Drug Warriors in a Dead Heat
Rabid drug-warrior Bob Barr and the equally avid, though low-key, drug warrior John Linder are in a dead-heat Republican primary this Tuesday in Georgia's newly drawn 7th Congressional District. The question is, if Barr loses how much credit can the national Libertarian Party claim?
The LP's fetchingly named "Incumbent Killer Strategy" has -- with good reason -- targeted Barr as the drug war's point man. So the party has purchased nearly $50,000 of airtime on metro Atlanta cable stations (with a few ads on broadcast Fox and NBC slated for this final, pre-primary weekend) for a wrenching, 30-second ad featuring a woman who's suffered from multiple sclerosis for 31 years and is obviously in the last stages of a painful struggle.
Given that Barr is blanketing the airwaves with nearly $2 million worth of his own ads, is the Libertarian effort small beer? Should the entrenched Georgia Democratic machine, which re-districted the two right-wing incumbents to ensure that one didn't return to Washington, deserve all the credit? (The American Conservative Union rates Barr at 100 percent; Linder at 96 percent.)
In a wheelchair, MS patient Cheryl Miller is barely able to choke out the ad's conclusion:
"Bob Barr thinks I should be in jail for using my medicine. Why would you do that to me, Bob?" [Voice-over]: "When the drug war turns on our own sick and dying, it's gone too far. And so has Bob Barr." Then Miller, struggling again, repeats: "Why would you do that to me, Bob?"
Libertarian Party political director Ron Crickenberger said the ad's many jump-cuts were necessary since Miller lacks the strength to speak uninterruptedly for 30 seconds. She takes medicinal cannabis orally to relieve pain and spasms. Keith Stroup, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, described Cheryl and her husband and caretaker, Jim Miller, as "incredibly committed. I'm afraid Cheryl's illness is well-advanced, and they have made the decision to not allow her to die quietly."
Crickenberger encountered them at a NORML press conference backing Rep. Barney Frank's bill allowing for the use of medical marijuana, and the ad was shot that day.
The Millers and Barr are no strangers to each other, at least by reputation. Jim was arrested after laying Cheryl down on a sleeping bag in the doorway of Barr's House office in 1999 following Barr's efforts to block the D.C. medical-use initiative approved but not tabulated in 1998. Cheryl's body wracked by MS, Capitol police were afraid to touch her and called for medical assistance just to place her in her wheelchair; they also lacked the nerve to arrest her. Barr later referred to her as a "prop," according to the AP.
Such statements are all in a day's work for the nation's foremost opponent of medical marijuana. Aside from the fact that redistricting cast Barr in a tight race against a fellow Republican incumbent, not for nothing did the LP unloose the full force of its 50 grand on the man Stroup calls "the most crazed anti-marijuana zealot in Congress."
According to the Marietta Daily Journal, Barr referred in May to medical marijuana as "bogus witchcraft." Flying in the face of numerous government and medical authorities, Barr declared, "There is no legitimate medical use whatsoever for marijuana." He also cited the discredited notion that it serves as a "gateway drug."
Medical cannabis proponents are most wigged by the "Barr Amendments," which are now hard-wired into the D.C. appropriations process. There's been three so far, all prohibiting in one way or another D.C. election authorities from certifying any voter initiatives that cut penalties for Schedule I drug offenses, including marijuana.
The first was when Barr introduced legislation preventing D.C. from spending an estimated $1.64 to flip a switch and tabulate the vote on 1998's medical marijuana initiative. After a long court battle, it was found to have won with 69 percent of the vote. This particular amendment was struck down by the U.S. District Court in March as an unconstitutional free-speech abridgement.
More recently, via a letter urging action by Attorney General John Ashcroft, Barr, Mark Souder (R-IN) and Doug Ose (R-CA) "led the charge to close the L.A. cannabis club that the DEA raided," said Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy.
So, finding Barr in their sights for good reason, the LP sees Tuesday's primary as its one chance to rid federal drug policy of Barr's overweening, pernicious influence. Columnist and veteran observer of Georgia politics, Bill Shipp, editor of Bill Shipp's Georgia, said of the district north of Atlanta, "Whoever wins the Republican primary will have that seat till the end of the decade."
Barr led a cavalcade of big-foot, national conservative leaders round his district last Saturday. The day featured a Linder supporter -- not operative -- dressed up as cartoon character Yosemite Sam and declaring himself Barr's gun-safety instructor. This followed Barr's prior mishap with an antique pistol, taking out a glass door at a supporter's home. Sam's wife caught Barr staffers shoving him around on film, the digital image soon gleefully trumpeted by the cheeky independent website, The Political Vine, which the Linder campaign then emailed to reporters.
