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Third Party Blues

Al Liner
Janet Orsi

Stars and stripes forever: Viet vet-turned-state Assembly candidate Al Liner is waging a low-cost campaign for political reform.

Al Liner has a plan to revolutionize California politics. Why isn't anyone listening?

By Greg Cahill

IS IT MY IMAGINATION or does the fabric of our society seem to be held together with bubble gum right now?" asks Al Liner as he tackles a messy McDougall burrito at a noisy Santa Rosa taqueria between observations about how politics affects people's lives. Clad in casual slacks and a charcoal-gray T-shirt emblazoned with a pencil rubbing out the word eracism, 46-year-old Liner--who looks like a middle linebacker and speaks passionately about his convictions--is no stranger to the peculiarities of politics. As the shelter program coordinator at People for Economic Opportunity, a local non-profit agency based in Roseland, he deals on a daily basis with the way in which decisions made on the floor of the state Legislature affect people on the streets.

The burly Vietnam vet is a Peace and Freedom candidate who is challenging incumbent Valerie Brown in the 7th Assembly District race. He's struggling to get respect in the press, since third-party candidates are seldom taken seriously in the media.

So it's perhaps no surprise that on this hot, sunny afternoon the topic of conversation is political reform. All the more so because an increasing number of people are growing disillusioned by politics-as-usual--in Sonoma County, for instance, the number of those registered to minority parties has increased 51 percent in the past four years to 11,461, or about 5 percent of registered voters overall.

Yet, the news media have virtually blacked out stories about third-party candidates--unless, of course, they're bankrollers with a few million bucks of their own cash or being portrayed as flaky New Age hucksters.

Liner has plenty to say about that.

Right now, he's livid about how hard it is to get press coverage for a plan that he says will revolutionize California politics.

"During the spring primary election, it was especially frustrating because I was seeing all these stories in the local daily about other parties and other candidates--Republicans, Democrats. Hell, I even saw a story about Santa Rosa City Councilman Jim Pedgrift saying that he was considering the possibility of running for the state Assembly in 1998.

"Yet they wouldn't do a story on me."

So, Liner phoned Marilyn Duck, assistant editorial page director at the Press Democrat, and asked what the deal is.

"She said that I was running in an unopposed race, so they didn't need to cover me," he recalls, adding that the PD covered the Republican and Natural Law party candidates even though they also were running unopposed. "I asked her about that. She said the Natural Law Party has a catchy position on transcendental meditation," he explains. "She said that's new and different, whereas the PD knows what the Peace and Freedom Party is all about."

"I said, 'Oh, really? Can you tell me what proportional representation is, because that's a cornerstone of our party?'

"She couldn't."

Ah, yes, proportional representation--the Peace and Freedom plan that, Liner says, could change the face of California politics. It goes like this: The state Legislature is comprised of numerous Assembly districts in which the candidate who wins a majority of the votes gets to represent everybody in the district. So, even if you didn't vote for them--and even if their ideological beliefs run counter to your own--well, they represent you anyway.

"We believed that's not a very democratic way of doing things," Liner says. "So we looked around for an alternative."

What the Peace and Freedom Party came up with is a model that has multiple-member districts in which each party wins a proportion of the representation--thus the term proportional representation--based on the percentage of the vote garnered by each party within the district. For example, if the 7th Assembly District has 10 legislators and the Green candidate wins 30 percent of the votes, the Green Party gets three members in that district's legislative delegation.

Proponents say that such a multiple-member system would encourage voter turnout, foster issue-oriented campaigns instead of those nasty negative campaigns we've all love to hate, and open up the political system to new ideas. Critics argue that it would be unwieldy because the Assembly would have too many members, leading to factionalization and fierce battles.

"We have to accept the idea that we don't live in the most democratic system possible," Liner says. "The fact of the matter is we live in a two-party system and less than 50 percent of those who are registered to vote actually go the polls. So the minority rules--and that's not very democratic."

