Running hard -- uphill

3rd-party Senate long shot decries status quo `influence-peddling' MARYLAND VOTES 2006

October 09, 2006|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,sun reporter

It's long after dark outside the Giant Food supermarket at the Dorsey's Search Village Center in Howard County, and Kevin Zeese is in the parking lot looking for votes.

He spots three people standing around a car and makes his way over. Tracy Meyers and Mark Davis are visiting Giant worker Laura Riesett on her break. Zeese shakes hands, introduces himself and tells them he is running for the U.S. Senate.

"I've been opposed to the war in Iraq from the beginning," he says. "I have a tax plan that will let people keep more of their money. I'm trying to address some of the issues that the two major parties aren't paying attention to."

Riesett calls the pitch "somewhat interesting." She hasn't begun to pay attention to the Senate race but says she would consider voting for a third-party candidate.

Zeese calls it "midnight campaigning" - late-night visits to businesses and workplaces, when he says customers and workers have more time to talk and listen. It's one way the 51-year-old attorney and activist is trying to build support for a historic challenge to the two-party grip on Maryland politics.

As an outsider trying to crash the close contest between Democratic U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele - experienced politicians both supported by their national parties --- Zeese doesn't stand a chance, analysts say. He has raised about $70,000 to his opponents' millions, and he has struggled to gain news media coverage.

"I don't expect him to poll more than 2 or 3 percent," says James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Maryland has never really had a third-party tradition. That makes it difficult, particularly when you've got an electorate that is pretty polarized between the two major parties."

And yet. Zeese is believed to be the first candidate anywhere in the country to win the endorsements of both the Green Party and the Libertarian Party (he also has the support of the Maryland's small Populist Party). Polls show broad support for alternatives to the Democratic and Republican parties. The proportion of Maryland voters registered to other parties or as independents has grown to more than 16 percent.

Zeese has won inclusion in at least some of the Senate debates - an apparent first for a third-party candidate in Maryland. His calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, national health insurance and a radical restructuring of the federal income tax drew cheers last week at the first debate, before the Greater Baltimore Urban League. He is campaigning throughout the state and aims to run advertisements on cable television.

"I'm running to win," Zeese says. "And I really think if we can make a three-way race out of this, and people hear my views, I will win. Those are hard things to do, so I'm not predicting it. But even if I get something as little as 5 percent, it will be a message to the two parties that they'd better wake up - and you'll see much more talk about the issues I'm talking about."

He speaks in the second-floor study of the Takoma Park home he shares with partner Linda Schade, an activist who opposes electronic voting. Books on politics, economics and international relations fill shelves, pile up on tables, spill onto the floor. Pictures of Zeese with antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. M. Jocelyn Elders compete for wall space with campaign memorabilia from some notable third-party candidates of the past: Theodore Roosevelt, Eugene V. Debs, Ralph Nader.

Downstairs, a group of young workers - including Alex, the older of Zeese's two sons - staff campaign headquarters. Out front is a hybrid Honda Civic; water in the house is heated by solar energy.

A native of Queens and a graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo, Zeese came to Washington to attend law school at George Washington University in 1977 and never left. He began his legal career as chief counsel of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, but his activism would soon broaden. He has co-founded Common Sense for Drug Policy, the antiwar group Democracy Rising, and TrueVoteMD, which is pushing for paper ballots in the November election.

Now he is taking aim at the two-party system.

Having served as Nader's press secretary during the consumer advocate's independent bid for the White House in 2004, Zeese has launched his own run for office.

He begins appearances by quoting Sen. John McCain. In 1999, the Arizona Republican described the campaign finance system as "nothing less than an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."

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