Among the notables witnessing the fracas were Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and G. Gordon Liddy of points unknown. Speaking of the new district, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, noted approvingly that, among other endearing conservative traits, "The people down there don't even know how to spell 'homosexual.' "
After considering some dozen local Libertarians, Crickenberger managed to convince Carole Ann Rand, an entirely respectable, 57-year-old grandmother of eight, to seek office again. The LP's 1990 gubernatorial candidate, Rand received 37,000 votes that year, helping to keep the LP on the statewide ballot, where it's been since 1988. Crickenberger maintains it typically gets from 3 to 8 percent of the statewide vote and from 6 to 9 percent in the counties making up the redrawn 7th District.
In recent years, Rand (wonderful name for a Libertarian) had concentrated her political energies on helping to run something called the Advocates for Self-Government. She said that until 1980, she'd been "politically homeless until I saw the coherence, the integrity of the Libertarian positions regarding personal responsibility, personal tolerance and economic freedom, and that it applied to all people, all the time on all issues."
She added her personal opinion that drugs are "stupid." But, she said, "That's my judgment to apply to my life with family and friends." She calls for full federal legalization of drugs and letting each state and county decide for themselves.
Having announced her candidacy only in late July, with the ad first shown on Aug. 6, Rand acknowledges her limited role. The party's by-laws prohibit it from just attacking Barr without the presence of its own candidate, even one who hasn't yet -- and probably won't -- actually qualify for the ballot in November.
Rand said, "My candidacy is a vehicle for furthering the Libertarian strategy of going after the worst of the worst of the drug warriors." And, not incidentally, "It also allows us to buy advertising at [political candidates'] reduced rates."
Crickenberger wrote supporters that, "We are using a Libertarian candidate as a vehicle to run issue ads attacking Barr."
Aside from the advertising, Rand said her campaigning consisted of some radio appearances and "talking to neighbors and emailing people."
Put a gasping Cheryl Miller in front of enough eyeballs, and the LP just might have something. Polls indicated that 70 percent and more of Americans favor legalizing medical marijuana. Said Rand, "Elected officials don't realize the surge of passion rising around this issue -- the number of people who know someone who's died because of the illegality" when they couldn't keep from vomiting up their medicine or food.
Chuck Muth is National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus, which aims to bring libertarian ideas to mainstream Republicans. He said the "far-out fringe" libertarian positions -- such as "legal heroin" -- are not politically viable. He prefers "rational libertarianism that allows you to get elected." And the LP stance on medical marijuana meets his test. "After all, who in hell is the government to tell sick people how to find relief?" Oddly enough, The Gwinnett Citizen quotes a local Republican official as saying Barr himself belongs to the Republican Liberty Caucus.
And what of the intended beneficiary of this odd campaign with the straw candidate? In a marvelously coy statement July 31, Linder called on the LP to cancel any ads attacking Barr, saying, "According to press reports, I understand that the Libertarian Party intends to run television advertisements with the intention of influencing the Primary. I ask them not to do this."
The release fails to mention that one of the first press reports, from Insight magazine, was posted on Linder's own website in May -- some 10 weeks before the end of July -- including this Insight quote of an LP strategy paper: " ' To the medical marijuana movement, Barr is the equivalent of the Antichrist.' "
Citing Linder's request that the LP butt out and not "interfere" in the primary, Linder campaign manager Bo Harmon acknowledged the Libertarians' right to do as they choose. He figured the ads might "play a small roll in overall public awareness, but I don't see a whole lot of impact."
Linder has not expressed any implicit gratitude to the LP by diluting his own harsh views on medicinal pot. Harmon stated, "He's not moderated his stance at all. He opposes the legalization of drugs, including medical marijuana. He's flat out opposed to medical use."
Crickenberger, however, declared that when serving years ago in the Georgia legislature, Linder did vote in favor of medical marijuana.
Just how sanctified are Georgia primaries; is it all dirty pool?
Crickenberger rejects the notion, saying that with now approximately 15,000 signatures required to qualify per congressional district -- and similar onerous requirements for decades -- there hasn't been a third-party House candidate in the state in 59 years. He contrasts the number with New York's 3,500-signature requirement. (Similarly, candidates for mayor in D.C. need only 2,000 signatures, though its population exceeds that of congressional districts.)
Chuck Muth said core beliefs and principles lead people to join political parties; therefore only party members should choose candidates. "Otherwise, it's like asking a Braves pitcher to pitch for the Yankees during a World Series."
Thirty-second cable spots in Atlanta averaging perhaps 12 bucks a pop (or so the LP says in a fundraising pitch), what's the likely effect of the near 4,000 ads nearly $50,000 buys? Especially when, says Barr finance committee member Molly Dye (former chief of staff to the late Sen. Paul Coverdell), his campaign has that $2 million -- and that's for the primary.
