Like a lot of political hopefuls, Joe LaBonte has spent this campaign season on the road. Unfortunately, most of these roads have been in places like Oklahoma and New Jersey, miles away from his potential constituents in Utah.
LaBonte is a long-haul truck driver and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. He has an extensive political platform but no yard signs, no bumper stickers and no billboards — and virtually no seat at the political table here.
To be a member of the Personal Choice Party is to be ignored by the traditional candidates, the news media and most of the voting public. It is the Catch-22 of Utah politics: A candidate who does worse than 5 percent in the polls can't appear in televised debates that might help him do better in the polls.
But that hasn't put a damper on candidacies such as LaBonte's. There are 86 third-party contenders running for statewide and legislative offices in Utah, representing the Constitution, Green, Libertarian and Personal Choice parties. That's a remarkable one-third of all candidates running for these offices, and a 72 percent increase since the 2000 election.
In House District 34 alone, there are three different candidates from "third" parties. There's also the best-known third-party candidate in Utah politics — Salt Lake County mayoral candidate Merrill Cook, who has been famously "independent" off and on for years.
"We didn't get word that we had qualified as a political party until one week before the filing deadline" in March, said Gary Van Horn of the Constitution Party, "and yet we've got over 30 candidates."
"There is a suppressed need for what we're doing," says Van Horn, who thinks he should really be called a "second-party" candidate because Democrats and Republicans offer no real choice. "Republicrats," he calls them.
Van Horn is running for Republican Bob Bennett's U.S. Senate seat, along with Democrat Paul Van Dam and Personal Choice candidate LaBonte. This is Van Horn's fourth statewide election the past 12 years. He has run for governor against Mike Leavitt, for the Senate against Orrin Hatch and for the Senate once before against Bennett. He never received more than 3 percent of the total vote.
But winning isn't everything. In fact, for some third-party candidates, winning isn't even an expectation. "They're usually issue and cause driven," said political science professor Shaun Bowler of University of California Riverside, who has studied the whos and whys of third-party politics in America.
Third-party candidacies remind Bowler of that Norman Rockwell painting of the resolute man speaking his mind at a town meeting: "I think that's what motivates a lot of people — the idea that 'I have something I want to say.' They have a commitment to an idea, even if it's not very popular. It sounds trite and civic textbookish, but good for them and good for us, that we live in a society that tolerates dissent."
In most campaigns, he says, "the voices get narrowed down. Often, it's the minor candidates who can say 'The emperor has no clothes.' "
On a rainy October morning, LaBonte sits in his rig at a truck stop off I-215. He has just returned from a cross-country haul. Soon he'll be driving to Las Vegas. Campaigning starts when he stops. From the confines of the cab, which on this particular morning has just been perfumed with air freshener, he's returning e-mails from voters who have read about him in the "Utah Voter Information Pamphlet."
He has a laptop, a scanner-faxer-printer, a makeshift plywood desk and plenty of hours of solitude to ponder life's inequities. Spend a couple of hours with him, and he'll bend your ear about the court system, historical narrative, health care and the new economic paradigm. On the road he listens to C-span, the BBC and NPR.
He knows he's not a typical truck driver or a typical candidate. His work history includes 12 years as a dancer in a community ballet company in Florida, farming in his native New Hampshire and volunteer work with Utah's Goshute Indian tribe.
"Most of my life," he said, "I've seen the ineptitude and disingenuousness of people in politics."
Three years ago, LaBonte started the Being Human Party, whose mission statement he recites from memory: "To promote world peace through nonviolent, global, political, spiritual and ethical initiatives that foster respect for and protect the relevancy and sovereignty of each human being."
The core of his beliefs, he says, is that "our politics and our way of life are not about our children" but should be. The government, he said, is currently run and owned by corporations and special interests. His party accepts donations only from individuals and only $100 or less.
It takes 2,000 verifiable signatures to get a political party on the Utah ballot, so when that didn't happen for the Being Human Party by the deadline last winter, LaBonte signed on with the Personal Choice Party, which has no platform and welcomes all candidates and their platforms, under its cheerful political umbrella. The party's logo is the yellow smiley face. The pursuit of happiness — with no government interference — is a key element of the party's credo.
This is the first year Personal Choice has made it on the ballot, but already it has attracted a national presidential candidate, Charles Jay, and his running mate, former porn star Marilyn Chambers. "Each individual should be free to decide for themselves, even if they want to do something that's inappropriate," explained Personal Choice founder Ken Larsen, who is running for Utah governor. "It's called freedom. It's called free agency. It's called leave us the hell alone."
Dismay over the federal government's intrusion in individual lives is a motivation for many, though not all, third-party activity, particularly among Constitution Party members and Libertarians — although they differ on what those individuals should be free to do.
The Constitution Party sees the Constitution as divinely inspired and believes that "close to 80 percent" of what the federal government now does is not granted by the Constitution, said candidate Van Horn. Libertarians think the government shouldn't legislate over matters like drug use and sexual matters.
That's what fires up Libertarian attorney general candidate Andrew McCullough, a lawyer who has made his speciality defending "adult entertainment" such as escort services and exotic dancers. McCullough, now 56, is sort of surprised his life has turned out the way it has. "Little by little I kind of realized I wasn't fitting into the stereotypical Utah Republican," says the attorney who once was a Young Republican and Brigham Young University student.
"I can't be what they want me to be," he says about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although he still considers himself a member. He's never had a drink or an illegal drug in his life, not even a cigarette, he said.
Third-party candidates are often colorful figures, whose lives and resumes don't fit the mold. Larsen is a retired University of Utah researcher who studied the biological rhythms of mice and once made a point of being arrested on State Street so he could protest Salt Lake City's cruising law.
Like McCullough, he is a BYU grad. In the late 1970s, he said, "I began to realize I was more for complete free agency. I believe that people should have the right to screw up . . . as long as they don't harm anyone else." Because the Constitution offers religious freedom but fails to detail other freedoms, he has founded The Church of the Hemp Goddess, the Same Sex Church and the Church of the Beer God.
This is his tenth try at public office but likely not his last. He has "an inner fire" that motivates him, he says. "I keep praying to God: 'If you're not going to help me win, please take this fire away from me.' "
On a chilly evening last week, Larsen sat in a folding chair in the audience of a televised debate between his two rivals, Jon Huntsman Jr. and Scott Matheson Jr. Larsen, who hadn't been invited to participate in the actual debate, had to content himself with posting a transcript of the debate on his Web site a couple of days later, inserting paragraphs about what he would have said had he been invited.
Constitution Party candidate Van Horn is used to being ignored. When he ran for governor in 1992, incumbent Leavitt wouldn't even acknowledge him, he said. "I was beneath his consideration. If you see a cockroach on the floor, you don't look at it."
This lack of respect and attention is what will keep Jeremy Friedbaum from running as a third-party candidate again. Four years ago, Friedbaum ran for governor on the Independent American Party ticket. He'd been a Republican before that, racking up an impressive 25 percent against 3rd District Congressman Chris Cannon in the 1998 primary but decided to be the IAP's candidate in 2000 to make sure he'd be on the ballot.
"They're a great bunch of people," he said about the IAP folks. "But there's not much of a chance being elected from a third party." Friedbaum went on a 39 1/2-day hunger strike in 2000 to protest his lack of access to the televised gubernatorial debates. Next time he'll run as a Republican, he says.
Other third-party candidates are more sanguine about the future of nontraditional parties.
"I have complete faith all this will ultimately come to pass," said Larsen of the viability of the Personal Choice party — not just in Utah but nationwide.
As for LaBonte, sitting behind the wheel of his truck, he's only just begun the fight. He may not get many votes in 2004, but he's sure 2006 will be his year.
"Orrin Hatch is in trouble, big time" he said about his future opponent. "He just doesn't know it yet."