Extremism and the Electorate: Campaign '96 and the "Patriot" Movement
A Militia Watchdog Special Report
Last Modified November 6, 1996. Post-election postscript at end.
Bob Dole claims the election is about "trust" or, perhaps, a 15% tax cut. Bill Clinton pursues what some aides call a MMEE strategy: Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment. But for many the election is also a referendum on the country's apparent lurch to the right in 1994, which on the moderate end resulted in Newt Gingrich and on the extreme end resulted in the rise of the militia and patriot movements.
These right-wing extremists have not absented themselves from the campaigns of 1996, though the national media sometimes seems not to have noticed. Many continue to press their radical opinions, despite the fact that the electorate increasingly is looking askance at them. But some of them now find themselves on the defensive, being attacked rather than attacking, scrambling to find some sort of moderate cover to help hide their past associations and opinions. Perhaps the most well-known such scramblers are Steve Stockman of Texas and Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, freshmen republican who in 1994 had no qualms about currying to the militia movement. Stockman's close ties to Gun Owners of America leader Larry Pratt, and Chenoweth's videotape hawked by militia members at rallies are just some of the more well-known weaknesses being exploited by their opponents. But Stockman and Chenoweth, though perhaps the King and Queen of the Extremist Electorate, are hardly alone. Election 96 is in many ways a battle to see whether extremist views can still tap into a channel of mainstream support.
Extremism at Bay
Across the country, politicians who tried to win the support of extreme voters now find themselves on the defensive at the national, state and local levels. Many of their opponents are now using their former words and campaign appearances against them. In Illinois, for instance, the Republican candidate for Senator, Al Salvi, was reminded of his January 1996 statement to a group of gun rights advocates that "If I were king, Janet Reno would be behind bars." Moreover, his moderate opponent, Democrat Dick Durbin, has wielded as a weapon the fact that Salvi was endorsed by the "Council on Domestic Relations," a right-wing extremist group. Its leader, Dan. Druck of Algonquin, claimed that Salvi met with them and talked about trade issues--a meeting Salvi has denied ever occurred, just as he has denied making the statement about Janet Reno. Salvi claims Durbin is using "McCarthy era" tactics. His denials appear weak, but Salvi has outspent Durbin by a 2-1 margin and has edged closer to Durbin's standing in the polls.
In Georgia, it is a state senator who finds herself under attack for her support of extremist groups. Human rights activist Daniel Levitas revealed that Republican Pam Glanton of Riverdale attended a meeting in Atlanta in 1995 of the extremist group Voice of Liberty. Levitas circulated to reporters a videotape containing her speech to the group and said that "she is the principal Georgia contact for the national movement of state elected officials who have chosen to align themselves politically with militia and radical-right Christian Patriots." Unlike Salvi, Glanton took no steps to distance herself from the group, admitting that she twice spoke before the group. Defending the militia movement, she said "the media is trying to demonize people who are just interested in getting government on level ground." Glanton's opponent, police officer Terry Baskin, says he has not yet seen the videotape. In many similar races, though, underdog challengers are trying to exploit such ties as the only possible way of unseating entrenched incumbents.
The big skies over Montana have seen a lot of rain pour down on extremist groups in that state, dampening, for instance, the ambitions of the Montana Freemen. But that hasn't stopped some politicians from catering to the extremist vote. Republican Rick Hill, vying for the Congressional seat of retiring Democrat Pat Williams, took time out to ask for votes at a militia meeting in Missoula earlier this year. But now he finds himself at odds to explain how he could want their support. "I believe in the politics of inclusion rather than the politics of exclusion," he lamely replied to a human rights group that criticized him for attending the meeting. Other speakers at the gathering included Larry Pratt and Jack McLamb. Hill's opponent is former state senator Bill Yellowtail.
Larry Pratt's name has come up more than once this campaign season. Head of Gun Owners of America, an extremist gun owners' group that considers the National Rifle Association far too liberal, Larry Pratt has cris-crossed the country speaking out in favor of the militia movement, a subject on which he has also written two books. Pratt's own political preferences were displayed when he became a prominent campaign aide to Patrick Buchanan earlier this year, as Buchanan sought the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. But Pratt was forced to step down when it became widely known that he was a frequent speaker at white supremacist gatherings and electronic broadcasts. Now candidates who once eagerly sought Pratt's money are wondering what price they might have to pay for it.
