Friday, February 22, 2008

NYC Libertarian Convention

I don't usually preface the articles I put up here, but I want to qualify this one a little. It was the first cover story I wrote for a publication. I was kind of green as a journalist at the time, and I think it shows in some parts of the article. I still like it a lot, but there are things I could have done differently.

Drugs, Guns & Smokes for the Libertarians.
By Adam Bulger
New York Press, 2004

"Excuse me, do you mind if I ask what you’re talking about?"
The voice belongs to Neil Saunders, a British performance artist with shoulder-length blond hair who is sitting alone at a nearby table, eating a salad. He’s politely interrupting my interview with Jim Lesczynski, the newly elected chairman of the Manhattan Libertarian Party.

Jim gives him a business card-size explanation of Libertarian philosophy and answers some simple questions. Saunders nods and returns to his table. It was a strange encounter: a pudgy middle-class man with a precision-cut beard giving a scraggly bohemian lessons in freedom.

Unlike Neil, most people have at least a cursory knowledge of the tenets of Libertarianism, especially those attending today’s Manhattan Libertarian Party Convention. The concept is basic and seductive when explained in broad strokes: less government, more personal choice. It’s a simple mantra that attracts, repels and splits people on every frequency along the political spectrum. Free marketers want government out of their business dealings and paychecks, but might not approve of gay marriage; marijuana decriminalization activists like the Libertarian drug stance, but probably don’t support relaxing gun laws. And the "right-wing" Libertarian position on abortion? As one Libertarian told me, "We’re pro-choice on everything."

With such a philosophy, you might expect a Libertarian convention to look like Beyond Thunderdome’s Bartertown. Or, at the very least, like the interrupting Neil Saunders. But aside from one tragically comic mullet (sparse spikes on top, ponytail in the back), Manhattan’s Libertarians are white, middle-aged, professional males. There’s one Asian man in attendance and, among the handful of women, one is the spitting image of Onion columnist Jean Teasdale. I can’t take my eyes off her.

The convention was held on a bitterly cold January afternoon at the 10/50 Restaurant on the first floor of the Skyline, a Midtown hotel whose concrete box exterior would fit nicely alongside an interstate outside Tulsa. Inside, the 10/50 has the ambiance of a country club bar or a cruise ship. Before the convention, 10/50 had recently hosted a few retirement parties and a christening. For today, a podium has been set up across from the door, behind which hangs a banner featuring the Statue of Liberty. The walls are lined with poster-sized enlargements of Libertarian press clippings.

I arrived during elections for state committeeman—the person who will represent Manhattan at the statewide meetings. Thomas Robert Stevens, an adjunct lecturer at Briarcliffe College in Bethpage, is campaigning for votes, expressing his passion for Libertarian politics and describing his ethics lectures, during which he instructs, "Individual freedom is something that is desirable instead of government-supported morality." He would later win the vote.

Earlier, Joseph Dobrian had been elected media relations director. Dobrian is wearing a navy blue three-piece suit and a starched white shirt. His pale complexion and slicked-back hair smacks of a young Dan Akroyd reinvented as a Midwestern funeral home director. A native of the Midwest who moved to Manhattan in 1983, Dobrian has been active in the Manhattan Libertarian Party since 2001, though he has been "a Libertarian at heart for some time."

I ask if New York is a good place for the Libertarian party.

"It’s as good a place as any," he replies. "In large cities, you’re gonna get a lot of people who depend on government services, and that’s why they live in big cities. Traditionally, Libertarians tend to do their best recruiting in small towns, rural areas, in states where there are fewer government services and more personal freedom."

His Midwestern roots show when asked if the Manhattan Libertarians support the legalization of marijuana.

"Darn right we do!"

And crystal meth?

"You bet! I think it should be just as easy to get a fix at Duane Reade as it is to buy a tube of toothpaste."

I thank him for his time, turn the tape recorder off and ask him if he knows where the bathroom is. Turns out, he’s on his way there himself; I should follow him. (Not too close, though, ha ha.)

At the urinal, Dobrian spots an advertisement for a website selling cigars. He finds it ironic that such an ad would be placed in a restaurant/lounge where it’s illegal to smoke.

"This whole smoking ban," he observes, "is Bloomberg’s way of keeping the niggers down."

I look over at him, wide-eyed, as I wash my hands at the sink. This is the organization’s media rep talking. To a journalist.

"I mean that metaphorically—it’s about keeping the riff raff down," he adds.

Oh, I think. Thanks for clearing that up.

Jim Lesczynski is recognizable from his many tv news appearances. For the past few years, he had been the party’s media relations director and the public face of the Manhattan Libertarian Party. During his stint he promoted several high-profile, yippie-like publicity stunts designed to publicize the Libertarian philosophy in New York. The one that received the most attention was the "Guns for Tots" charity drive.

"As you may know, the NYC council introduced a bill last year to make all toy guns illegal," Lesczynski tells me. "We wanted to make a mockery of this, so we sent out a press release saying we’re going to collect toy guns and give them to poor children in Harlem. The press went out of their mind, obviously."

The reporters and cameramen weren’t alone.

"It got so much advance press, we had a whole counter-protest," he boasts. "A lot of activists were coming from outside that neighborhood just like we were; it was a big street theater scene."

Other media stunts followed. Outraged over the cost of cigarettes in New York, Lesczynski staged a cigarette giveaway in Bryant Park. "We had, like, 400 people show up. There ended up being a scuffle among the people there for the free cigarettes."

