Bruce Majors has found a few more bodies. With his party’s first primary just months away, the District’s Libertarian mastermind is scrambling for names to put on the ballot. Last Thursday, he had two more people to shepherd through the Board of Elections.
District rules require that candidates have signatures from 1 percent of their party’s registered members to qualify for ballot access, so the flood of Democrats prepping for April’s primary election need as many as 2,000 signatures to run. Wary of bogus signatures and Board of Elections challenges, many of them will collect many times that; mayoral hopeful Muriel Bowser claimed to have pulled together 4,000 in one weekend. But with only 145 registered Libertarians, each of Majors’ candidates only needs two signatures to make it through.
Thanks to Majors, this is the first year the District’s Libertarians have faced such an easy bar to get on the ballot. In 2012, he ran against Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and lost miserably, earning a little less than 6 percent of the vote. But Majors’ ballots were enough to qualify the Libertarians as a “major party” with the Board of Elections. In their first election as a city-recognized party, they’re enjoying the benefits and facing the rivalries of a much larger party.
On Thursday afternoon, Libertarian at-large D.C. Council candidate Frederick Steiner picks up his petitions, and a minute later, after getting signatures from Majors and House delegate candidate Sara Panfil, he’s collected enough names to make the primary ballot. While Democratic candidates rush to meet the Jan. 2 signature deadline, Steiner is disappointed to find out he can’t turn his completed petition in until Dec. 19.
“All right, I made my numbers,” Steiner says.
Majors looks on, delighted. When he ran against Norton he needed to collect 3,000 signatures to get on the ballot as a candidate from a party that didn’t have a permanent spot. Most of his campaign treasury went into the effort, with Majors spending $13,266 of his $25,550 campaign treasury on petitioning.
Majors needed 7,500 votes. He got 16,524, assuring that the Libertarians would become a recognized “major party.” Critically, that status means Majors and future Libertarian hopefuls won’t have to spend all of their money collecting signatures.
Majors’ introduction to the ideology came in the form of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. At his small-town Tennessee high school, Majors’ friend convinced him to read Rand’s novel of social collapse and industrial derring-do so she could have someone to discuss it with. Majors devoured the book, moving on to Rand’s The Fountainhead.
Later that summer, he discovered free-market heavyweights like Friedrich Hayek. Majors came back to school when the summer ended ready to debate the merits of John Galt’s engine, only to find that his friend had run off with a radio station announcer.
Forty years later, Majors, who is a real estate agent is still looking for someone to talk about libertarianism with him. He goes to meetings looking for candidates to stick on the ballot and throws petition-signing parties hours at Logan Circle Tex-Mex joint Tortilla Coast*.
His tireless meeting and greeting has convinced Panfil, Steiner, and Ryan Sabot, a precocious American University student seeking Mary Cheh’s Ward 3 seat, to run for office. But Majors doubts any of them would have run if the Libertarians weren’t an official party. Status has also been a boon to his recruitment efforts, since it spares candidates from spending every weekend looking for signatures.
Major-party status was also a victory for Majors’ personal reputation—previously, he was best known in the District as the author of a much-ridiculed Tea Party guide to D.C. that urged attendees at a Glenn Beck rally to stay off the Green Line.
So far, his candidate slate—all white men and Panfil, a white woman—doesn’t do much to disprove the stereotype of Libertarians as a party for nerdy white people. Majors has had trouble convincing people of color to take a trip to the Board of Elections, even when, in an attempt just to get another candidate on the ballot, he promises that their campaign work would be limited to signing a few papers and appearing on the ballot.
Still, Majors hopes to find a more diverse roster before his party’s primary. “Not that I think of these people in that way, but the media and the electorate will, so I have to also,” he says.
Conveniently for his plans, he’s setting the bar low. When out trawling Libertarian gatherings for candidates, Majors says he’s just looking for someone intelligent and presentable—and, of course, willing to run for office.