A case in point is that of Maryland's 6th District representative, Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett, who accepted a $6,700 campaign contribution from the Gun Owners of America. Bartlett's opponent, moderate challenger Steve Crawford, discovered the contribution and publicized it, causing Bartlett to refund the GOA contribution so that the stink wouldn't get any stronger. But to everyone's surprise, Larry Pratt refused to accept the check from the congressman's campaign committee. "That money was contributed by hundreds of GOA members," Pratt said. "These members support Rep. Bartlett because of his leadership and defense of constitutional rights." In the end, Bartlett decided to try to have his cake and eat it, too. To keep extremist voters happy, he said that Pratt's refusal to accept the refund came as a "relief" because he had heard "from many of my constituents that the accusations made by my opponent against GOA's director, Larry Pratt, are false and malicious." But just in case some of his constituents thought that Pratt was a racist and an extremist, Bartlett said that he would donate $6,700 to nonprofit organizations in his district that were involved in crime prevention and firearms safety. Needless to say, opponent Steve Crawford has made considerable mileage off of the fiasco.
Among the most vulnerable politicians at the national level are the "freshmen Republicans," those congressmen and women like Stockman and Chenoweth who were swept into office on the coattails of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America." Many of the freshmen are now finding their former willingness to endorse extreme views and attend extremist events are coming back to haunt them. Stockman and Chenoweth, targeted by Democrats as "vulnerable candidates" are the two most visible such Republican freshmen, but they are hardly the only ones. Another candidate feeling the heat is Florida's 16th District representative Mark Foley, in a nasty race with his Democratic opponent James Stuber. Though aided by a very conservative constituency, Foley has taken many controversial stands that have hurt his standings and raised his negative ratings. One campaign event during the summer certainly contributed to those negatives, when Foley attended a rally of the American Liberties Coalition, a mixture of Florida Militiamen, libertarians, anti-abortion activists, tax protesters and property-rights activists. Although Republican Party leaders warned Foley not to attend the gathering, Foley not only attended but spoke at the event. This offended many life-long Republicans, one of whom wrote to the Palm Beach Post that she would like to "remind" Foley that "his constituency overwhelmingly supports sane gun control, is pro-choice and wants strong laws to protect us from crime and keep our air, land and drinking water safe. These are the people who elected you to office, Mr. Foley -- not the special interests that contribute to your campaign."
Another Republican freshman from Florida, panhandle politician Joe Scarborough, found himself at the center of a controversy when it was revealed that since 1994 his campaign had been distributing copies of "The Citizen's Rule Book," a favorite publication of the extremist right. The small pamphlet seems innocuous, containing such documents as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but those are merely camouflage for the booklet's main argument: that jurors are "above the law" and can rule people guilty or not guilty regardless of what the law says, thus invalidating any laws they don't like. Scarborough claimed he had never actually read the booklet, and ordered his campaign to stop distributing it. Other politicians have been more vocal in support of the concept of "jury nullification," as it is called. In Massachusetts, state senator Robert Hedlund three times sponsored bills to allow jury nullification in that state and has supported the Fully Informed Jury Association, led by Montana white supremacist Red Beckman. Such a stance was particularly obnoxious to his opponent, Democrat Robert Delahunt, Jr. Delahunt, a county prosecutor, was offended by Hedlund's blatant disregard for laws. "It is beyond right wing," he said. "It is beyond libertarian. By filing this, Mr. Hedlund is the Massachusetts legislative agent for the anti-government militia movement." Delahunt logically pointed out that if citizens don't like a law, they should work to change it or elect people who will change it for them.
