By Van Smith
Published in City Paper, Oct. 23, 2002
For many months now, since long before the September primary elections, Maryland voters have been sizing up two candidates for governor: Republican Robert Ehrlich and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Few voters, though, are even aware that a third candidate’s name and party affiliation will be printed on November’s ballot: Spear Lancaster of the Libertarian Party. He was not included in the only televised gubernatorial debate; pollsters ignored him until mid-October, when they found he attracted 1 percent of voters; and a near absence of news coverage has relegated him to electoral obscurity.
Lancaster, though, harbors no resentment over the blackout. “I understand it,” he explains genially at a recent gathering of a couple dozen of the party faithful at Mike’s Crab House in Riva, near Annapolis. “I knew that coming out of the gate. From a pure business standpoint, I see why the media isn’t going to cover the guy who isn’t spending $15 million to get a $200,000 job.”
As of the last set of state campaign-finance reports filed in late August, Lancaster’s campaign had spent only $37,000–nearly two-thirds of it on a drive to gather the 27,000 valid signatures needed to meet the state’s stringent ballot-access requirements. “We just about ran through our money” to get on the ballot, he says, stretching the resources of his “hand-to-mouth organization” in the process. Still, Lancaster puts a positive spin on the effort: “A real camaraderie has been established,” he explains, which will help as the party grows in the future. And besides, he made history.
The last third-party candidate for Maryland’s governorship, Robert Woods Merkle of George Wallace’s segregationist American Party, ran in 1970 and received nearly 20,000 votes. His candidacy was so distasteful to the state’s political establishment that new laws were passed to make it harder for such candidates to make the ballot. The restrictions, though eased since, are still considered among the toughest in the nation. Third-party candidates in Maryland, once their party has gained state recognition by gathering 10,000 signatures of registered voters, must also collect the John Hancocks of at least 1 percent of the voters where they hope to run. According to Richard Winger, a Libertarian and publisher of the Ballot Access News newsletter, which covers such laws across the nation, two-thirds of states have less restrictive ballot-access laws than Maryland’s.
Today, about 6,300 Marylanders are registered as Libertarians–more than the three other state-recognized third parties (Green, Constitution, and Reform) combined–and 170 are dues-paying members. And Lancaster expects to attract many more voters to the Libertarian fold in the coming years, not just in Maryland but nationwide.
“We’ve become the center party,” he contends. “Believe it or not, we’ve become more of the old pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done party than the two major parties. And I think this is why we are going to start getting a lot of our pull, especially among young people. The young people, they are not about to go into the real radical right, and they are not too keen on going real radical left. I think they see our program as being pretty realistic and pretty functional.”
Lancaster’s claim that his party is a get-it-done outfit is belied by a glaring fact–the Libertarian Party has precious little experience in governance. Only one Libertarian currently holds elective office in Maryland–Joseph Harrington, a longtime city council member in Brunswick, a town of 5,000 in Frederick County. Three others hold appointed positions on various local boards and commissions. Nationwide, Libertarians have been elected state representatives and small-town mayors, but higher offices have been elusive. What they do best, so far, is sell their ideas by running for office. And for Lancaster–who at 69 is retired from a long career in sales–selling ideas is second nature. All he needs is an audience, be it of one or a thousand, and he’s more than happy to explain the party line.
Over chili and beer at Fuddrucker’s in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Spear Lancaster and his running mate, Lorenzo Gaztanaga, hold forth about libertarianism. The party’s bottom line, they explain, is right there in the Declaration of Independence: equal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and self-determination over governance. And these rights, Lancaster explains, must be protected for every individual. “That’s the key,” he explains. “You can’t protect selectively. You have to protect everybody–all the time, every time, no exceptions. The weak, the people you even detest, the people whose lifestyle you wouldn’t engage in for a million bucks–you have to protect their rights. This is the thing that the Founding Fathers signed onto. It is not what either of the major parties sign onto today. They have selective rights.”
Picking up on Lancaster’s train of thought, Gaztanaga declares, “They selectively apply which rights are important to them, and then they try to promote bills and laws and regulations selectively based on those rights they like.
“A real government would actually make it its business to apply equality under the law, number one, and number two, to protect individuals from the abuses of other individuals,” Gaztanaga says. “That’s the true role of government, that’s what it is supposed to do–and can do very well, if it sticks to it. The problem with government today is that it steps into arenas that it is not equipped for and becomes intrusive, restricting freedom and reducing personal responsibility.”
