Divided We Fall
With Support Of Three Minor Parties, Kevin Zeese Hopes To Win U.S. Senate Seat
Kevin Zeese pulls his well-worn hybrid Honda Civic into the parking lot of a strip mall in Westminster. It's 3 in the afternoon, and the third-party candidate hasn't eaten yet. Between bites of General Tso's chicken, he talks about being an outsider.
The race for Maryland's open seat in the U.S. Senate is, seemingly, full of outsiders. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, whose Republican Party controls both houses of Congress and the White House, has promised to "shake Washington up," and 18-year U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (D-3rd District) is running, he says, "to bring about change."
"It's pretty amazing," Zeese says, "that someone who's been a former [state] Republican Party chairman can describe himself as an outsider, and someone who's been in office for 40 years and in Congress for 20 can describe himself as an outsider who's going to bring change to Washington. It's almost a joke, but they say it with such a straight face."
The reality of being an outsider is somewhat less glamorous. On this day, for instance, Zeese has just come from a senior center in Westminster, where he spoke to an audience of less than 20 people at a Lutheran church. This morning he was in Rockville at a Jewish community center, and later tonight he will be in the multipurpose room at the Concord Elementary School in District Heights.
Neither Steele nor Cardin made the trek to Westminster, but then, they didn't have to. The two major party candidates are tied at 46 percent according to the most recent poll. The same poll, released last week by Survey USA, put Zeese at 3 percent. Even with the backing of three parties--Libertarian, Populist, and Green--Zeese's campaign has a fraction of the budget of his opponents, "pennies to the dollar," he likes to say, and it's an uphill battle. (As of Sept. 30, the Federal Elections Commission reported that Zeese's campaign account had $9,644 cash on hand; Cardin's had over $1 million, while Steele's had more than $2 million.)
As a kid, Zeese, who turns 51 Oct. 28, volunteered for Republican candidates in New York ("liberal Republicans," he says, "not the kind of Republicans we have now"), but his adult entry into the world of policy came as a law student at George Washington University, where he had planned to become a criminal defense lawyer. He asked a professor what he could do that was related to criminal defense and the professor advised going to work at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
"I found out at NORML that the best criminal defense lawyers in the country were organizing behind this kind of hippy-like group," he says. "It was amazing, these Black Panther lawyers and Chicago Eight lawyers, lawyers you would hear about and were just idols for people, who wanted to be defense lawyers."
Zeese stayed with the organization and by 1983 became the director.
"The thing about the drug issue was it was not a narrow issue," he says. "It dealt with employment issues, dealt with AIDS, dealt with racism, dealt with criminal justice enforcement, dealt with health issues--drug treatment. As a `single issue' issue, it had a lot of diversity. That's what I liked about it."
ûe is still involved in the drug issue, as president for the group Common Sense for Drug Policy, but Zeese has diversified. He directs Democracy Rising, an anti-war group based in Washington, co-founded the election watchdog groups TrueVoteMD.org and VoteTrustUSA.org, and was a founding member of the Treatment Not Incarceration Coalition in Maryland.
His involvement in politics led to a 2004 job as spokesman for Ralph Nader's presidential campaign. "Being with Nader was a different kind of circumstance," Zeese says, "because he was under attack and it was very personal. It was an interesting place to be."
The Nader campaign familiarized him with the spoiler argument, that the third-party candidate peels votes away from the Democratic side. And with the two front-runners neck and neck, the label is being applied to Zeese as well.
"The two of them are going after each other's votes," he says. "Why can't I? It's called competition, it's not called [being a] spoiler."
Zeese makes it clear that despite being down in the polls, he's running to win the race, and in the absence of the funds needed to deluge the airwaves with commercials, he's relying on televised debates to spread the word. Of the first debate, held by the Urban League, he says, "I could do that every night."
If elected, Zeese says, he would be a commodity in a close Senate vote--neither Democratic nor Republican--"less predictable and therefore more powerful. I think I'd be a senator Marylanders would be proud of. It would give Maryland something unique, and I want to work to do that."
In speeches, Zeese likes to use the example of third-party politics in the 19th century, abolitionist splinter groups that would later unite as the Republican Party to elect Abraham Lincoln. In uniting the three small parties backing him (together they add up to a tiny fraction of the registered Democrats or Republicans in the state), with their sometimes divergent viewpoints, he hopes to form a larger "Unity" party with more clout.
To win the Libertarian nomination, for instance, he had to go before the Libertarian Central Committee, "the hardest-core Libertarians in the state." They were with him on some issues, Zeese says, but when it came to his publicly financed health-care plan, they balked.
"I was going through the central committee process and someone from the audience asked me, 'You're for socialized medicine, how can you be a Libertarian?'" he says. "The way I framed the issue was talking about how it actually gave more choice to consumers--you get to pick your doctor rather than the health insurance company, you get to pick your health care rather than the HMO, and employers are free to hire more employees without the fear of uncontrollable health-care costs. I went through a whole series of examples, how it helps everybody. I put it in the framework of more free choice."
Enough Libertarians bought his argument to make him the nominee, but barely. "One vote the other way and I would have lost it," he says.
"I'm not saying it's easy. I know it's uphill. I'm definitely the underdog," Zeese says, pausing. "But I don't mind being the underdog."
After lunch, the candidate gets back in his car. A few minutes later he's talking on his cell phone and driving fast toward District Heights.
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