Jim Gray of California, the vice presidential candidate on the Libertarian Party ticket, drank coffee with fellow Libertarians this week at Denny's in Anchorage. He appeared on Glen Biegel's radio talk show, sat down with Alaska Dispatch reporters and marched in the parade in Wasilla. And on July 4, he stood in front of a booth on the Park Strip in Anchorage to talk to anyone who would listen about the possibility that the Libertarians might make a mark in the upcoming presidential election.
Gray believes he and presidential running mate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, stand a chance in Alaska. The 49th state, he says, is fair-minded enough, with a rugged independent streak. Alaska, he says, is clearly looking to vote for someone outside of presidential front-runners Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
The Johnson-Gray ticket will appear on the general ballot in Alaska and in 48 other states as Libertarians. (Read more about both)
It's hard to know, however, if that will be a big enough draw for Alaskans, or even if the two will get enough name recognition for people to know who they are voting for. For a state with such a storied Libertarian past, and all the talk about how Libertarian Alaskan leans, the Libertarian Party of Alaska has failed to gain much traction over the years.
After the party was formed in 1971, Alaska had the first Libertarian candidate in the country to win statewide office. Former state Rep. Dick Randolph, an insurance broker from Fairbanks, won his seat as a Libertarian in 1978, and was re-elected in 1980.
Thanks in part to him, Alaskans get an annual check -- funded by oil spoils invested in worldwide markets -- and don't pay any state personal income taxes. Say what you want about how that worked out, Randolph's libertarian thumbprints are all over the state -- except for robust numbers of Alaskans belonging to his party.
Currently, out of the 491,186 registered voters in Alaska, there are 71,724 Democrats, 133,354 Republicans, and 7,756 Libertarians. At 15,087, more people belong to the fabled Alaska Independent Party, the one that's throughout the years toyed with succession, than belong to the Libertarian Party.
In a recent interview, Randolph, who still lives in Fairbanks, chalked up the small number of Libertarian Party members to Alaska's constitution, which dictates that the petroleum and mineral wealth on state land is owned by the people.
"We're the most socialistic state in the country," Randolph says.
Randolph may not have had the influence he sought for his party in Alaska, but he doesn't lack for ideas and energy. "We've become a suck state," he says. "Almost everyone are suckee. We have the right to vote with no responsibility. Back when I was being successful, people really believed in private property." Not so much today. What they care about, he adds, is being a "suckee."
Will the Libertarians get some traction in Alaska? "I'll vote for them," Randolph says. He thinks Johnson and Gray may draw votes from some supporters of Congressman Ron Paul supporters, though it's also hard to say if Paul's big support in Alaska has as much to do with a cult-personality phenomenon than anything else.
Gray, who retired as a California Superior Court judge in 2009, thinks his party's ticket has found at long last a respectable candidate who might have a shot at winning the presidency, or at the very least a shot to join the national debates, where he thinks his team would do well.
"It would be a game-changer," Gray says. "It's absolutely critical. If we can't debate, then we're done for."
The Commission on Presidential Debates has decided that in order to get a place in the debate, the candidate's ticket must secure 15 percent on at least five national polls. The trick to doing that, Gray says, is to get pollsters to include you in a poll. And then, you have to tell them when they call that you support them.
With some help from the Libertarians themselves, some in the country have type casted Libertarians as loony, pot-smoking, federal-reserve hating, gold-standard loving flakes.
Johnson, the presidential nominee (who might make his way to Alaska), doesn't fit the mold. During his time as governor of New Mexico, he slashed the budget, left the state in the black, and managed to remain popular through it all.
And Gray, his running-mate, looks and talks like anything but a stereotypical Libertarian. He's articulate and judge-like. He's got a UCLA law degree and taught in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica. During the Vietnam War, he was a lawyer for the Navy. He was a federal prosecutor, held the record for the largest drug prosecution in the Los Angeles area, and then went on to serve as a state judge, where he started several unique and effective initiatives to combat drunk driving and earned numerous awards.
It all sounds like the resume of a good, solid, Republican Party apparatchik. One who's vying for a spot at the U.S. Justice Department, say, or commissioner of Public Health. But go further, and you'll find an "ah-ah" moment.
Here's an excerpt from one of Gray's many articles:
More than once, I saw a single mother who made a big mistake: she chose the wrong boyfriend, a drug dealer. One day, he offered her $400 to carry a particular package across town and give it to a fellow dealer. She strongly suspected that it contained drugs, but she needed the money to pay her rent. So she did it, and she was arrested, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for the transportation of cocaine. Since the mother legally abandoned her children because she could not take care of them, they all came to me, in juvenile court, to be dealt with as abused and neglected children…
Here's another story he tells. He's sitting on the bench and is forced, through the work of another judge, to sentence a rapist, a "real bad guy," he says, to seven days with time served. After Gray handed down his sentence, the bad guy gave a war-whoop, "as if he had won," Gray says. "And he had. The tougher we get on drugs, the softer we get on rapists and robbers and murderers."
Gray told the world as much at a press conference in 1992 on the California court steps. He was one of the first judges in the country to declare the war on drugs a miserable failure.
Gray, like his running mate, thinks the drug debate is a moral issue: the millions of lost lives, the millions of shattered families, etc, etc. But he and Johnson both view it as an economic disaster for the country, one that both the Republicans and Democrats at best ignore, at worst use for political advantage.
"Obama has been a complete hypocrite on this," Gray said. "The president smoked pot. He did cocaine." He also told the country he was going to start decriminalizing marijuana. But he hasn't. Under his tenure, the drug war has gotten worse, Gray said.
Gray isn't a one-issue candidate, however. He talks about the drug war because that's what he's done most of his life. However, like his fellow libertarians, including Ron Paul, he believes the country's foreign policy is a colossal failure and the tax system needs complete reform. Where he and Paul would part ways is on abortion and gay rights, which Paul and many of his tea party supporters in Alaska, are strongly against.
But with many voters dissatisfied by President Obama and Republican challenger Romney, and the unlikelihood that Paul will land the GOP nomination, the Libertarians might have a chance to at least have a voice in the final months of the presidential election.
"If Mitt Romney's in office, it won't make a difference. If Obama gets re-elected, it won't make a difference. If we get elected, we'll make a difference," Gray says.
Contact Amanda Coyne at firstname.lastname@example.org