Prohibitionists abstain from alcohol, not elections

In its heyday, the Prohibition Party influenced national politics. In 2000, its presidential candidate won only 208 votes, but the few remaining members of America’s oldest third party are as dedicated as ever.

If you’ve never seen a presidential candidate dressed as the Grim Reaper, you might consider a visit to Bourbon Street in New Orleans this summer, when Gene Amondson goes out to rally support for his campaign. Amondson, a 64-year-old ordained minister, is the presidential not-very-hopeful of the Prohibition Party, America’s oldest third party, which has nominated a presidential candidate in every election since 1872.

This season is no different. Despite a rift between factions and the party’s minuscule following--it has only about 30 members--it will again field a candidate. But unlike the Green Party or the Libertarians, the Prohibitionists carry on, even though they know that they won’t win the elections or even be able to vote for themselves in most states.

The Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, never ranked as one of the country’s strongest political groups. Still, it was once a force to be reckoned with. In 1904 and 1908, more than a quarter-million people voted for Prohibitionist candidates, and from 1917 until 1921, party member Sidney Catts served as governor of Florida. The passage of the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the production and sale of alcohol in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933, marked the party’s heyday, or as members like to say: “America’s best 13 years.”

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The Prohibition Party has fielded a presidential candidate in every election since 1872. (Courtesy of Nathan Amondson)

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Gene Amondson, a 64-year-old minister, has run for the Prohibition Party in 2004 and is running again this November. (Photo by Nathan Amondson)

The party today consists of a dwindling number of dedicated members. Some of them believe that Jesus turned water into grape juice (not wine). They cite unsubstantiated statistics about the correlation between alcohol and crime and issue catchy statements such as “Responsible drinking is like teaching a pig to eat with a spoon ... won’t work.”

But for all their strongly-felt positions on conservative issues, Prohibition Party members engage in very little actual activism or campaigning. Nonetheless, Gene Amondson, the party’s quirky presidential candidate, likes to draw attention to the evils of drinking by donning a black robe and roaming the streets clutching a scythe in one hand and a bottle of alcohol in the other.

Amondson was drafted to run in the 2004 election after the party’s six-time presidential candidate, Earl Dodge, received only 208 votes in 2000, the party's worst showing ever. Most members grew discontent with Dodge’s leadership and accused him of inadequate accounting and even thievery. In 2003, they elected a new chairman and retired the 71-year-old Dodge to the status of chairman emeritus.

The party’s ticket for this year’s election has yet to be finalized. Dodge died unexpectedly in November, and his death opened the doors for reconciliation.

“We want to heal the division,” said 78-year-old Howard Lydick, who was Dodge’s running mate in 2004. Lydick suggested reuniting the ticket, with his former rival Amondson as the candidate and Lydick as his running mate. “Amondson is acceptable to me,” said Lydick, “and he has a long history in the temperance movement.”

But the reconciliation may not happen if Lydick insists on running. Before Dodge’s death, Amondson’s 2004 running mate, Leroy Pletten, had been nominated to run with him once more in 2008. And he still intends to do so. Pletten strongly opposes Lydick and the Dodge faction, calling them “crooks and liars” and speaking bluntly about the prospects of reconciliation: “That’s what Hitler always said, that he wants peace.”

Amondson, whose hobbies include painting, pie-baking, and writing, would like to see the movement reunited. But he has no clear plan of action, nor does he really care who runs with him. “Nothing is more important than to be fair,” he said. “We will try to find a good solution where people won’t get hurt.”

Reunited or not, party members face another battle: getting on state ballots for November. Lydick’s home state of Texas, for instance, requires the support of one percent of the total vote from the previous national election. It would be tough to find the requisite 73,496 Texans willing to petition for a party whose mascot is the camel. As the party’s Web site explains, camels “don’t drink very often, and, when they do drink, they drink only water.”

In this election, Amondson aims to compete in four to six states. But ultimately, it’s not the number of states, or even the number of votes, that really matter. “Third party candidates don’t run to win, they run to make a statement,” said Jim Hedges, the first Prohibition Party member elected to any office since 1959 (he is currently in his second term as tax assessor of Thompson Township in Pennsylvania’s Fulton County). Hedges, like most Prohibition Party members, accepts that he will be unable to vote for his party’s candidate in November.

And what about that candidate? Amondson, a resident of Washington state, could vote for himself as a write-in. But he admits that he doesn’t intend to do so. “I will probably vote for the Republican candidate,” he said. “All third-party people are a little goofy.”