"Anyone watching cable will see the ad," Crickenberger vowed. Staunch medical marijuana proponent Ashley Clements, who lives in Atlanta, is a friend of the Millers and has distributed copies of the ad via email. He said he watches "quite a bit" of cable TV, yet he's seen it only on his computer. His father, with similar viewing habits, has seen it once.
Mortgage banker and Linder supporter, Phil Hinson, watches cable TV a fair bit, mostly Braves games. He's encountered the ad just once. He believes only committed supporters of either candidate, not many undecided voters, will bother to vote in an off-year election. Thus, he doubts the ads will have much of an "eleventh-hour" effect.
Though they have every reason to minimize the ad's impact, Barr finance committee members, Molly Dye and banker, Tom Martin, maintain with all sincerity, that my raising the topic was the first they'd heard of it. Apparently, Cheryl Miller's name doesn't surface in even idle chat among Barr insiders. And mingling amidst the Barr crew at last weekend's series of rallies, Rev. Sheldon said he heard no talk of the Libertarian effort.
Barry Loudermilk, chairman of the Bartow County Republican Party, said the medical marijuana issue got some play in May when Barr debated Atlanta's local Limbaugh on the topic: radio guy Neal Boortz. Boortz has been a huge Libertarian presence on the air for 30 years. (In fact, he first led Crickenberg down the path.) But, Loudermilk added, "I haven't seen it since then. It seemed a hot topic, but it recently hasn't been major news." He said it might conceivably resonate with some of the Democrats who, in the absence of any contest in their party, will cross over to vote in the Republican primary.
The main thing is, if Barr looses, claims can be made. According to Muth, the Libertarians can't win, so "they can just crow about beating Barr." He doubts the presence of many single-issue voters in Georgia. Rand said the "ideal outcome" would be a close Barr defeat of a couple of percentage points, and that "we'd be the margin of difference."
The current plan is to hold some cash in reserve to pay for exit polling. And Crickenberger added, "If we get enough ads, we can claim credit for Barr's hopeful defeat." He resorts to saying he bought about all the ad-time available on cable, broadcast being another story.
He also acknowledged that this contest is "a testing ground. As soon as this is over, we'll apply the lessons learned." He thinks the most likely target in the general election will be Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, coincidentally also of Georgia. The LP was eager to go after DEA head Asa Hutchinson's brother, Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-AR). But it probably won't succeed in overcoming difficulties getting their candidate on the Arkansas ballot.
Of course, the whole thing could backfire, could yield a whole bunch of Barr supporters up and off the couch to the polls in an off-year primary when turnout is even more crucial. When first noting the LP effort, Barr was happy to declare himself the anti-drug candidate, saying he must be doing something right to merit the attack.
Loudermilk charged, as the Barr Web site happily indicates, that, "The centerpieces of the Libertarian agenda include legalizing drugs, gambling, prostitution, and pornography." He asked Linder to repudiate these positions, "Otherwise, 7th District voters will assume Mr. Linder agrees with this kind of fringe political thought."
In an interview, Loudermilk insists he was referring to the mistaken notion that Linder would accept big donations from the LP, not to any ads the LP might run itself.
Asked whether the link with the free-wheeling philosophy might backfire and energize Barr's ultra-conservative supporters, Linder staffer Bo Harmon said, "I doubt it. No one takes seriously the notion that John shares those beliefs."
One Washington insider (not otherwise quoted) who attended a Barr fundraiser said Barr mentioned the looming LP effort with some satisfaction, figuring it could only help his campaign.
Crickenberger acknowledged the possibility. "We hope we can say the strategy didn't backfire. That we interjected medical marijuana and the bad guy went down." He also said the ad is so strong that, "There might be a negative reaction, that we're over-the-top picking on Barr. There was some concern regarding that. Yes, it is an experiment on our part."
The Republican operative who attended the Barr fundraiser was puzzled by the LP targeting this Republican who actually stood up on his hind feet and commendably voted against the Patriot Act. Though the LP would say Barr's blockhead drug policies trump other issues, this observer said the party ran the risk of alienating the very folks it was trying to capture. He added, "It shows a certain political naivetÃ©, to -- of all people -- pick on a guy standing up for civil liberties."
Crickenberger declares the party agnostic over whether the Republicans or Democrats control Congress. "The more gridlock, the more evenly divided, the better off we are," he said.
Kevin Zeese recalled that, "The environmental movement in the early '70s used to target ten members of Congress, just as Emily's List did so on women's issues in the '90s." The recent fate of environmentalism and women's issues might give Crickenberger considerable pause. But for now, at least till Tuesday, the LP is in it for the long haul, hopping to topple drug warriors one by one.
Daniel Forbes writes on social policy. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recently published report for the Institute for Policy Studies on federal and state political malfeasance.