Libertarians line up for Legislature
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
No matter where you are in Florida, chances are good you'll see a Libertarian candidate on the ballot in November.
That's because the party known for its disdain of government is taking advantage of a redistricting loophole and morphing into a signature-gathering machine to round up as many legislative candidates as possible.
It's called "Operation Full Slate."
"What we have for the first time is a ballot with a third party presence," said Michael Gilson-DeLemos of St. Petersburg, secretary of the state party.
The party, which claims 10,000 supporters statewide, has registered 86 candidates for state House races and one for the state Senate.
In 2000, two Libertarians ran for state House and none for the Senate.
Libertarians hope to use the ballot to win more voters to their cause of limited government and expansive personal freedom.
"We're the people who stand for civil freedom and economic freedom," Gilson-DeLemos said. "The right wing tends to characterize us as left wing and the left wing tends to characterize us as right wing."
That's because the Libertarian philosophy seems to take a little from both sides.
The national party's Web site (www.lp.org) includes an essay calling for abolition of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Another mocks a Georgia lawmaker who wants to ban people from answering their doorbells in the nude.
A news release announces: "Case of 240-pound aerobics instructor illustrates why anti-discrimination laws must be repealed." Another warns that President Bush's opposition to arming airline pilots "is great news for terrorists."
There also are arguments for lifting the trade embargo against Cuba and against tighter regulations in the wake of the Enron scandal: "Markets aren't perfect, but marketplace errors encourage positive responses. Those burnt in the Enron failure have learned important lessons, as has almost everyone else in the business world."
Though it remains on the fringe of mainstream politics, the Libertarian Party of Florida has surprised state elections officials with its organization this year.
Because the final lines for legislative districts haven't been approved by the courts, candidates have an easier time getting on the ballot. House candidates need signatures from 445 registered voters instead of the usual 1 percent of voters in a legislative district, typically closer to 1,000.
Because those 445 voters can live anywhere in Florida -- not just in the district where the candidates are running -- the party is rounding up about 500 volunteers to sign petitions for candidates in as many House districts as possible.
"We're all working together," said Jon Kueny, a New Port Richey Libertarian challenging Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey. That helps party members limit the cost of their campaigns, in keeping with the Libertarian philosophy of limited spending.
But should the machine fail to get enough signatures for a candidate, the candidate will petition the state to waive the alternative qualifying fee on the grounds that it is an undue burden, Kueny said.
"We're not going to try and raise money. We're not even going to try and open a bank account," Kueny added, referring to the majority of Libertarian candidates. Some Libertarian candidates certainly will raise and spend money. But others, like Kueny, are relying on the party to gather signatures and print generic campaign fliers.
The party's presence on the ballot is more likely to draw conservative voters away from the Republicans than it is to draw liberal voters from the Democrats, said University of Florida political historian and provost David Colburn.
"The national evidence suggests that Libertarians take more votes from Republicans, but they also bring new voters to the ballot box who have not voted in previous elections," Colburn said.
Libertarians appear to be alone among the minority parties in taking advantage of the redistricting loophole.
Roger Simmermaker, chairman of the Reform Party of Florida, said the party has divorced itself from the national party and now must decide whether to remain independent or to affiliate with another group. That takes time away from candidate shopping, although the party still might run a candidate for governor, Simmermaker said.
"We've got a little bit of internal direction seeking right now," he added.
The Green Party, meanwhile, isn't established enough to orchestrate a mass production of candidates, said Julia Aires, vice president of Florida Greens. So far, three Green candidates have registered for state House seats and none for the Senate. But the Greens support what the Libertarians are doing and hope to benefit from it, Aires said.
"Any of the smaller minority parties getting out there is good for the Greens," Aires said.
The number of registered voters who identify themselves as Libertarians has nearly tripled in Florida in the past 10 years. Here is a breakdown for the Tampa Bay area and statewide:
-- Source: Tampa Bay area supervisors of election
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