Document:LPNY 1994 Petition Drive

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by Blay Tarnoff

The six week 1994 drive to collect the necessary signatures to place the Libertarian Party candidates for statewide office on the ballot witnessed the most complex interaction of events ever encountered by an LPNY Petition Drive. The Drive was by far the highest profile ever, its initial tone having its genesis in the April 22 Nominating Convention, at which the highly popular radio talk show host Howard Stern brought hundreds of fans and followers to support his candidacy for Governor, displaying enough political strength to easily overwhelm the proceedings.

Stern's political tidal wave washed a complex array of hopes, fears, elation and anger into the Party and the Petition Drive. Many longtime members vowed not to participate in the Drive, some feeling betrayed by the Party leadership, others incensed by the affront to their sovereignty over the Party exhibited by Stern's political muscle, others merely incensed by the affront to their dignity posed by Howard Stern's particular brand of humor, and others just looking for any excuse to do nothing. Some members simply believed that Howard Stern and his followers could, would and should do all the work themselves, and there was some feeling that with thousands of fans around the State, and a proven ability to attract twenty thousand people to attend a book signing on the streets of Manhattan, Stern would have no trouble somehow inspiring hundreds to collect signatures and thousands to sign.

Mr. Stern, however, true to his words, and perhaps partly due to the polarized reception he received from longtime Party members, refused to participate in the attempt to put him on the ballot, limiting his contact with the Party to members of his staff engaging in sporadic dialogues with Party Chairman Lu Vogel and Stern Liaison (Vice Chairman) Joe Brennan. He appeared to see his relationship to the Party as something of an arm's length transaction: we would put him on the ballot, and in return, we would get all the publicity, members and votes his popularity would generate. Although no doubt a reasonable exchange, realists knew from the beginning that having a high profile candidate meant that to discourage a challenge this time around we would have to collect double or triple the number of signatures we normally would, and that the LPNY was probably not capable of such a feat on its own on a volunteer basis. What Stern, a political neophyte, could not have known, and what his careful distance from the Party prevented him from discovering, was that political activities such as orchestrating and executing a successful petition drive are actually vastly more difficult than they appear, and that this year's Drive was to require a greater number of signatures than ever before from a Party that had barely succeeded with its Petition Drives in the past and whose petitions had heretofore gone unchallenged.

All manner of hope for help from Howard Stern slowly faded. Hopes of spontaneous activity by his fans and supporters proved unrealistic. Perhaps out of fear of being labeled a "candidate" by the FCC, which had the power to hasten his departure from radio under their "equal time" regulations, or perhaps simply because he felt it went beyond what he perceived as his arrangement with us, Mr. Stern made it clear that he would not use his radio pulpit to rally his followers into action, nor would he make any personal appearances on the effort's behalf. A few sporadic announcements on his radio show of locations around the State where people could go to sign a petition was all he could muster, an effort that produced only a handful of signatures at best.

The weeks following the Convention unfortunately also saw the attitude of non-participation by Party members legitimized by a few members and officers of the LPNY State Committee who, disapproving of Mr. Stern as a candidate, carried on a campaign of dissension against him and against those in the Party who supported him. By publicly attacking the Party and its candidates in the press, mounting a parallel petitioning effort in which petitioners did not carry statewide petitions along with the local petitions, and calling for the removal from the ballot of Howard Stern and his running mate for the Lieutenant Gubernatorial position, Stan Dworkin, against the wishes of the State Convention at which they were nominated, the dissenting faction served to seriously demoralize and undermine the difficult all volunteer effort the Party was working to mount.

The National Libertarian Party, meanwhile, which had always invested heavily in New York Petition Drives in the past, was frozen to inaction this year largely by a vociferous minority of their own that did not approve of Howard Stern's image. As a result, National sat on the sidelines until the last days of the Drive, finally coming across with minimal funding only after the petition had already been submitted to the Board of Elections in Albany.

As for the Stern fans and followers, most of them either did not realize that a petition drive was necessary, thinking that he was already on the ballot since the vote at the Convention, or, perceiving the Party as an entity somehow distinct from themselves, saw the task as the "Party's" job, as did Howard. Although many of the new recruits might have been willing to participate had they been contacted, the Party's recruitment procedures do not keep information that would have enabled them to be distinguished from the flood of renewing members attracted by all the hoopla; and although it would have been possible to contact everyone who had joined or renewed just prior to the Convention, there was not sufficient manpower available among the longtime members who were willing to work for the Drive to do so.

Finally, even the weather refused to cooperate, bringing torrential rain during the final week of the Drive, and dashing hopes for massive signature gathering at Freedomfest and Bethel '94, the Woodstock anniversary concerts held in Bethel, New York. (Bethel is where the original Woodstock concert was held in 1969. Freedomfest and Bethel '94 were held simultaneously with Woodstock II, the more widely publicized anniversary concert held this year in Saugerties, New York.)