But casting a wide net has its downsides, especially with a party known for dislike of being told what to do. Before meeting his candidates at the Board of Elections, Majors sent out a press release declaring that Steiner would be running for Council chairman; he decided to run for the at-large seat instead.
Steiner’s on to something. Because of Home Rule Act requirements, two of the Council’s four at-large seats have to go to a candidate who’s not a member of the District’s majority party—in other words, now and forever, the Democrats.
When LL told Steiner that he stands the best chance of winning out of any of the Libertarian candidates, he blanched. He thought he was running against current Democratic at-large Councilmember Anita Bonds, when in fact, the non-Democrat with the most votes next November will get a seat.
The significance of the set-aside seat isn’t lost on John Vaught LaBeaume, another would-be Libertarian candidate recruiter. While Majors will sign anyone with a copy of The Road to Serfdom and a pulse, LaBeaume is trying to recruit local business owners to run for the at-large spot. If he succeeds, his candidate will be going up against Majors’.
“Just me personally, I’m not going to work without a really solid candidate,” LaBeaume says.
LaBeaume’s coming off a stint as the campaign manager for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis, who pulled an impressive (for a Libertarian) 6.6 percent of the vote and enraged conservative backers of GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli. With no worries about vote-splitting here, LaBeaume thinks Libertarians can do even better in the District.
But the Libertarians have seen the Council already co-opt some of their best issues. Gay marriage became law in 2009, and the Council’s about to decriminalize marijuana with the blessing of Mayor Vince Gray. What’s the party of live and let live to do?
Lots, according to LaBeaume. Even if they can’t unseat the Democratic Party in the Wilson Building (and they can’t), LaBeaume thinks they can reliably become the second-largest party, ahead of the Republicans, and the recipient of protest votes against unpopular Democratic candidates who win their own party’s primaries. (He uses Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham as the example of an ideal opponent.)
Still, his hunt for the at-large Michael Bloomberg has so far been fruitless. When LL met LaBeaume last week, he’d just come from meeting a prominent businesswoman—he wouldn’t say whom—who was still on the fence about making a run. LaBeaume’s not rushing, though—because candidates only have to change their registration a month ahead of the primary, he can afford to headhunt until March 1.
In a nod to their cantankerous party, Majors and LaBeaume give each other a wide berth. Majors described LaBeaume to LL as “my parallel person,” but declined to give LL his rival’s name. (Fortunately, the paucity of Libertarians in D.C. politics meant LL didn’t have to look far.)
Majors contrasts his candidate-heavy approach with LaBeaume’s criteria, which he describes as “anybody more famous than me.” He says he has only occasional contact with LaBeaume—an impressive feat, since, as Steiner jokes, you could accommodate the District’s entire Libertarian Party membership at a very large dinner party.
“I’m going to leave it mainly up to my parallel person to worry about things like getting famous people on the ballot,” Majors says.
That there’s any rivalry at all is remarkable, given that their candidates almost certainly won’t win. Steiner may have to contend with Republican-turned-independent incumbent David Catania, who hasn’t lost a race since 1997. Even if Catania ditches his seat to run for mayor, Steiner would likely face several Democratic candidates who could drop their party registrations to run for the seats (which former Councilmember Michael Brown once did, as did David Grosso, who ousted him last fall). For delegate, Panfil can only hope to grab protest votes against Norton, if anyone shows up to the general election at all.
That’s all right with Majors, who’s taking the very, very long view on the Libertarian ascendancy. It took them years to even become a recognized party in the District—what’s a few more decades?
Majors isn’t even concerned that LaBeaume’s recruiting and the impossibly easy signature process will knock out one of his candidates. He even thought of orchestrating a primary fight himself. After all, what better way to get attention?
* Correction: Due to a reporting error, this post originally misstated at which Tortilla Coast the Libertarians gather. They meet at the Logan Circle location, not the one on Capitol Hill.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery