Peace, Freedom Party Still in Fray After 20 Years on Ballot

Times Staff Writer

The gathering was remarkable for its diversity.

At one end of the room, a man wearing a gray business suit argued politics with a bearded compatriot in blue jeans and red flannel work shirt. Nearby, a woman wearing a purple thrift-store headband mingled with another draped in an expensive fur coat. And cruising wide-eyed through the crowd, a teen-age girl with bright orange hair sported earrings shaped like peace symbols and skeletons.

"I thought of joining Kiwanis," said Bobbi Kay Burgess, 15, who described herself as a "death rocker" and Garden Grove high school student. "But I think I like this better."

"This" was the birthday celebration of the Peace and Freedom Party, an avowedly left-wing group that began in the 1960s and is still around today.

Young and less young, affluent and otherwise, about 200 politicos from all over Southern California descended on the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach last weekend to participate in the anniversary event, billed as "radical 1960s nostalgia" and "rebellious 1990s visions."

It was 20 year ago this month that the Peace and Freedom Party first qualified for the California ballot and, despite the dwindling of its radical following, has remained on the ballot ever since. Feelings among those who helped that happen range from pride of accomplishment to disappointment at the failures to a passionate belief that the best for the party is yet to come.

"The mere fact that we've been on the ballot for 20 years is an accomplishment in itself," said Maureen Smith, 45, who works for the Santa Clara County Transportation Agency and is the party's state chairwoman.

Said John Donohue, a 62-year-old retired Long Beach shoe salesman who has run for Congress seven times under the Peace and Freedom banner: "We are magnificent failures. We're like David and Goliath, only our stone missed."

In fact, that proverbial stone was first aimed at a time when it seemed to have some chance of hitting. That was in 1967 when, despite the rising tide of grass-roots opposition to the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson appeared to have the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination sewn up. So, electorally inclined members of the anti-war movement, many of them longhaired hippies who drove multicolored vans and wore paisley pants, started a voter registration drive that they believed would radically alter the American political landscape forever by creating a major national third party dedicated to peace and racial equality.

For almost a year, it seemed that they might succeed. Surprising political pundits by collecting nearly 90,000 registrations in California alone, the new Peace and Freedom Party easily qualified for ballot status here and in 19 other states.

Candidates Overwhelmed

But then came the actual election, and the party's hopes were dashed. Its two candidates--Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in California and comedian Dick Gregory in several other states--polled a combined total of only about 344,000 votes. That was far below the 9.7 million received by Alabama Gov. George Wallace's American Independent Party (which also is still on the California ballot) and not enough to make Peace and Freedom a major factor in the election, which Richard Nixon narrowly won.

Four years later, the party did even worse with pediatrician Benjamin Spock as its standard bearer. That year Peace and Freedom registrations dipped to a low of 14,000 and the party lost ballot status in most other states. But in 1976, members say, the party's California registration began rising once again until today it stands at about 41,000, or 0.34% of registered voters. And by consistently garnering at least 2% of the vote in statewide elections and maintaining a minimum of 9,000 registrants, the party has been able to retain its California ballot status all these years.

Today the Peace and Freedom Party, which has an estimated 150 to 200 active members statewide, consistently runs candidates for most state and national offices. Except for a handful of nonpartisan City Council and school board seats in Northern California, the party has never won an election. Yet members point proudly to what they consider two major accomplishments: a successful 1974 lawsuit that resulted in the right of candidates in California to submit signatures in lieu of filing fees, and a ballot initiative drive that they believe helped influence the Legislature to give 18-year-olds the vote.

Takes New Positions

Although the party still emphasizes peace and equality as its major themes, it has taken a battery of new positions in recent years, including support for feminism, national health care, mass transit, AIDS education, homosexual rights, full employment and government aid to the homeless. Conversely, the party has adamantly opposed U.S. aid to the Contra rebels fighting in Nicaragua.

In general, Smith said, the Peace and Freedom Party believes that the country's military budget should be slashed to accommodate the domestic needs of its citizens. "It's kind of a shame," she said, "that we are one of the few so-called developed countries that doesn't take care of its people who can't take care of themselves."

Party regulars say they are encouraged by the current mood of the country, which they read as increasing disillusion with the two-party system in the wake of Republican stumbling over the Iran/Contra scandal and the recent revelations suggesting character flaws in major Democratic candidates. At the recent anniversary party, in fact, about $1,300 was raised toward running a full slate of candidates this year to be selected at the party's convention in August. Although several presidential candidates have announced their intentions to seek the party's nomination, no front-runners have emerged.

But the Peace and Freedom Party has changed in ways that have caused some longtime members to question its effectiveness even as a minor third party aimed primarily at raising issues. In 1974, for instance, the group officially declared itself to be feminist and socialist. "People used to always call us socialists," explained Mike Noonan, 47, a founding member who now works as a hospital pharmacist in Claremont and has run for Congress on the Peace and Freedom ticket. "For years we denied it until finally it occurred to us that it was true."

Women Leaders

Most party members, he said, are proud of the fact that most of the party's state and local leaders are women. Each of the group's last three presidential candidates, he said, has been a woman and the last two have also had female running mates.

Yet there have been other developments that have not been universally applauded by the party's older, traditionally independent, activists. Because the Peace and Freedom Party has ballot status in California, these members say, it has functioned in recent years as an umbrella for many other left-wing groups. Unable to get candidates on the ballot in their own names, they say, such groups as the Communist Party, Socialist Party and Trotskyist International Workers Party have joined Peace and Freedom seeking to run their own candidates under the PFP label.

"The party has settled into some kind of sectarian niche," said Donohue, who describes himself as a "soft-core" anarchist. "We're spending a lot of energy hassling within."

Kate McClatchy, the party's Southern California chairwoman, sees a major danger in this. "All those little groups isolate themselves from the mainstream of American consciousness," she said. "It alienates people. The factionalism is so divisive that it's making it difficult for us to work effectively."

Independent Peace and Freedom activists have also changed their tune somewhat since the 1960s, according to Noonan. "There was kind of a youthful arrogance then that's gone now," he said. "Back then there was a lot of striking poses and taking positions that nobody had any ability to execute. It was all just mouth music; now we're older and more mature."

Party Gathering

That seemed evident at the recent Long Beach gathering as party members of all stripes, some accompanied by their children, ate tostadas and rice, browsed through leftist periodicals and danced to the sounds of a self-described "progressive" band called the Dialeclectics. Among the speakers were Charles Morgan, a political commentator on radio station KPFK; Betty Brooks, founder of the Women's Studies Center at California State University, Long Beach, and Richard Rose, a blind political activist and party member who announced his candidacy for the congressional seat held now by Dan Lungren (R-Long Beach).

"There is a fusion of the Republican and Democratic parties," said Rose, 34, repeating an oft-used Peace and Freedom line. "They are becoming one party. It's like going into a restaurant, ordering half a chicken and telling the waitress that you want the left half."

Said the ever-optimistic Noonan: "If nothing else, we've kept alive the idea that in electoral work you don't have to play the cards you're dealt. The truth of the matter is that our time has not yet arrived."

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