Thus the stage was set for the most difficult Petition Drive ever. With virtually no funding from National, no help from Stern, a politically naive and isolated group of Stern supporters, half our usual activists refusing to participate, and a few actively working against it, however, an effort was mounted that produced more processed signatures by volunteers than any Petition Drive in LPNY history.

The Drive took a bizarre turn when Howard Stern suddenly announced the withdrawal of his candidacy about two weeks short of the petition submission deadline, citing his unwillingness to comply with the New York State campaign financial disclosure law which would have required him to reveal details about his personal finances had he stayed in the race. Although the action appeared at first to be a devastating blow, it actually rekindled hope: by lowering our profile and lessening the threat we posed to the other parties, we reduced the likelihood and impetus for a challenge to our petition and thus reduced the number of signatures required. Equally important, now that the primary reason for their objection to participation in the Drive was gone and the decision as to who was to be the Gubernatorial candidate was now in the hands of "real" libertarians, it was expected that long time Party members, knowing that the Drive was in trouble largely due to their own refusal to get involved, would now come out in droves in a last minute rally to save the Drive and put the Libertarian Party on the November ballot. That hope quickly dissipated too, however, as those who had publicly proclaimed their non-involvement to be based on "principle" still failed to participate as the desperate struggle to produce the best petition possible under the circumstances continued. Also, interestingly enough, every one of the handful of people who were introduced to the Party through Howard Stern and participated in the Drive kept up their involvement to the end, citing their belief in the Party principles, and thereby raising the question as to who the real libertarians actually are.

The Drive culminated in the final frantic weekend of processing and binding at Jeff Russell's home in Albany. Unlike any other state, New York State Election Law requires that ballot access petitions be processed prior to submission. That task involves properly ascertaining and entering on the petition the election district, ward or assembly district, congressional district, political town, and county of each and every voter who signs the petition. Such voter information is only available from the Board of Elections of the county in which the voter resides. To make matters worse, each of the sixty-two County Boards of Elections keeps the information in its own unique way, many insist on charging hundreds of dollars for their information (while handing it to the Repocrats free of charge), and some refuse to give it out at all (which forces us to process the signatures of those voters at the Board of Elections located in that county). [Note -- a second lawsuit by Bob Schulz (see next paragraph regarding the first lawsuit), which ultimately resulted in a removal of the requirement to determine each signer's election district and ward or assembly district, and granted us a three day signature gathering extension to the Petition Drive after this article was written, has significantly eased the processing burden; more will appear about that lawsuit and the extension in another article.]

Petition coordinators from around the State were asked to provide any processing information they could obtain from their local County Boards of Elections, and many did so. A last minute lawsuit by Bob Schulz, the tax activist best known for successfully suing the State to force them to obey the State Constitution which requires that all bond issuances be approved by voter referenda and who later became our replacement for Howard Stern as the Gubernatorial candidate, forced several County Boards of Elections to produce their data on floppy (computer) disks at little cost. Those proved to be of some value, but the time it took to decipher the data and load it into database programs, although valuable as a learning exercise for the future, could have been more profitably spent.

From Suffolk County, which covers Eastern Long Island, we had a Hagstrom County Atlas on which Suffolk County activists had painstakingly drawn in the boundaries of the local election districts, prepared from the voter lists at the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Although a very impressive piece of work, it proved often inaccurate, and practically useless for processing the hundreds of signatures remaining from Suffolk due to the time required to search the map for each voter's street. From Nassau County, which covers Western Long Island (excluding Brooklyn and Queens), we had no information at all, as the Board of Elections in that county refused to provide it at any price. Thus all of suburban Long Island, one of this year's most productive areas, was extremely difficult or impossible to process.

The manpower available in the final crucial hours of the Drive was also less than expected, sad to say, because no one showed up for a gathering of the members of the State Committee that had been scheduled weeks earlier for the final weekend of the Drive to help ease the expected processing crunch. The lack of attendance was at least partly due to the confusion caused when notices were sent by the Secretary to all members of the State Committee canceling a State Committee Meeting planned for the same weekend. Fortunately, due to the fact that many local petition coordinators had complied with repeated requests to process their signatures locally, the bulk of the signatures received in Albany were already processed. However the several thousand that still remained to be processed did keep the few activists who showed up to help busy throughout the weekend, although the task ultimately had to be left partially incomplete due to the lack of manpower as the deadline for submission approached.