PROPORTIONAL representation is not a new idea. Nor is it particularly radical. In his book Real Choices, New Voices: The Case for Proportional Representation Elections in the United States (Columbia University Press, 1993), Mount Holyoke College professor of politics Douglas Amy blasts the single-member plurality system used to elect officials in the United States as "unfair, outmoded, and undemocratic." While voters often express anger and frustration about the poor quality of candidates, the constant re-election of incumbents, and the role of special-interest money in politics, Amy notes, little attention is paid to the most basic mechanisms of our electoral system--the method of casting votes and electing winners.

"It would hardly occur to us that this voting system is deeply flawed or that it routinely violates the principles of fairness and equal representation that we believe are the hallmarks of our political system," Amy writes.

Countries using proportional representation include Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. All those countries knew about the single-member plurality system, but rejected it.

They aren't the only ones.

When the emerging Eastern European democracies went shopping for election systems after the fall of the Soviet empire, they embraced many aspects of the American political system. The single-member plurality model wasn't one of them.

In fact, the only Western countries that still use the first-past-the-post process to elect officials are Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States--all heirs to the British tradition of government.

Minority party candidates in California--wary of the monopoly control exerted by the Republican and Democratic parties--would like to change that. "Everybody from Perot down is concerned that third parties never get a word in edgewise," says Coleman Persily, a perennial Peace and Freedom Party candidate from San Rafael. "The Libertarians, Greens, Reform Party, and others all agree that something has to change.

"Otherwise we'll have tweedledum and tweedledee for the rest of our lives."

Proponents of proportional representation point out that one need only look at eroding voter turnout to see that the current system is failing. "We have to ask ourselves why people in the United States are not participating, and I believe that the problem is that they're not being represented by the two major parties," Liner says. "Our government has become exclusive rather than inclusive, and that's just the opposite of what democracy is all about. You have to have either a lot of money or a lot of influence to participate in the government."

As a result, he adds, public officials are often elected by a mere margin of the eligible voters, including a significant number of folks who just don't even bother registering anymore.

"The thing that is really mind-boggling is that those so-called major parties--the Republicans and the Democrats--are actually the minority," Liner says. "They're each getting less than 30 percent of the votes cast on the ballot, even though the majority of registered voters are from those two parties. When push comes to shove and it comes down to whom you believe in during the general election, people simply are not turning out.

"I'm not saying that proportional representation is going to make us the best government in the world or solve all our social ills," he adds. "What I am saying is that it's a step in the right direction. By proposing it, at least we are looking at the problem. Nobody else is even doing that, and evidently the major media don't want to look at it either. It challenges the status quo and means that the Republicans and the Democrats are not going to have all the power."

Clearly, proponents of proportional representation are waging an uphill battle.

TO GET THE MESSAGE out, Liner is aggressively canvassing door to door, setting up tables at shopping centers in Napa and Sonoma counties, stumping the local farmers' markets, and hosting coffee klatches.

The response, he says, is overwhelmingly positive.

"The biggest concern people have is that government is just not responsive to them," he says. "People are not apathetic. The reason that more people don't vote is that they are disenfranchised. They feel that it doesn't matter who--they vote for--who the winner is--because the voters are going to get screwed."

Liner has raised about $1,000 for his grassroots campaign, from yard sales and other modest sources. By comparison to most state races, his campaign is strictly low-rent--no bumper stickers, no lawn signs. Without press coverage, he's quick to point out, it's very difficult to get people to take him as a serious candidate.

"It's hard to raise money, because people don't hear about us," he says.

Indeed, Liner has received scant radio coverage and a mention in only a couple of smaller community newspapers in the 7th Assembly District, which includes most of Santa Rosa and runs east through the Napa Valley and then south through parts of Vallejo. It's not unusual for minority party candidates to get so little press attention, nor is it just the mainstream news outlets that snub them; the alternative newspapers also turn their backs on third parties. At a panel discussion about political coverage at the 1995 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies regional convention in San Francisco last fall, the editor at one influential California newspaper, who later asked not to be named, said that his paper did not cover third-party candidates "because they're not a factor."