Rocky Mountain Rivalries
No region of the country has escaped these struggles between extremists and moderates, but one state in particular has won the right to call itself an ideological battleground. The Rocky Mountain state of Colorado has been the home of particularly vicious political battles between embattled extremists and the more mainstream candidates who hope to supplant them. That Colorado would be the locus of such attempts should not surprise anyone. The political geography of Colorado--liberal enclaves surrounded by seas of conservatism--lends itself to such conflicts. Colorado, after all, spawned both state senator Charles Duke, one of the most prominent extremist politicians in the country, and a loud and bitter struggle over the issue of depriving homosexuals of equal rights. This election season, it has given birth to vituperative battles for voters.
In the front lines are the candidates for Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, incumbent Democrat David Skaggs and his Republican opponent, challenger Pat Miller. Skaggs has been on the offensive, using as ammunition Miller's incredible 1994 appearance before a Colorado militia meeting in Boulder, where she told the militia that "it's folks like you who are going to put me in office. And I truly want to go to Washington, D.C., to represent you. And I'm also very glad that there are groups like this meeting." Miller not only referred to black helicopters and the U.N., but when an attendee at the meeting asked the Republican if she would support the Colorado militia if she were elected, she answered in the affirmative. "Yes. Yes, you can," she said.
Miller acknowledged speaking before the group, but said that she spoke to hundreds of groups in her previous (unsuccessful) campaign against Skaggs. However, her campaign manager admitted that Miller supports many of the beliefs of the militia group.
Skaggs didn't use Miller's attendance at the meeting for political gain in 1994, but in the changed atmosphere of 1996 discovered it was useful ammunition. "I find Pat Miller's statements no less than shocking," Skaggs said. "If elected, her views would place her at the outer limits of a Congress that's already too extreme." Skaggs drove home Miller's extremism in his campaign appearances, but he was aided by none other than Miller herself, who in early October told a Denver radio station that she wanted to be the "voice" of the Colorado militia. Not surprisingly, the Rocky Mountain News endorsed Skaggs for Congress. "Sure," said an editorial announcing the endorsement, "the vast majority of people who join citizen militias are no more sympathetic to right-wing terrorism than the rest of us. Sure, it's no crime for a political candidate to speak at a militia gathering. But let's face it: Militia members tend to be, well, paranoid about the U.S. government. They are extremists, pure and simple, and a candidate who pledges to support them is someone voters should keep at arm's length." And who was giving Miller endorsements? None other than the ubiquitous Larry Pratt, who mailed a postcard to 2nd District Republicans on her behalf (as well as on the behalf of state senate candidate Drew Clark).
Pat Miller was not the only Colorado Republican who found her support of extremists backfiring. In eastern Colorado's 4th Congressional District, Democratic candidate Guy Kelley attacked his opponent Bob Schaffer for the Republican's ties to extremists, releasing tapes in late October of 1994 appearances by State Senator Schaffer on a Johnstown, Colorado, radio program hosted by noted "patriot" figure Norm Resnick. Schaffer called on former vice president Dan Quayle for assistance; Quayle obligingly called Schaffer's alleged ties to extremist groups "nonsense." But over 60 registered Republicans in the district have endorsed Kelley over Schaffer.
Among the state level races, one of the most contentious has been that between incumbent MaryAnne Tebedo and Democratic challenger Anthony Marino for the state senate spot from Colorado Springs. The much-visited tourist spot is extremely conservative--Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than a two to one margin--but Tebedo has found herself in hot water for her support of the patriot movement and faces a serious challenge from a political novice. Tebedo, a fourteen year veteran in the state house, has been embroiled in controversy in the past, including an episode in which she introduced a bill that would have allowed insurance companies to require disclosure of the sexual orientation of their policy holders, as well as a 1994 incident when she called African-Americans "highly promiscuous." But more than anything else, it is her ties to right-wing extremists that have landed her in trouble in the current race.
For Tebedo, these ties are all in the family. Her daughter, Linda Tebedo, was recently arrested for the second time for driving without registration, proof of insurance or a driver's license. The reason: Linda Tebedo considers herself a "sovereign citizen," immune from all state and federal laws. Her son Kevin Tebedo, holds similar views, and even testified as an "expert witness" before a vigilante "common law" court in Canon City, a "court" which ruled that Colorado Governor Roy Romer and other legislators might be guilty of treason. Blood is thicker than water; MaryAnne Tebedo herself attended some of the proceedings and spoke to the assembled group. To the media she has expressed respect for the amount of time the so-called "sovereign citizens" have spent researching the laws. She was, she said, "freaked out" when they told her the Constitution had been suspended. The common law court movement is a hodgepodge of pseudolegalistic doctrines based on the ideology of the 1970s and 80s era extremist group Posse Comitatus, but it is not extreme to Tebedo. "One thing I do know," she has said, "is that these people are not kooks. They have educated themselves on the issues and studied the laws."
