Feature: Prominent Drug Reformers Run for Statewide Office in Connecticut, Maryland

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #458)
Politics & Advocacy

Two of the country's most well-known drug reformers are on the November ballot, and while, barring a miracle, they have no chance of winning, both are taking the drug reform message to new audiences and, hopefully, gaining new support for undoing drug prohibition. In Connecticut, Cliff Thornton, head of the reform group Efficacy is running as the Green Party nominee for governor. In Maryland, Kevin Zeese, of NORML and early Drug Policy Foundation (forerunner of the Drug Policy Alliance) fame and president of Common Sense for Drug Policy is running for US Senate as a "unity" candidate as the nominee of the Green, Libertarian, and Populist parties. (In Alabama, drug reform activist Loretta Nall won the Libertarian Party nomination for governor, but having failed to overcome the state's onerous third party ballot qualification requirements, has been reduced to doing a write-in campaign.)

[inline:cliffthornton.jpg align=left caption="Cliff Thornton on the campaign trail"]In Connecticut, Thornton is up against Democratic challenger John DeStefano and the incumbent, Republican Gov. Jodi Rell, who, according to most recent polls, is cruising to victory with a margin of greater than 20 percentage points. Although Thornton has not been included in the polls and has been squeezed out of Wednesday night televised debate -- he did manage to get a campaign ad placed right before the debate -- he told Drug War Chronicle his campaign has been opening new space for drug reform in Connecticut.

"You know we're having an impact," he said. "There have been about 175 shootings and killings here in the last three months, and I talk about why. That's the main reason Rell and DeStefano don't want me in the debates -- they don't want to defend a failed drug policy."

They may not want to talk drug policy, but for Thornton it is the centerpiece of his campaign. "I don't always lead with the drug issues, but everyone wants to know about the drug issue. Everybody gets it," said Thornton. "Rell and DeStefano are shying away from the whole issue, although sometimes their staff members will talk about it."

Thornton's year of work in the trenches of drug policy reform in Connecticut and nationwide have made him a known quantity in local political and media circles, and this year's gubernatorial run has provided plenty of fodder for articles on Thornton and the drug issue. The issue is now gaining an even higher profile in Connecticut thanks to Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which is currently engaged in a statewide speaking tour. While LEAP doesn't campaign for candidates, the timing of Thornton's campaign is adding fire to their Connecticut efforts. The group has already had some 70 speaking engagements or media interviews during this current blitz, with more scheduled.

"It is difficult to measure LEAP's impact," said Thornton, "but it is very powerful."

With only weeks left in the campaign, Thornton is going full-bore. "We have a helluva schedule between now and election day," he said. "They don't want us in the debates, they don't want us in the polls, but they can't keep our message from getting out, and in that sense, we've already won."

While in Connecticut, a vote for Thornton instead of Rell or DeStefano is unlikely to have any impact on Rell's presumptive victory, it's a different story in the Maryland US Senate race. In that open seat, Democrat Ben Cardin is locked in a tight race with Republican Michael Steele. According to most recent polls, Cardin has a slight lead, but at least one poll shows a dead heat, with each candidate getting 46% of the vote and Zeese getting 3%. In Maryland, the Zeese campaign could be a real spoiler, or as Zeese prefers to put it, "competition."

Zeese has already had some noticeable achievements. He has managed to forge an outsider alliance with his Green-Libertarian-Populist candidacy and he has become the first third-party candidate in Maryland to win a seat in Senate debates. Since he lacks the campaign funds to mount a full-scale media campaign, the debates will be critical to the Zeese campaign's success.

"I've broken through to get in the debates -- there may be as many as six of them -- and that's key for the whole campaign. We have to be heard and seen, and this will help make the media acknowledge my candidacy," Zeese told the Chronicle. "I think my poll numbers will go up significantly once the debates start because then people will hear my message."

He is having a hard time getting heard now. "The Zeese campaign is invisible," said University of Maryland government professor Paul Hernson. "He hasn't gotten much coverage."