That's starting to change a bit. "If a third-party candidate is running a strong campaign and they have something interesting to say, then we would give them a guest commentary," says Melinda Welsh, editor of the Sacramento News & Review. "But if it's just a matter of somebody putting their name on the ballot for a vanity campaign or just to say there should be more options on the ballot, then we're not interested.

"Why should we in the media jump through hoops and take them super-seriously if the candidates don't even take themselves seriously?"

Back at the Press Democrat, Marilyn Duck eventually asked Liner to send her some information about proportional representation. He did. Three and a half weeks later, Liner still hadn't heard from Duck. So he phoned the office and ended up speaking to editorial page director Pete Golas. Thinking the information had been intended as a letter to the editor, Golas said the paper had no intention of publishing it. Liner told him it was meant only to brief the editorial staff on the proposal.

"He basically said," Liner recalls, "'We're not going to cover proportional representation. The voters don't want to know about it.' Then he added, 'We're not going to put it in and I doubt very much that we're going to cover your campaign or the Peace and Freedom Party.' He added that the people already know what it's about and they don't care.

"Now, I don't know how he knows that. I'm the one who's been out there knocking on doors and finding plenty of people who really want to hear about an alternative."

IF THE NEWS MEDIA aren't taking third parties seriously, mainstream politicians are. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, recognizes the potential for the Peace and Freedom Party to act as a spoiler, especially since Peace and Freedom candidate Darlene Comingore siphoned 15 percent of the liberal vote in 1990, helping to lead to the defeat of Democratic incumbent Rep. Doug Bosco by then neophyte Republican Frank Riggs. Last fall, Woolsey called a meeting with local Peace and Freedom Party central Committee members and asked them to work for her campaign in a united effort to stave off a challenge by Republican businessman Duane Hughes of Petaluma.

According to Liner and others at the meeting, Woolsey--an old-school liberal Democrat--said she felt more "sympatico" toward Peace and Freedom ideals than to those of her own party, which has shifted in recent years toward the political center. "We asked if she would consider switching parties," Liner recalls. "She flatly refused. So we told her that might be political suicide, and asked her, 'But what, then, is the Democratic vision of the future?' She had no answer. She got angry. She said she wasn't here to discuss that.

"How can you lead if you have no vision?"

Those who question whether a vote for a third-party candidate isn't just one less vote for a Republican or Democrat--the same folks whose decisions at the polls often are governed by the lesser-of-two-evils rule--should re-examine their democratic principles, Liner says. "If you believe in what I say and you vote for Valerie Brown, then I'm not taking anything away from her--she's taking votes away from me," he says. "The real issue is that in this so-called democracy, if you're not allowed to vote your conscience, then something is drastically wrong.

"The mere fact that people ask that question should tell us that something is wrong. Desperately wrong."

Under the monopoly control of the two-party system, the whole concept of party politics has gotten a bad rap, he adds. In recent years, that even has led to a discussion about adding a "none of the above" category to ballots to indicate that voters want the parties to field better candidates. "Two-party politics can be extremely valuable if it's used correctly," Liner adds. "But the Democrats and the Republicans have used it largely to fulfill their own self-interest and to cut people out of the process."

Meanwhile, Liner readily acknowledges that Valerie Brown is a well-liked elected official, especially in her hometown of Sonoma. But he points out that his campaign is driven by issues and not by a dislike of her performance. "I have had to search my soul about why I'm running," he says. "Am I here to get votes? If I'm here just to get votes, then I will avoid campaigning in her backyard. If I'm not here just to get votes, but to get a message out, then I'm going to campaign, not just in her backyard but at her front door. I'm taking the latter of the two options. We have a message here and it is an important message. I firmly believe it is one of the most important political messages to face Californians in this century.

"If you want to deal with proportional representation, I'll drop out of this race and help you. But if not, I'm coming back at ya."

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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