B y E m i l F r a n z i
TUCSON IS THE Democrats' city. No Republican has won a city election here since 1985. And Pima County is basically the Democrats' county--although the GOP currently enjoys a majority on the Board of Supervisors, historically it's an anomaly.
In neither party, is the current local leadership particularly noteworthy. The Republican county chairman is Rex Waite, considered by many observers to be an inept buffoon. And the Democratic county chairwoman is such a cipher that even many Democratic officeholders can't remember her name.
However, there is one local party that's well-led, well-organized, and even well-financed. It's the Libertarians under their brilliant veteran chairman, Peter Schmerl. A 31-year-old attorney and UA graduate, Schmerl has lived here since 1980.
While major party candidates in the recent city election were struggling to qualify for matching funds, and only one of the GOP council candidates (Rick Grinnell) made it--and then only at the last minute--Libertarian mayoral candidate Ed Kahn successfully applied for matching funds last June. At the time he had 300 local contributions totaling more than $8,000. And Schmerl ultimately raised about 50 grand for that campaign, not to mention the additional $50,000 he got from city matching funds.
It was an astonishing achievement, especially when one considers Schmerl was able to raise as much money as the entire GOP ticket even though he was burdened with a lead candidate who was not exactly a charismatic figure. Kahn was a retread, right-wing Republican who'd lost several other local races.
And Schmerl's achievement was even more surprising considering the Libertarian Party has been around for more than 20 years in a difficult political environment. Difficult because the two major parties have rigged the election process by requiring that Arizona's gubernatorial and mayoral candidates must get 5 percent of the vote to ensure their party's place on the ballot in subsequent elections. It's a requirement that's only been met twice in modern Arizona history before 1995--both times by Libertarians: Sam Steiger in the 1982 governor's race, and Gay Lynne Goetzke in the 1991 Tucson mayoral contest.
But there's another way for a political party to get on--and stay on--the ballot. Under Arizona law, a party must acquire two-thirds of 1 percent of the total voter registration statewide and maintain that level between elections. In a typically brilliant move, Schmerl chose this route to raise money for Kahn and to ensure a place on the 1996 Arizona ballot for Libertarian presidential hopeful Harry Browne; here's why:
In Tucson, Schmerl wasn't required to pass petitions to get Libertarian candidates on the city ballot for this past election, thanks to the '91 voter turnout for Goetzke. And Libertarian registration in Pima County is now over 2 percent. That's enough, when added to the rest of the state's normal Libertarian total, to solve the party's 1996 statewide ballot access problem.
Which is precisely how Schmerl sold it to Libertarians around the country in a series of finance letters that raised more than half the $50,000 contributed to Kahn's mayoral campaign. Once Schmerl doubled that sum by applying for the city's matching funds, he used some of the excess cash to cover the statewide voter registration drive, thus boosting the chances for his presidential candidate, Browne. Slick.
Schmerl's biggest single problem seems to be other Libertarians, particularly those in Phoenix.
He's currently in court suing to overturn the results of this year's state Libertarian convention, during which Pima County delegates rounded up enough proxies to take over the state party. But the incumbents didn't like that, and, being anarchists at heart, threw out the rules, proclaiming themselves still in charge. They even had the cops throw Schmerl's bunch out.
Part of the Phoenix Libertarians' motivation is their support for fellow Phoenician Rick Tompkins for the party's presidential nomination. Another factor is the Phoenix contingent's tendency to regard Schmerl and others like him as humble mechanics who interfere with their self-appointed role as political pontificators.
All of which Schmerl finds ironic. In 1990, Tompkins not only switched his voter registration to Republican to vote for Sam Steiger in the GOP gubernatorial primary, but he wrote to every Libertarian in the state urging them to do likewise. Many did, and Libertarian registration has been suffering ever since. Schmerl himself was one of the few party leaders to remain loyal.
Even if Schmerl loses the lawsuit, expect him to be a major factor in Libertarian and Pima County politics for some time. Local Libertarian candidates now run consistently above the old magic 5 percent goal, taking votes from both sides--Kahn and his council candidate running mate Scott Loomis both hit about 9 percent.
And now that the Libertarians have a voter-registration level high enough to make it worth the effort, party officials plan to push get-out-the-vote and vote-by-mail efforts. That would put them ahead of the two major parties, which usually leave such bothersome details to the candidates themselves.
And local voters can probably expect better-than-average Libertarian candidates--Schmerl and his group oppose running ballot-filling geeks who just got laid off at the convenience store. They're looking for candidates with substance and decent resumes--in other words, people who not only share their limited-government beliefs, but who also actually have a life.
If they find a few of those, who knows? The contrast to most of the opposition might be so glaring they could even get a few elected.
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