Constitution Party Hopes to Take Politics to the Extreme in 2004

Can the Constitution Party take politics to the extreme in 2004?

Racism, Religion and Resentment
The most vexing challenge for Phillips' true believers is finding a way to attract as many supporters as their rigid platform (see sidebar, above) is guaranteed to repulse.

How many potential voters, after all, will punch their ballots for a party that calls for outlawing abortion even in cases of rape or incest, withdrawing from the United Nations, overturning every Constitutional amendment passed since 1913 (which would include the amendments authorizing the federal income tax and the right of women to vote), halting all immigration, abolishing the income tax and re-legalizing assault weapons?

Those planks only begin to tell the story. In its brief history, the Constitution Party has flirted egregiously with some of the most extreme elements of the antigovernment militia movement and of Christian Reconstruction, a radical theology that calls for imposing Old Testament laws — stoning to death adulterers and gay men and lesbians, to name just two.

Among the party's current roster of local candidates is a Salt Lake City man, Jack Gray, who has no qualms about presenting himself as a member of David Duke's white supremacist hate group, the European American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO).

The party's official "key race" for 2003 is a gubernatorial bid by Mississippi's most virulent Confederate flag defender, John Thomas Cripps, a long-time member of the white-supremacist hate group, League of the South.

Even on what is probably its most popular issue — staunch opposition to abortion — the Constitution Party has been able to gain little traction. "As long as the Republican Party is officially pro-life," says Micah Sifry, author of Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America, "the Constitution Party is going to have trouble convincing people to join what is essentially a fundamentalist political party."

So far, Sifry says Phillips' party has functioned mostly as a "doctrinal" organization, more committed to "bearing witness against a corrupt and seemingly impenetrable political system" than to actually winning large numbers of votes. To make a real dent at the polls, as Sifry writes in his book, a party has to be willing to "engage in dialogue with real voters, not just true believers, no matter how hard that might be."

Outgunning the NRA
Judging from the rhetoric in Clackamas, engaging with real voters might be a thorny task indeed. Until their spiritual leader took center stage, the Constitution Party stalwarts reserved their loudest amen chorus for a balls-to-the-wall speech by Jim Ludwick, chair of Oregonians for Immigration Reform.

Ludwick roused the congregation with an enthusiastic endorsement of the Reconquista conspiracy theory — the notion, espoused by anti-immigration extremists, that Mexico, in league with Mexican Americans, is "invading" the United States, bent on "reconquering" the Southwest territory it lost in the mid-19th century.

"President Vicente Fox has made it a priority to gain control of parts of the United States," Ludwick asserted. His tone grew even harder toward the end of his address, when Ludwick launched into a litany of cautionary tales about illegal immigrants who have committed heinous crimes, including accused serial sniper Lee Malvo and the infamous "railroad killer," Angel Reyes Resendez.

While many voters would surely be turned off by such blatant bigotry, others might get queasy listening to Kevin Starrett, white-bearded head of the Oregon Firearms Federation. Starrett won enthusiastic applause by grimly denouncing the nation's most powerful pro-gun organization.

"The NRA won't stand up for gun owners," Starrett declared. He then announced that the Constitution Party had joined a more extreme gun-owners' coalition, Keep and Bear Arms, which recently started a campaign to end the federal ban on many assault weapons.

Into the 'Official Crackpot Zone'
And then there's Lon Mabon, whose name has been bandied about in party circles as a potential presidential candidate in 2004. A diminutive 56-year-old with a wiry mustache and a soft, tentative speaking voice that belies his ferocious convictions, Mabon made a name for himself in the 1980s and '90s with his Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), which championed a series of state ballot initiatives to curtail gay rights and abortion rights.

With the successive failure of each initiative, Mabon's stock fell among conservative Oregonians, and his Constitution Party run for U.S. Senate last year garnered only 2% of the vote.

It didn't help that Mabon had spent 42 days in jail earlier in 2002, cited for contempt of court after refusing to show up for a debtor's hearing. His Citizens Alliance had been ordered to pay $31,500 after a jury hearing a civil lawsuit against his group found that an employee used excessive force in kicking a gay-rights advocate out of a meeting.

When Mabon failed to show up for the hearing to determine whether he could pay, claiming that the presiding judge had no jurisdiction because he hadn't taken a proper oath of office, the state's largest newspaper, The Oregonian, editorialized that Mabon had "crossed over into the official crackpot zone."

But his Constitution Party kindred in Clackamas listened approvingly to Mabon's rambling speech about Biblical governance — probably because they largely agree with his political philosophy, which leans heavily toward the theocratic.

"I hear the voice of God saying that the [government] must surrender to the requirements of His Holiness," Mabon has written. "This means that the Governor, U.S. Senators, Representatives and all elected officials should be allowed into office only after they have proved to the Citizens ... that they are indeed obedient to the Will and Holiness of God."

Can such a blend of God, guns and xenophobia lure a sizable number of right-wingers into the fold? Doubtful, thinks Micah Sifry, but not entirely out of the question — especially if the Constitution Party decides to loosen its insistence that candidates fully agree with its all-too-specific platform. Such rigidity virtually rules out what any third party needs most.

"You need a breakaway politician, or a celebrity, or a wealthy person to make this thing fly," says Sifry. "If you have someone with charisma, or someone with enough bucks to buy charisma" — a fundamentalist Ross Perot, in other words — "you can draw a crowd."

Howard Phillips' party has tried valiantly to place a crowd-pleaser on its national ticket. After Buchanan went Reform in 2000, the Constitution Party won a flurry of national publicity when former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith said he wanted the nomination. Two weeks later, Smith backed away — and like other right-wing luminaries who've flirted with the party, he was nowhere to be seen in Clackamas.

In the absence of heavy-hitters, party leaders attempted to flatter a Maryland attorney named Michael Peroutka into declaring his candidacy for 2004. Peroutka's rising-star status in the party appears to stem from his personal wealth and his founding of the Institute for the Constitution, which conducts courses and seminars on the "Biblical view of law and government."

The 51-year-old Peroutka, an ardent pro-gun and anti-abortion activist, brought his family along to the national committee meeting. They watched as his low-key speech on Friday afternoon, contrasting the "Biblical" with the "Pagan view of law and government," inspired a raucous standing ovation and a resolution — unanimously carried — to draft him as the party's choice for president.

Overcome by the display, the ruddy-faced Peroutka fought back tears as he staved off his compatriots' plans, insisting that he needed more time to consider mounting a campaign.