Anthony Marino, a former Marine and police detective, still faces an uphill battle in the conservative city, but he has been heartened by the way moderate Republicans have distanced themselves from Tebedo's extreme views. When Colorado Springs' Chamber of Commerce issued its first ever formal endorsement of legislative candidates, it supported every Republican incumbent from El Paso County except Tebedo. And when Republican county commissioner Chuck Brown cast the first ballot of the 1996 election--his vote went to Marino.
Making the most of the ties that many Colorado Republicans have had to extremist groups, the state Democratic Party has gone on the offensive in the final weeks of the campaign. Prominent in the attack has been state party chairman Mike Beatty, who accuses Republicans of recruiting extremists as candidates for state and national office. Providing ammunition for Beatty's fusillade is the transcript of a tape recording of a 1994 meeting of an extremist group called the Guardians for American Liberty. Among the attendees were Pat Miller, state senate candidate Jim Congrove, and state representative candidate Barry Arringon. The response of Republican state party chairman Don Bain was, at best, half-hearted: "That is the process, and it may not always be pretty, but that is the way the system works. If they are not representative of their constituents because of extreme views, how do they get elected, and re-elected?"
But not every attempt by Democrats to use the extremist ties of their opponents against them has been equally successful. In Aurora, the Republican candidate for District 42, Walt Cross, himself founded an extremist organization called "Citizens for the Constitution," which sells and distributes materials from the Militia of Montana, the John Birch Society and other similar groups. But while Cross may be an extremist, his Democratic opponent, incumbent Bob Hagedorn, has had increasing difficulty getting himself re-elected, due in no small part to revelations about a drinking problem that resulted in Hagedorn losing his driver's license for driving under the influence. Republicans are optimistic about unseating him.
Bullet Boxes and Ballet Boxes
Of course, not every candidate running for office in 1996 has ties to extremist groups. Some are out-and-out members of them. It is a common phenomenon for militia or "patriot" leaders to run for political office, usually local, even though defeat is usually the result. For instance, no one expects Dick Gephardt, Missouri's Democratic powerhouse, to lose his seat. But among the eleven people who ran against him in the primaries were two militiamen: John Moore, leader of the militia group called the First Missouri Volunteers, and Joseph Keller, a member of the same group. Moore and Keller ran as Republican and Democrat, respectively, but it is more common for extremists to run as independents or third parties. The Constitutional Party's candidate for auditor general of Pennsylvania, to give one example, is Bob Lord, an unemployed machinist--and leader of the Keystone Militia.
The third party most favored by extremists in 1996, however, is not the Constitutional Party but the Libertarian Party. Perceived as a nutty but harmless group of people, Libertarians have long claimed the mantle of being the largest political party after the Republican and Democratic parties--although, admittedly, that last step is a large one. Advocating elimination of the income tax, as well as most other areas of government, Libertarians argue for a regulation-less utopia where man (or woman) is king of his (or her) domain.
But in the past several years, libertarianism has taken on a far more ominous tone. Whether it is fairer to say that the Libertarian Party has embraced the extreme right or that the extreme right has infiltrated the Libertarian Party is hard to say--it is probably a little of both. But across the country militiamen and other extremists are cloaking their other associations and running for office under the Libertarian mantle.
Since Libertarians oppose most government, it is not altogether surprising that their party would attract anti-government activists. But it is not too much to say that the caliber of activists they have been attracting is more than a little scary. Resting in jail in Phoenix right now are Ellen and David Bellivesus, members of the Libertarian Party and Dean Pleasant, a 1994 Libertarian candidate for the state legislature. But they are less well known as Libertarians than they are as members of the Viper Militia, the anti-government group many of whose members are awaiting trial on explosives and weapons charges.
