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The Libertarian Party does Vegas

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Las Vegas

The Libertarian Party

David Clark

The Libertarian party probably rejected any claim to normalcy from the get-go by holding its convention in a casino. The Republicans and Democrats hold their conventions in Tampa and Charlotte in a few months, but America’s third largest political party held its nominating convention from May 2-6 at the Red Rock Resort on the edge of Las Vegas. Delegates selected former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as their presidential candidate. News of Johnson’s nomination garnered a few obligatory headlines but was mostly met with a collective shrug by the political media. The lack of interest in the Libertarian party is a bit mystifying, given that voters routinely express dissatisfaction with both major parties. Well, that and the fact that the Libertarian convention was something of a freak show that descended into near anarchy.

After traversing acres of slot machines to get to the convention’s registration desk, I found myself gawking at a woman in a skintight white dress whose preposterous top story and precarious heels made her stand out even in Las Vegas. It turned out to be Kristin Davis, the Manhattan Madam who ran the escort service that ensnared former New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Davis ran for governor of New York in 2010, though she failed to get the Libertarian nomination and ran instead as the candidate of the Anti-Prohibition party. Also in attendance was Norma Jean Almodovar, who quickly used up her 15 minutes of fame in the 1980s when she went public with her story about leaving the LAPD to become a high-priced Beverly Hills call girl, a career she declared was “far more honest.” After a short jail sentence related to her new line of work, Almodovar ran for lieutenant governor of California on the Libertarian ticket, hoping to pardon herself if elected, and garnered 100,000 votes. Waiting in line at the obligatory casino buffet, I saw a man walk by in a white wig, stockings, miniskirt, and bustier. After arching an eyebrow at the sight, Mike Riggs, an associate editor at Reason, the libertarian political magazine, simply looked at me and said, “You don’t know who that is? That’s Starchild.” Starchild, it turns out, is a well-known San Francisco sex worker. If whoring in politics is inevitable, libertarians are at least admirably transparent about it.

True, among the hundreds gathered for the convention, these are just difficult to ignore outliers. But many of the attendees wear their nonconformity like a uniform, as befits a party devoted to personal freedom. There probably hasn’t been such an assemblage of gray-haired men in ponytails since the Grateful Dead stopped touring. And even the outwardly staid tend to be firebrands on the inside. Brendan Kelly, who’s running for Congress on the Libertarian ticket in New Hampshire, has been married for over 50 years and is a grandfather of six. He’s amiable and clearly has the respect of his local community because he’s been elected a selectman twice. At a hotel bar, he insists on telling me that when people hear he’s a candidate, the first thing they ask him is, “Are you going to bring articles of impeachment against people in Washington for not upholding the Constitution?” a question he’s delighted to answer in the affirmative. In an era where Congress’s approval rating dips into single digits, this impeach-’em-all-and-let-God-sort-’em-out attitude isn’t necessarily a radical proposition among voters, but the candidates themselves are seldom this bracing.

The patina of extremism is why many libertarians in Washington are quick to volunteer they are “small-l” libertarians. Even if they’re ultimately on the same page philosophically, they don’t want to be lumped in with a political party that has historically emphasized legalizing sex work and marijuana, and generally razing Washington, D.C., over putting forward a message of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism that might attract new voters in large numbers. Even the most abstract and serious libertarian policy stances are often a hair’s breadth from weirdness. Libertarians were prescient to have spent the last few decades trying to draw attention to the perils of American finance, as well as urging reforms at the Federal Reserve. But when you start inquiring about the economy, the talk escalates quickly from paper currency to conspiracy. On a Libertarian message board, you’re often just one click away from a frightfully earnest conversation about the Bilderbergers and the Rothschilds. 

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