Still, said Hernson, with the race as tight as it is, Zeese could have an impact. "If this race ends up very close, it is possible a minor party candidate like Zeese can play the role of spoiler," he told the Chronicle.

Zeese may benefit from the tangled racial politics of this race. The Democrat, Cardin, is white and trying to appeal to his black Democratic base, which is still stung by Cardin's victory over Kweisi Mfume in the primaries, while the Republican, Steele, is black and trying to appeal to white conservatives as well as picking up some black Democratic voters.

Zeese is taking advantage of the drug policy issue where he can. "At the Urban League debate, in my introduction I talked about the need for treatment, not incarceration, and I talked about the prison population," he related. "When someone asked about whether African-Americans should support Democrats, I talked about Maryland being the most racially unfair state in the nation, with 90% of those incarcerated for drug offenses being black. That's what you get for electing Democrats, I told them."

With Steele closing in on Cardin, Zeese could make the difference. The only question is who he is more likely to pull votes from, and that is by no means clear.

Two other prominent drug reformers not running for office, Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann and Criminal Justice Policy Foundation executive director Eric Sterling, told the Chronicle they generally welcomed such third-party campaigns by drug reformers, although Nadelmann worried about the impact they could have on the Democratic Party.

"Historically, third parties play a critical role in legitimizing controversial subjects for national political action," said Sterling, who was quick to note he had contributed to both the Zeese and Thornton campaigns. "The Republican Party was a third party when it formed and organized around the issue of the abolition of slavery. Third parties in the 1920s and 1930s advanced labor management issues that were enacted in the 1930s and 1940s that we now completely take for granted as part of the American way of life, such as paid vacations and the five day work week. The idea that there are only two political parties is unique to the United States and doesn't exist in the Constitution," he pointed out.

"In Connecticut, the problems of prohibition, crime, and drug abuse have been major problems in the three major cities," Sterling said, pointing to revolving police chiefs in Hartford, the cocaine-using current mayor in Bridgeport, and historically high drug prohibition-related crime levels in New Haven. "Given this background, Cliff Thornton's candidacy, his unique personal biography and his uncommon ability to speak powerfully and effectively to many audiences has enabled him to speak about the drug issue in Connecticut and caused many people to think about the nature of our drug problem, our means of approaching it, and the consequences of approaching it that way."

In Maryland, said Sterling, it is a three-way race and Zeese deserves support whether it hurts the Democratic candidate or not. "If you accept that there is a legitimate role for third parties in our democratic process, then it can't be the case that it's only when it makes no difference," he argued. "If Ben Cardin is unable to mobilize his allies in the African-American community, that is his fault, not Kevin Zeese's."

Such campaigns are "unquestionably worth it," said Sterling. "Those of us who read the Drug War Chronicle understand that the struggle to change the world's drug laws is a long-term struggle and to make our ideas the conventional wisdom requires that they be articulated in the conventional forums of policy debate, such as election campaigns. In Connecticut, the Thornton campaign has done more than any single thing to legitimize the debate about drug policy, and that is unquestionably a good thing."

The Drug Policy Alliance's Nadelmann largely concurred, but he raised concerns about possible negative consequences. "If you're talking about a race for governor, the question is how are the other candidates on this issue and is this helping the likely winner to arrive at a better drug policy position or not," he said. "In Connecticut, Thornton is playing a constructive role talking about drug policy and is unlikely to have an impact on who wins. But will Gov. Rell hold that against us when we need her to sign a medical marijuana bill or a bill on drug free zones?"

It's a slightly different equation for legislative office, Nadelmann argued, especially this year. "It is clear that drug policy reform will fare better under a Democratic House and Senate than a Republican one. In Maryland, Kevin Zeese has broken new ground with his coalition, and that's a good thing. What you don't want to see happen is to have votes for Kevin end up throwing the election to the candidate and the party that is worse on drug policy."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Kevin Zeese sure deserves my vote, but he sure isn't gonna get it. I have no intention of helping Steele and the Republican Senate, who have done so much damage to this country in so many ways.

Fri, 10/20/2006 - 8:16pm Permalink

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Source URL: https://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2006/oct/19/feature_prominent_drug_reformers