Militia and patriot figures who run for political office under the Libertarian label have become positively commonplace. Alfred Adask, 1992 Libertarian candidate for the Texas Supreme Court, heads the extremist group Citizens for Legal Reform. Bob Figueroa, head of the New Jersey Militia, is the Libertarian candidate for Congress in that state. Don Smith, chaplain of the Citizens Militia of Greene County in Pennsylvania, is also a prominent Libertarian in that county. In Utah, Libertarian Brent Richards announced he would be a lobbyist for Sam Sherwood, the Idaho-based militia leader. Illinois' state Libertarian convention included many anti-government activists, and featured as a speaker Ohio militia leader J. J. Johnson. Such a list could go on and on.
More traditional libertarians are sharply divided about this influx of anti-government extremists. Some claim that the Libertarian Party is still a party of nonviolence, of peaceful change. Others admit the problem. "We do tend to attract lunatics," admitted Peter Schmerl, chair of the Libertarian Party of Pima County, Arizona, "and we tend to attract losers who are afraid of success. We have 19,000 registered Libertarians in this state, and I'm sure some of them are scum." According to Schmerl, the influx of extremists has caused the party to triple in size--and to tear itself apart from internal strife.
In some states, Libertarians have attempted to control the invasion. Utah Libertarians have begun to require prospective members to sign a pledge of nonviolence, causing some members to quit in protest. The national Libertarian Party has long had such a pledge, but it is one ignored by many new members. "We've always attracted a fringe element," admitted state party leader Jim Lorenz, "and one of them might be a bomb-thrower. It's a party that attracts anarchists and radical freedom lovers." Lorenz said the party needed protection from takeover by militias or other anti-government groups.
But most state parties--and the national party--have been helpless. After the candidate of choice of the patriot movement--Pat Buchanan, of course--decided not to run as an independent following his failed bid for the Republican nomination, most patriot groups threw their support to Libertarian candidate Harry Browne, who is propelled not by the traditional sources of support for the small Libertarian Party--well-off, well-educated white professionals--but by angry anti-government activists. The Libertarians have no more chance of winning now than before, of course, but the fact that there are currently many "stealth candidates" in Libertarian clothing should give one pause.
The most practical definition of an extremist is one whose political, ideological or philosophical goals are so far outside those of the mainstream that usually the extremist has no chance of accomplishing those goals by the normal political process. That is as true now as it always has been--even the election of an occasional extremist to public office in no way means that enough of them would be elected so that they could enact their agenda. But for all that they may be relatively isolated, the presence of extremists in political office--particularly at the state or national level--gives their views an undeserved air of credibility. Reporters may choke when they utter the words, but the phrase "state senator" must precede "Charles Duke" in their stories.
Thankfully, Americans as a whole emphatically reject right-wing extremism rather than embrace it. Newt Gingrich is not extremist, nor is Rush Limbaugh. They fall squarely within the mainstream of American conservatism. It is no sin, no weakness to support either of them, no more than it is a sin to support a liberal like Ted Kennedy. But the politics of a Steve Stockman, or the ideology of a Helen Chenoweth--they may be something else indeed. Should Americans respect the politics of prejudice and the ideology of intolerance? Hopefully this November they will not.
As a bonus to readers of this essay, the Militia Watchdog has gathered election results for many races discussed above. Often these results are preliminary projections, so they should not be taken as final tallies. Nevertheless, they do suggest likely winners and losers. The results raise two points. The first conclusion is that incumbency has not lost any of its power. Most seats listed below went to the incumbent, regardless of his or her political leaning. This is hardly surprising. The second conclusion is that publicizing the extremist ties of their opponents seems to have provided little help to candidates. This gets a little murky, though, because it is possible that it was the considerable popularity of some candidates that caused their opponents to search for such ties in the first place, as a desperate or last-ditch way to equalize their standings in the polls. It is difficult to know either way, especially since we cannot tell to what extent voters were or were not knowledgeable about the existence of such ties. However, considering that all of the candidates below actively courted right-wing extremists at one point or another, it is hard not to be somewhat disappointed at the results.