Libertarians, Lancaster explains, take the best ideas of both major parties and combine them under the overarching rubric of liberty.
“Most Republicans,” he says, “agree with us on the importance of maintaining free markets, but they just don’t think people’s personal rights are all that important. The Democrats, just the opposite. They are all for personal rights, but they don’t think people should have as much liberty in economic areas. We want economic liberty and personal liberty, both, and the responsibilities that go with them.”
The libertarian philosophy of individual liberty and personal responsibility, Gaztanaga explains, leads many people to think that libertarianism “means you can do whatever you want to do. And I stop them right there and say, yeah, as long as you are not hurting anybody else. You have to have ethics. If you hurt anybody else, the game’s up.” An axiom of this moral guidepost, Lancaster continues, is never to initiate violence in any form.
Maryland’s Libertarian Party was formed in 1972, shortly after the national party’s founding in 1971, says longtime party member Dean Ahmad, an astronomer and expert on Islam from the Washington suburbs. In 1980 the party first achieved official recognition by the state, and “a Libertarian presidential candidate has been on the Maryland ballot in every election since,” Ahmad explains. Due to Maryland’s restrictive ballot-access laws, the party has often resorted to the courts–with mixed success–in order to win places on ballots. Other than Brunswick City Councilman Harrington, only one other Libertarian has ever won elective office in Maryland: Steve Ziegler, who earned a seat on the Charles County school board in 1996 and served one four-year term, Ahmad recalls.
Applying libertarianism to some of the big issues of the current campaign season leads to some interesting platform planks. Income tax? Get rid of it. The war on drugs? It’s a failure, so end prohibition and stop unfairly criminalizing a large segment of society. Social Security? Privatize it. Homosexuality? Keep the government out of people’s sex lives. Abortion? It’s up to the individual. Guns? Citizens have a right to keep and bear arms.
“When we get into the gun issue,” Lancaster says of his stump speech, “I ask everybody in the audience, do you have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? ‘Yeah,’ they say. Then I say, ‘Well, then you have the right to defend them any way you can.'”
On taxes, Lancaster believes a national sales tax should replace income tax–the more you spend, the more taxes you pay, and no income tax would mean no Internal Revenue Service and no cumbersome tax law full of loopholes for the rich. On illegal drugs, Lancaster believes drug criminalization is what makes them so profitable and so prone to violence; legalize drugs, he says, and “you take the money out of it. If you don’t take the money out of it, you’re not going to have a choice to stop” the violence.
If he should win the governorship, Lancaster says he’ll immediately convene a panel of experts from nationally recognized think tanks, who would form an “efficiency committee” to assess and make recommendations for reducing “the size and redundancy” of state government. In working to get his bureaucracy-shrinking agenda through the Democrat-and-Republican-dominated legislature, Lancaster says he would use the governor’s considerable budgetary powers to persuade oppositionist legislators to back policy measures he supports.
Lancaster sees many, many faults with the way government approaches problems today, but he remains optimistic because he believes politics is opening up to new ideas.
“We need choices, and I’m working with the Greens, the Reforms, and anybody else to make sure that happens here in Maryland,” he says. “The major parties seem to think the public is too dumb, that we just have to walk them through it. But you need choices. And the way they do it here in Maryland, getting permission to get on the ballot once you’ve jumped through all these hoops, we don’t have many. I am free when I don’t have to get anybody’s permission.”
Spear Lancaster’s life story helps explain his do-it-yourself attitude. The grandson of a Maryland state senator, he was born on a small tobacco farm during the Great Depression in Leonardtown, St. Mary’s County; attended a one-room schoolhouse in Rock Point; and survived a typhoid epidemic that struck his community when he was 6 years old. After high school in La Plata, he attended the University of Maryland, started a small construction business with some colleagues, and met and married his wife, Doris (who’s affectionately known as “Dee”). He then embarked on a career in sales, working from 1961 to 1993 for Rubbermaid Corp. Since 1966, he and Doris have lived in Crownsville, near Annapolis, where they raised two sons in a house he built himself. In 1990 he started his own company, 4 Seasons Flooring, which he ran until 2000. All the while, he’s been a voracious reader, soaking up ideas–particularly on politics.
For most of his life, Lancaster was a Democrat–“a Harry Truman Democrat,” he likes to say–and even dabbled in far-left thought. “I stayed a Democrat so long because of the women’s-rights and civil-rights movements, and the fact that they claimed to be helping the poor people,” he says. “And for a while, I think they did.”
Eventually, in the late 1980s, he grew disillusioned with the failure of Democratic policies and switched to the Republican Party. This was a temporary home. In the mid-1990s he found the Libertarian Party and studied its ideas. “I said to Dee, ‘You know, I’ve been a libertarian all my life,'” he recalls. He officially joined the Libertarian Party in 1996 and has actively participated in the party organization ever since.
Libertarians, he explains, are “very tolerant” of diverse ideas and lifestyles–a quality he cherishes, since “I’ve always been suspicious of sanctimonious, self-righteous people.” As a man who likes his fun, he says, “I actually like to think of myself as a Jeffersonian-Jackson libertarian.” Thomas Jefferson, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, is a libertarian icon, but Andrew Jackson’s appeal to Lancaster lies in his wild ways. For instance, Lancaster says that, if elected, he plans to rent out the Governor’s Mansion on the weekends for parties and weddings: “Dee says, ‘Well, you can’t mess the place up.’ I say, ‘The hell I can’t. Hell, old Jackson had the crowd come in the White House. They stood on the furniture and drank whiskey and had a good time.”
Like Lancaster, Gaztanaga is also a self-made man. Born in Havana in 1949, he arrived in Miami as a 12-year-old, and by the time he was 14 he was sweeping floors and working as a gofer for the Jesuit Seminary Guild in Baltimore. Public schools in Cuba were followed by parochial schools in the States. He graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School and has studied history and psychology at various Baltimore-area colleges. He and his wife of 27 years, Susan Gaztanaga, spent five years teaching English and Spanish in Haiti until 1984, and are very active in their church, Cliftmont Wesleyan Church in Belair-Edison. He’s had many jobs over the years and is currently a security officer at a building near Baltimore/Washington International Airport.
Also like Lancaster, Gaztanaga came to libertarianism from the left-wing side of the political spectrum–drawing from his family’s tradition in Cuba of being social democrats. When he first registered in Maryland, he was Democrat, then became an independent, and finally spent a few years as a Republican before joining the Libertarian fold in 1992, quickly rising through the ranks to become state chair later that year. In 1995, he tried to get on the ballot for the Baltimore City Council’s Third District race but fell short of the signature requirement–at that time, he needed signatures from 3 percent of the district’s voters. In 1999, he successfully made it onto the ballot and garnered 9 percent of the vote (almost 1,500 votes).
“I’m an idealistic pragmatist,” Gaztanaga proclaims. “I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but I’m very strong in my ideals. I understand that I cannot have it now, and that I have to find ways to get there, that I have to always try to persuade people and be willing to be proven wrong when I’m wrong.
“I’d like to serve in office one day. I really would. And it might happen. And then I can really see if all the stuff I’ve been talking about is really good or not.”
And at that, Gaztanaga puts forth a hearty laugh.
The Libertarian Party in Maryland is a big tent, which welcomes both youthful leftists who question authority and aging conservatives disillusioned with the Republican Party. While politically minded people in the midst of their careers who are interested in working within mainstream thought tend toward the major parties, pre- and post-career folks seem more willing to entertain third-party politics and ideas.
“Yep, yep,” confirms Lancaster when presented with these thoughts. “Absolutely right.”
Colin Boxall, a 30-year-old Curtis Bay resident who works as a systems administrator for the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, became a Libertarian after voting as a Republican in the 1992 presidential election. Dissatisfied with the major parties, he “went shopping” for alternatives by doing research at the local public library until he “found the one that more or less matched my political ideas.”
In libertarianism, Boxall found comfort in an ideology that has as its “fundamental idea that people have a right to run their own lives,” a tenet that he says is “not well-expressed or defended by the major parties.” Still, Boxall notes, “there are certainly things I disagree with–some of their economic ideals. There is too much trust in laissez-faire capitalism–some libertarians just don’t understand how ruthless corporations, particularly large corporations, can be.”
After growing up in Catonsville, Boxall got married and moved first to Brooklyn, then to nearby Curtis Bay. “We were looking to move to the city, because we have an alternative lifestyle [an unorthodox marriage, the particulars of which he prefers to keep private],” he explains. “We are not members of the ‘Big Three’ religions, and we did not want to live where these things would be held against us. In Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, there are enough problems that, if you’re not causing problems, people will let you live your own life.”
