Rhode Island's minority parties got clobbered on Election Day. Was it the
media, local Democrats, or infighting that brought them down?
by David Andrew Stoler
The classic election-night scene was, in fact, taking place. Parties
attended by sharply dressed political scenesters were happening at this very
moment in big hotels. Alcohol flowed, reporters reported, camera bulbs flashed,
interns jockeyed for post-election jobs. Hell, even the Kennedys were there.
But in Wakefield, a full hour's drive down dark and eerie back roads from the
Providence celebrations, Jeff Johnson, the Green Party candidate for lieutenant
governor, was slipping into bed next to his Saint Bernard and his
This wasn't so much a photo op or a Calvin Coolidge reference -- Johnson was
actually physically tired, exhausted from a long and arduous campaign for
lieutenant governor that included a protest and canvassing walk last weekend
during which Johnson intended to hand out some 50 pounds of leaflets over a
distance of nearly two marathons. Unfortunately, the trek was cut short after
25 miles by bad blisters.
Indeed, Johnson, who ran for the same office in 1994, had been working his
tail off trying to get out his message to voters. But when all was said and
done last Tuesday, November 3, he'd barely scratched the surface with just 3
percent of the vote -- about 11,000 votes less than the nearly 6 percent he'd
gathered four years before.
Riding on the excitement and successes generated by Reform Party presidential
candidate Ross Perot's '92 and '96 presidential runs, local Cool Moose party
chair Robert Healey's '94 gubernatorial campaign, and the national surge of
successful third-party candidates, people like Johnson had been hopeful that
this year's campaign would continue to raise the third-party bar, continue to
plant third-party causes into voter consciousness and make third-party
candidates a more viable option by increasing the seriousness of coverage given
to them and their ideas. What they found, though, was that the increased
notoriety of third-party candidates didn't, in fact, bring them any closer into
the political mainstream.
Instead, the majority of Rhode Island's third-party candidates were faced with
both declining support and a declining excitement level, partly because of the
success of past campaigns. This election, the two major parties, it seems, did
take notice of the threat a successful third-party campaign holds. The
Democrats and Republicans, say third-party officials, played extra dirty to
keep other candidates out of the spotlight, and local media responded by
denying third-party candidates fair coverage in debates and in the press.
But not all the blame for poor local response to third parties can be put on
the two major parties and the fourth estate. Nationally, third-party candidates
got plenty of media juice and made some big waves. Not only did former
wrestler-turned-Minnesota Reform Party gubernatorial candidate Jesse "the Body"
Ventura and former actor-turned-New York Green Party gubernatorial candidate Al
"Grandpa Munster" Lewis grab national headlines and race percentage points this
election (Ventura even pulled off a stunning upset), but non-celebrity types
like California Greens gubernatorial candidate Dan Hamburg scored major
endorsements and media attention.
According to some political insiders, the real cause for the poor showing by
Rhode Island's minority parties was a combination of a changed political
landscape and a variety of in-party problems -- the tendency to push the same
candidates and ideas year after year, even though they weren't successful
originally, for example. Also, infighting and a lack of cooperation within a
traditionally cohesive group of separate parties led to an inability to push
agendas to the next level.
Local third-party candidates contend, though, that, above all, they weren't
given a fair shake, that the political establishment colluded with the media to
keep them out. Johnson says that this year's elections were the "most corrupt"
he's ever witnessed. "There were many more opportunities when I ran in '94 --
it seems like there has been a more concerted effort this year to keep
[third-party candidates] out," he says.
Tim McKee, the Green Party's campaign manager, agrees, saying that, despite a
positive national outlook for third parties, the local movement has been
suffering. "We've finally been getting national endorsements like the one from
the National Organization of Women; candidates are getting endorsed across the
country. [And yet, locally,] I've been involved in campaigns for 20 years, and
this has been the worst year."
Indeed, says Johnson, when the media did talk about any candidates other than
the Democrats and Republicans, it was only to "single out third parties for
ridicule and derision.
"The media defines reality, and without exposure, you're not real," he says.
The walk, which Johnson called "a vigil for democracy and inclusion," was
supposed to draw attention to these issues. Only problem: no one from the media
showed up to cover it.
Overall, the '90s have been good for third parties in the US. Russell
Verney, national chairman of the Texas-based Reform Party, cites three ways to
be successful in a campaign: "to win, to maintain the right to run in the
future, and to enlarge public debate prior to election so that the government
formed after the election expresses the views of the voter."
According to Verney's qualifications, then, third-party candidates across the
US have had a series of successes this decade. In 1992, Ross Perot's run for
president changed the way both George Bush and Bill Clinton approached issues,
forcing the pair to get past a lot (not all, clearly) of the rhetoric and down
to real issues. It also opened the door for the inclusion of third-party
candidates in the debate process while raising national awareness of the Reform
Party and minority parties in general.
In 1994, with Rhode Island's economic recovery lagging behind the rest of the
nation's, Cool Moose candidate Robert Healey shook up the governor's race and
came away with 9 percent of the votes. That means that more than 32,000 people
voted for him -- an incredible accomplishment for an outsider like Healey.
After Healey's campaign four years ago, many third-partiers had high hopes
that his success might force open the traditionally narrow eyes of both the
mainstream media and the general public to the potential of third-party
candidates. But, in fact, the opposite occurred: third-partiers feel that they
were shut out of media coverage and debates by both the major parties and the
media. And the result was that their numbers dipped significantly this
election. The Cool Mooser dropped by more than 2 percentage points, while the
Greens saw their numbers slip as well.
Basically, what happened was that the strong showings by Healey and Johnson in
'94 opened the eyes of local Democrats and Republicans to the real power that
minority parties possess -- to the fact that they can disrupt elections and
campaigns on which the Dems and Reps have spent huge sums of money by upping
the ante of political discourse. More troublesome for the major parties, third
parties can pull in significant numbers on Election Day.
The major-party players reacted to these realities this year by using their
clout to squeeze minority candidates out of the picture by keeping the media
from including all the candidates in such public forums as debates.
This, in turn, kept the poorer minority candidates from forcing the others to
talk about real issues. Indeed, McKee contends, major-party pressure led the
mainstream media to virtually omit minority candidates from their coverage.
Worse, he says, some media outlets even attacked the third parties as being a
waste of voter time.
No doubt, says Verney, the local press let Rhode Islanders down. "The rules
were written by the Democrats and Republicans, and are colluded upon by the
press. It depends on the degree of public service being given by the media as
opposed to the degree of political service. Why should any news outlet before
an election say that you're not a qualified enough candidate?" he asks.
McKee points to the lack of inclusive debates as an indicator that the
mainstream media was controlled by the two major parties. "In '94 [Johnson] ran
and was able to get on televised debates on Channel 36 and Channel 10. [But
this year] 36 told us directly that the Democrats and Republicans told them
they wouldn't show up if the third-parties even show up," he says.
And McKee does seem to be on to something. Although Channel 36 usually
broadcasts a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, it couldn't come
to terms with the League this year. According to Hollie Courage, the Rhode
Island League president, her group "did propose early on that any debates that
we did would include all candidates in the races." But Channel 36 said they
only "wanted to show the voters candidates who had a chance," she says.
More surprising, Larry Holden, Channel 36's director of programming, openly
admits that that's what happened, and he doesn't deny that Channel 36's
exclusion of third-party candidates came straight from a Democratic and
Republican mandate. "A strange thing happens with debates: many of the
significant party candidates will not show up for debates when they feel that
too many of the third-party candidates are participating," says Holden. And
while he admits that "what that does is lower political discourse," he points
out that Channel 36 did offer five minutes of "broadcast time for all 22
candidates, of which 19 took advantage."
Small consolation to Jeff Johnson, though, who was never given a televised
opportunity to debate the major-party candidates he was challenging. For
Johnson, who couldn't afford to buy TV time to advertise because of his stand
on campaign-finance, the debate process was fundamental to his campaign.
Johnson says that candidates "have this tremendous opportunity to communicate
to people what their ideas are, [but] they want to communicate through sound
bites and electronic media. I'm frustrated and very angry and concerned about
the nature of a system in which . . . the major players can dictate who is
Worse, say many third-partiers, certain members of the media went out of their
way to slam minority-party activity. People like McKee are especially critical
of Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst for comments he made in
his column and on the Channel 36 program Lively Experiment. In one
instance, Bakst actually said that because Healey had no chance of winning, he
should step aside in the debates to allow the major parties more airtime to
explain their platform.
Indeed, Bakst says, "I believe that, generally speaking, third-party
candidates do a tremendous disservice to the electorate -- they don't run real
campaigns, don't raise money or advertise. They're not real candidates."
But James Sheehan, the Reform Party's First District congressional candidate,
calls some of Bakst's comments "the most cynical statements I've ever heard
coming from a journalist." Sheehan says that Bakst committed "journalistic
malpractice," and argues that the columnist abused "a sacred privilege in the
Constitution to have a freedom of the press."
In response, Bakst says that he isn't supposed to be an objective reporter. "I
am the political columnist for the Journal. I do not set the
Journal's news policy, and the Journal's policy differs from
mine," he says.
As for an overall bias in Channel 36's programming, the station's chief
executive officer and president, Susan L. Farmer, says, "I think it would be
more productive if those candidates would be out running a real campaign than
making noise about issues that don't exist. If they were serious about running,
they'd be out looking for votes."
Above and beyond the media
argument, other issues clearly contributed to the tough times the local third
parties had this election.
One reason for a generally less excitable voter pool, Healey points out, is
that the national political landscape has changed significantly since he last
ran. "There was a lot of protest and social upheaval, and now, while things may
be going to the dogs, they don't appear that way," he says.
Be it the 1912 Bull-Moose Party reacting to the Republicans' entrenched
conservatism or the Socialist Party rallying around worker discrimination on
the part of both liberal and conservative capitalists, third parties have been,
throughout history, pro-active groups reacting to and around specific problems
or causes. In '94, for example, Rhode Island was in the midst of both the Chief
Justice Thomas Fay misappropriation scandal and former governor Ed DiPrete's
unfolding corruption charges. Sick of insider politicos, Rhode Islanders were
willing to listen to outsider views, which opened the door for Healey's big
But this year, with the economy in good shape and corruption far away, voters
paid less attention. Brown University political-science professor Darrell West
says, "People are less angry. There is a strong economy, and two-thirds say
that the state is moving in the right direction. So it is a lot more difficult
[for a third-party candidate to] mobilize discontent."
Another reason for the decreased buzz surrounding third-party candidates was
that, frankly, not much changed, third-party-wise, since the last time around.
Voters didn't see anything new this year, says Verney, and "if we keep doing
the same thing over and over again, we are gong to continue to get the same
Says one media source who has been following the campaigns locally, "They
haven't found a real hook. Mr. Moose hasn't been as visible -- they've been out
hustling, but they haven't captured the imagination of the voters, and that's
what this is about." Whatever the causes, the lack of local enthusiasm this
year wore on one of the things that has made the third parties so different
from the major two: their cohesiveness. Over the last few years, the third
parties have been incredibly supportive of one another, and this has allowed
them to work together to raise consciousness about all the third-party issues.
But in the 1998 elections, veiled criticisms of other candidates worked their
way into the language of the third parties. Jeff Johnson, for one, expressed
his frustration that Healey wasn't more of a team player this go-round. After
his success in '94, "Bob became the poster boy for the third parties. [He]
could have been advocating for third-party involvement, but instead opted for
Healey, in turn, separated himself from his third-party compatriots in saying
that "people are open to me, people have been talking about me. And that's the
way third party has to go, word of mouth. You can get angry, but the way you
have to do it is just keep beating the drum and beating the drum. You can beat
the system, but you have to be creative. You can't just walk in and declare
yourself a candidate and expect to do well."
As Johnson tucked himself into bed at his Wakefield home far from the
cameras, bright lights and microphones, the Reform Party was having its own
election-night event at general-treasurer candidate Victor Moffitt's accounting
office in Coventry. Located between Jerry's King of Meats Supermarket and
Paradise Video Rentals in the Coventry Shoppers Park strip mall, the office
hosted a party of much smaller scale than the Democrats and Republicans in
Inside, Reform Party candidates Moffitt, John Carlevale, and Timothy Miller
sat with a small group of family and friends, munching cheese and pastry off
paper plates and drinking wine, beer, and brandy, trying to keep spirits high.
"Polls say I've got 8 percent of the vote, and there's still another 24 percent
unaccounted for," Moffitt said, though the final count Tuesday night would
prove no more gains for the most successful third-party campaign in the
Sporting a bemused smile while sitting for a picture with his two
co-candidates, Carlevale, the Reform Party candidate for lieutenant governor,
noted that the Phoenix was the only paper aside from the local
Coventry Courier to show up at the small gathering that night. When an
attendee said, "Stop whining," Carlevale responded, "We haven't been whining
this whole time. We have a right to whine."
Verney sums up both the campaign sentiment and the Coventry scene a bit
better, though. "An emerging political party's candidates," he says, "will have
a difficult time for a long time."