Binding the petition into volumes with the proper cover sheets required by law also took longer than expected. It was not completed until 4:30 p.m., too late to bring it to the State Board of Elections in Albany an hour away, and therefore had to be mailed. It was postmarked at 5:30 p.m. and arrived at the Board of Elections the following day.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all of this, it is probably never again to depend on a Petition Drive to be an entirely volunteer effort. Next time, the fund raising efforts should start early and not stop until enough funds are raised to buy and process the minimum signature requirement (fifteen thousand in this case). The volunteer effort can then take it to the finish. Also, if we were not fully up to the challenge of operating in a high profile environment for a change, it is probably because our rise in popularity has temporarily outpaced our organizational structure. Hopefully we will be better prepared when the next opportunity comes along.

But despite the lessons to be inferred and the interpretations to be gathered, this Petition Drive, with its intense media coverage and colorful personalities, was by far the most fun and exciting ever in my opinion, and I, for one, hope we will continue to show the world how much fun being a libertarian can be. If we are having a good time, the world will want to be with us. And the folks out there will be a lot more receptive to the serious stuff once they actually like us. Hey, they don't call it a "party" for nothing.

As for the acknowledgements, our star petitioner was "Melrose" Larry Green, one of Howard Stern's biggest fans and a periodic guest on his show, who collected over 2,500 signatures under the watchful eyes of an array of Party members throughout the State. Next up was Chris Garvey of Suffolk with over 1,200 signatures (plus 800 toward his own campaign), and Don Silberger of Libertarians of the Hudson Valley with 660. As always, our bread and butter man Fred Newton deserves honorable mention for the over 1,250 high quality signatures he collected as a paid petitioner in the final week of the Drive when National finally came through with a promise of funding.

Kudos for their dedicated organizational efforts locally go to State Chairman Gail Bova for her work in Suffolk County, Genessee Chapter Chairman Mark Ramsey for his organizational efforts in Rochester, State Vice Chairman Dottie-Lou Brokaw for helping to coordinate sundry activities upstate, and Vice Chairman of the newly created New York County (Manhattan) Chapter Vicki Kirkland for her help in organizing and coordinating activities in New York City.

Credit for processing goes again to Vicki Kirkland for organizing and carrying through the New York City processing effort at which nearly half the signatures were processed, to Bruce and Deborah Martin and Vito Verga for doing the bulk of the painstakingly difficult Suffolk processing, and to Jeff Russell, Dottie-Lou Brokaw, Peter Zeisner, ACTA leader Bill Van Allen, Robert Gustafson, Mark Ramsey, Joe Brennan, Jim Harris, Don Silberger, Lloyd Wright, Herb Hennings, Dennis Karius, and Don and Dawn Davis for being with us at Jeff Russell's home for the frantic final push at the end.

Special mention goes to Universal Libertarian John Robertson for donating his valuable time to us to help organize signature gathering efforts in several locations around the State and at Bethel '94, and for inspiring and training four virgin Libertarians to become four of our top signature gatherers. Special mention also goes to Tim Boomhower for almost single handedly carrying through his monumental publicity projects: the big bash in Albany and the auto race at the Orange County Fair, to Stan Dworkin for teaching us all a lesson in gentlemanly behavior in the face of the most abuse this Party can generate, while collecting over 300 signatures to become the top signature gatherer among all the candidates for statewide office, to Sean Dougherty for his work as our press agent and for being the only person in the State to prove that his opposition to Howard Stern was truly based on principle by rising to the occasion and collecting over 600 signatures after Stern dropped out of the race, to David Peel for immortalizing us in song, and to Howard Stern for making "libertarian" a household word.

Special thanks also go to the following people who did a big job in sparsely populated areas of the State: Archie Richards of Elmira for collecting and processing over 400 signatures; Jeff Graham, the mayor of Watertown, for contacting us totally out of the blue and collecting and processing over 300 signatures without any help at all; and David Christy and Don Jordan of Jamestown, who took time away from a consuming work schedule to collect and process over 200 signatures.

Probably the biggest thanks should go to Bob Schulz, who although he has never participated in the Party until now, has tirelessly produced mountains of legal work these past few weeks in a desperate attempt to put us on the ballot. His actions may yet save us from our own apathy, from those individuals who, despite having sought and attained high Party posts, actually worked against us, and from those who tolerated and defended their actions.

Finally, my apologies to anyone whom I have missed who did deserve thanks, and I'm sure there must be someone. I think the Party has a lot to be proud of this time around, and we have shown what we can be capable of if we ever resolve to move forward together. Regarding my own personal motivation, I volunteered to put myself through this thankless task for one reason and one reason only: I knew how difficult it would be for this Party to put Howard Stern on the ballot and I believed myself to be the person in the Party most capable to pull it off. Thanks to everyone who helped.