Boxall’s excitement about Lancaster’s candidacy is palpable. “Spear is a particularly good candidate for the Libertarian Party to put forward. The fact that he was a Democrat for most of his life means that he has values that Maryland Democrats can identify with,” he says. “And he sells the concept of libertarianism very well.” Having a former Republican as a candidate, he says, would “frighten off” the 18- to 25-year-old demographic–a group that Boxall wants “to pull into the party because it has the energy necessary to push a third party forward.”
Ruth Andrasco, a 65-year-old medical receptionist from Bowie, was registered as an independent voter until finding the Libertarian Party several years ago.
“I’m very tired of the one-party system in this state,” she explains. “I don’t feel I belong. And things are not being fixed, but more and more money is being spent to fix them.”
In the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich was on the rise in Washington, she thought there was hope, “but then he pooped out. And the Republican Party didn’t do what they said they would do. They act like Democrats, supporting farm subsidies and steel tariffs.” She wants “less government, less taxes,” and believes the government should sell off its land to pay down its debt.
Lancaster’s candidacy is “a long shot, but it gives me hope,” Andrasco admits. “He’s a very smart man, and very optimistic.”
She first met him when Gaztanaga was running for Baltimore City Council in 1999, and “he was very friendly and made me feel at home in the party, because it is mostly men. I’m very glad that we have someone like him to fill the candidacy. But it is very hard for him to get publicity. All we basically want is for people to know that there is an option, that you don’t have to vote for the major-party candidates if you don’t like them.”
Rock guitarist Chris Couture, 33, gave $100 to the Lancaster campaign, making him one of the Baltimore area’s biggest contributors. He has since moved away and now lives in New Hampshire, but Couture spent seven years living in Mount Vernon, Reservoir Hill, and Charles Village while performing in bands that played such venues as the 8 x 10 Club, Fletcher’s, and the Hard Rock Café. He got involved with the Libertarian Party of Maryland in the mid-1990s and strongly supported Gaztanaga’s 1999 City Council bid.
Before hooking up with the Libertarians, Couture says he “usually voted Democratic,” but came to believe the major parties were “actually two sides of the same coin” and wanted an alternative. The Libertarian Party, he says, “as a whole mimics my ideals–it is the best party to represent people who have an individualistic ideal. Libertarians respect people.”
Bill Buzzell of Dundalk joined the Libertarian Party in the early 1980s, after retiring from the Air Force. Previously, the 62-year-old Buzzell had been a Republican. Then his sister-in-law introduced him to the writings of Ayn Rand, whose views served as his “entrance point into libertarianism.” The problem with Republicans, he says, is that “they don’t vote the way they talk–as strict constitutionalists.”
In 1994, he worked on Ehrlich’s successful bid for Congress but quickly grew disheartened with him. “Once in office, he seemed to work at getting the government larger and more intrusive, so I never worked on another” Ehrlich campaign, he says.
Buzzell is excited about the Lancaster’s candidacy but is concerned that “we can’t get the word out.” He believes Lancaster can appeal to “both sides of the spectrum,” politically, and take advantage of what Buzzell views as the electorate’s innate libertarianism. “About a quarter of people are libertarian,” he says, “but they don’t know it.”
One of Lancaster’s biggest beefs with the prevailing body politic is what he likes to call its tendency to create “unintended consequences.”
“Politicians talk about doing stuff–they don’t have a clue about what the hell they’re doing,” he says. “They pass laws without any idea what it will cost or who it will cost. They create unrealistic expectations, and the quickest way to fail is to have unrealistic expectations. The politicians want to promise you miracles and talk wonders. And they’ve got to know that they are talking gibberish.”
Lancaster, though, is not prone to such “hogwash,” he says. He doesn’t expect to win the upcoming election and he isn’t holding out libertarianism as the answer to all the world’s problems. He just wants a diversity of views to inform the political debate–be it his, those of other libertarians who don’t share his opinions, or those of other third parties who similarly are shunned by the system. Infusing new voices into politics, Lancaster believes, will help reinvigorate the public’s interest in politics in an era of manifest apathy.
“A third of the voting-age public doesn’t register, and more than half of those who do don’t vote–and that’s in a good year,” he says. He is also quick to point out that more and more Maryland voters opt not to register with the major parties–from 7.8 percent in 1984, to 9.5 percent in 1994, to 13.7 percent in 2001–which indicates to him growing disillusionment with politics as usual. Thus, Lancaster offers himself as an alternative–the first one Maryland voters have been offered in a governor’s race in 32 years. Come election day, we’ll see if anybody’s buying it.