. “But hopefully the historic nature of a ‘Unity Campaign’ will get the attention of voters and the media, thereby providing a new dynamic in the election so that we can break the control of the two big-business, pro-war parties and begin to create a government truly of, by, and for the people.”

George Wagner, an adjunct professor of public policy and political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that although there is a place in politics for strong third-party candidates—he mentions, as an example, Jesse Ventura’s successful run for governor of Minnesota in 1998—he doesn’t see a third-party candidate for Sarbanes’ seat as likely to be elected, even with a coalition effort.

“Despite the quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure of our drug policies, the immigration mess, and the crisis in our justice system, I do not see how a third party can win today,” he says. “There is just not enough discomfort on the part of people who vote, and the two major parties have the resources to drown out a third voice. . . . Except for fringes of both parties, there is hardly a nickel’s worth of difference between them. Our electorate likes it this way.”

In Baltimore, Kaufman ran for years as an independent or minor-party candidate, until the 74-year-old realized that “efforts to form third parties had failed.” The Maryland electoral process, he notes, forces independents and third-party candidates to gather signatures in order to gain a space on the ballot—Kaufman says he spent so much time gathering the signatures that he had little time spreading his message. So for this race he left the minor parties behind and filed to run as a Democrat.

“It’s like doing an end run, and all of a sudden they can’t stop you from being there,” he says. Yet he’s not an ardent supporter of the party, noting that he is “supporting the Democratic Party the way a rope supports a hanged man.”

But Zeese is a very different political animal than Kaufman. He is a registered Green Party member, he’s a founder of the Populist Party of Maryland, and he acknowledges his commonalities with the Libertarian Party. Though the odds have traditionally been stacked against the third parties, he thinks by uniting several smaller parties behind one candidate, he stands a chance at making a dent in the established political structure.

“Political ideas traditionally considered right, middle, or left have a lot in common, starting with our common interests to re-establish democracy and stop U.S. military adventurism,” Zeese says. “Divide and conquer is a strategy well-used by the dominant powers to prevent the less powerful from joining together to move forward. If the people unify around our common goals, we can achieve great things together.”

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