I like third parties and political underdogs. As some of you OlyBloggers might recall, my 2008 presidential coverage began with Mike Gravel's announcement of his candidacy and his brief Olympia connection. Last week I had the opportunity to chat with another long-shot, Gene Amondson, 2004 candidate (and presumptive 2008 standard-bearer) of the Prohibition Party.
Actually, Mr. Amondson was not the candidate in 2004, but rather a candidate. The Prohibition Party, America's oldest continuous third party, has been experiencing some intra-political struggles in the last few years. Amondson appears to represent the new blood, the dynamic faction. He was on the ballot in Louisiana and Colorado in 2004. In the latter state, Amondson outpolled Earl Dodge, a name linked with the Party's old guard. This result has apparently been viewed by Amondson's followers as a party primary, making Gene the provisional candidate for 2008.
My interest in his campaign stems from his Washington State connection. Off the top of my head he is only the third Evergreen State native, after Scoop Jackson and Pat Paulsen, to seek the presidency. Mr. Amondson opened our phone conversation with questions for me. He likes to know his audience. Was I raised Catholic or Protestant? I grew up Methodist. Am I still going to church? I answered that I'm not religious but I think of myself as spiritual. "I'm not religious, but I'm a liar, but I like you anyway," he cheerfully responded.
The Amondson campaign does seem based on religion. Well, Protestant religion to be more precise. Two of his heroes are John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and Billy Sunday, the take-no-prisoners hell-fire preacher of the Jazz Age. Amondson has a one man Billy Sunday performance, re-enacting the old timey sermons. He is particularly fond of this Billy Sunday quote: "I hope to see the United States become so dry that you will have to prime a man before he can spit."
Which brings us to the subject of alcohol. Mr. Amondson is against it.
Alcohol, says Amondson, is the original gateway drug. "It fills our prisons," he points out. The fact one of America's most dangerous drugs is not only legal but promoted through advertising is something the Prohibition Party wants to change. Where a Libertarian (Amondson enjoys the term "Losertarian") might want to decriminalize a number of currently illegal substances, prohibitionists want to add alcohol to the list alongside heroin and meth.
The Prohibition Party's 2004 platform is extremely conservative on non-alcohol issues, so it is startling to hear Amondson give a strong anti-corporate angle to his message. "Nobody is dealing with alcohol," he says, pointing out the famous right-wing radio hosts, televangelists, and Republican leaders have been "bought off" by the alcohol, tobacco and gambling industries.
"We gotta wake up!" is a motto he likes to use. "Dumb people drink," Amondson says as he outlines a vision of starting a national preventative education program in the event he wins the election. He is pleased to see smoking has become less and less socially acceptable. "We need to look at drinking as dumb as smoking," and is disappointed at the right wing for dropping the ball on the smoking issue. "It should have been the Christians, the Republicans, but it was the Democrats" who cracked down on tobacco, he says with disgust. One is left with the impression he is attempting to shame his fellow conservatives into joining the fight rather than reach out to moderate voters.
In spite of that, Amondson still likes George W. Bush. Although he thinks Bush has really stopped drinking, he wishes the President would use his high-visibility position to educate young people on how much damage alcohol created in his life. He thinks Laura Bush might possibly be a smoker, and that bothers him. I didn't ask about the escapades of the Bush twins.
Amondson clearly enjoys being a candidate, even when being the butt of a joke, as he was on the Daily Show. "It's fun," he says. He is probably the only person running for President who dresses up as the Grim Reaper to make a political point, whether it is picketing a winery or just walking in front of bars with a bottle in hand asking tavern customers, "Still drinkin' this stuff?" In 2008 he would like to be on the ballot in five or six states and double his 2004 media coverage to get the anti-alcohol message out there. He likes "revealing new facts the voters never knew." Especially when it comes to defending America's experiment with Prohibition in the 1920s.
Aside from having a religious foundation, his campaign also sees alcohol as a human rights and child abuse issue. This was shaped by his personal experience while growing up in the area of his native town-- Morton, Washington.
The Amondson name is part of Lewis County history. Gene's father was a preacher. His uncle "Porky" Amondson was a well known law enforcement officer. Neil Amondson, a recent Republican State Legislator from Lewis County, is Gene's brother.
Morton, where Gene was born in 1943, was (and is) in logging country. And Eastern Lewis County being isolated, it was also something of a refugee camp for moonshiners who had been chased out of other areas or released from prison, according to Amondson. As a child he witnessed drunken logger brawls and went to school alongside children of alcoholics who were inadequately clothed. "I grew up in a little denomination like Methodist called Church of God (Anderson, Indiana bunch). My Dad worked for a logging company in Kosmos, Washington, and the logging camp and booze is where I learned about booze." He became aware of how alcohol abuse was a family disease and not a victimless problem.
He worked as a choker setter for logging operations from Oregon to Alaska, continuing to see how alcohol ravaged the lives of his fellow lumbermen. In Alaska, Amondson said "Mail pilots could always tell a drunk town from a dry town from the amount of garbage visible from the air."
When I asked Mr. Amondson if there was something about being a Washingtonian that set him apart from other candidates, he replied:
"Loggers don't mind a good fight"