A more recent event took a turn for the bizarre. In response to the proposed construction of a Jets stadium on the West Side, the Libertarians hired a witch to cast a bad luck spell over any team that played on the grounds. Even though the woman was not a real witch and the hex was pointless—and redundant, as the Jets already have bad luck to spare—Lesczynski relishes the coverage. "We got a write-up in some of the community weeklies and stuff."

At today’s convention, Lesczynski is elevated to chairman of the Manhattan Libertarian Party, and he’s bubbling with enthusiasm.

"My goal is to give Gifford Miller and Mike Bloomberg ulcers," he declares. "I want them to be like Dean Wormer when the Animal House float is coming down the street in the parade and he says, ‘I hate those guys.’"

He predicts success as a political nuisance, though less at the ballot box. Their most recent three Libertarian candidates for city council posted in the single digits.

"We’re gonna run candidates, but we run candidates because it’s a free microphone," he says. "And at this point, it’s about getting the word out to people: Freedom is good, government is bad, we have way too much government in this city. We have too much government in this country and New York City is off the Richter scale."

Later that afternoon, Lesczynski takes to the lectern to introduce the guest speakers, starting with Bernard Goetz. In his introduction, Lesczynski mentions Goetz’s subway shooting and subsequent trial, noting that the "only thing Bernie was ever convicted of was exercising his rights as an American." (Goetz was sentenced to nine months at Rikers for two misdemeanor possession-of-firearms charges.)

Bernard Goetz never stops moving. He has a rare metabolism, as if his body holds an organ that naturally generates methamphetamine. When speaking, his ideas come in frenetic blasts; he uses the same words over and over, making the same points, shifting the phrasing only slightly.

After apologizing in advance for rambling, he gets to the topic for the night: jury rights. But first, he wants to say a few words about "media manipulation." The media he had in mind was New York Press—which he called the "worst form of yellow journalism."

A week earlier, I had promoted the Libertarian Convention in these pages. Goetz reads the modest item to the audience, granting some gravity to the part where I jokingly—and, yes, erroneously—referred to him as "former subway killer turned insane vegetarian."

"I didn’t kill anybody," Goetz emphasizes, eyes darting around the crowd. "And I don’t think I’m insane."

(Mea culpa, Bernie. Indeed, you are no subway killer, but a subway shooter. I hereby offer a rewrite: "Former attempted subway killer with bad aim turned questionably insane vegetarian, Bernie Goetz...")

The bulk of Goetz’s presentation concerns jury rights, but the scattered presentation makes it hard to grasp, much less locate, his thesis. Jury members, he says, are encouraged to vote with the law whenever their conscience is in conflict with it. He sees this as a rank injustice.

An audience member suggests that people lie to get on a jury and then later vote their conscience. "That’s what I’m saying," he replies emphatically. He believes that serving on juries is the easiest way to impact society. "If I were on a jury for drug sales, I’d vote not guilty," he says—to loud, resounding applause.

This is not only a noble act, Goetz claims, but a safe one. It’s not likely that the state would go through the expense of prosecuting someone simply for withholding information.

An audience member brings up the case of Colorado woman Laura Kriho, who had deadlocked a jury presiding over a drug case; it was later discovered that she has a prior LSD conviction and a history as a hemp legalization activist. She was then taken to court. Goetz, unfamiliar with the case, views her as an anomaly that didn’t impact his argument.

If legal precedence couldn’t hinder Goetz’s argument, technical difficulties could. When the room’s air vents threatened to drown him out, he opted to talk over them, noting that the sound was "not as bad as a subway train." (Unfortunately, he did not go on to say, "On a subway train, I can barely hear myself think over the sound of my own gunfire," or "Thanks, I’ll be here all week.")

Goetz ended his talk with a short discussion about his proposed 2005 mayoral run, reminding everyone that he ran as an independent in 2001.

Next was David Kaczynski, Ted Kaczynski’s brother. The Unabomber’s brother. The younger Kaczynski was thrust into the national media spotlight in 1996 when he squealed on his brother to the FBI. A practicing Buddhist, he speaks in soft, lulling tones that match his earth-toned sweater. Tonight, he gives a well-rehearsed speech about Ted, his own interactions with law enforcement officials and his thoughts on the death penalty. As the executive director of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, he’s no slouch on the subject.

Kaczynski’s not a Libertarian, but he knows how to slant his schtick for the crowd. He begins by asking, "If we don’t trust [the state] to deliver the mail, we trust them with the decision of who should live or die?" Nods of agreement all around. He then segues into his life story and thoughts on capital punishment.

The cash bar had been open for a while, and its effects were apparent in the unruliness that met Goetz’s speech. But something about Kaczynski’s demeanor lulled the crowd.

The restlessness re-emerges when Tim Bailey, a representative of the NYC Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, speaks about the Patriot Act. Like Goetz, Bailey’s presentation is jumbled and full of false starts; unlike Goetz, he lacks the charisma and tabloid cred. When a long stretch of stuttering and dead air is capped off by Bailey’s inability to remember the name of the judicial branch of the federal government, the audience turns on him, volleying a series of hostile and often nonsensical questions. Joseph Dobrian shouts a request for the crowd to settle down. Amidst the crowd’s indifference and microphone feedback, Bailey ambles to a painful finish.

The evening is capped off with a speech from keynote speaker, Saying Yes author and Reason magazine’s senior editor Jacob Sollum. His speech concerns what he termed "voodoo pharmacology," or "the idea that drugs control people and force them to do evil."

This, he says, is "one of the central premises of the war on drugs."

I couldn’t agree with him more, but I’d also spent more than five hours at the 10/50. I bailed on Sollum’s talk. I bailed on the free steak. There’s only so long one can sit in a restaurant packed with Libertarians preaching about freedom. digg NewsVine