The bylaws of the Libertarian Party stipulate that, prior to the vice presidential election, the presidential nominee be granted five minutes prior to voting “for the purpose of endorsing or objecting to” any of the candidates. Gary Johnson only used four of those minutes, and he used them entirely to plead with the assembly to elect William Weld — even closing his speech on a note of desperation: “Please, please give me Weld. Please. Please!”
If any of the attendees didn’t realize by then that the Weld candidacy was in trouble . . . well, then they hadn’t been paying any attention whatsoever. But this was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback (and, yes, boring) demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.
Let’s back up a little bit to the VP nominating speeches, the first business after the assembly returned to order. The caprice of the 20-sided die determined that Weld would be the first candidate to speak, which meant all the others after him — in order, Judd Weiss, Derrick Grayson, Alicia Dearn, Larry Sharpe, and Will Coley — could take their shots after. The last two, in particular, had impressed in the debates a few nights previous for their passion and personal narratives; their alliance would determine whether the NeverWeld movement could deny Johnson the “running mate of his wildest dreams.”
This was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.
Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include the former Massachusetts governor? Johnson drew justified scorn for referring to Weld as “the original libertarian,” but the sentiment behind his infelicitous phrasing is apt: Weld was one of the few figures with a national profile who spoke in favor of gay marriage — about the same time Bob Barr was drafting, and Bill Clinton was signing (with Hillary’s outspoken support), the Defense of Marriage Act. Weld also called for a drawdown in the War on Drugs, and the legalization of medical marijuana in particular. Prior to his gubernatorial days, he went tough on white-collar crime, an increasingly popular position among Libertarians who see Wall Street and Washington DC locked in loving embrace.
The opposite case is easier to enumerate. First, whatever his previous inclinations, Weld had hardly even looked at the LP before (in 2006, he briefly considered seeking the Party’s nomination for governor in New York; another black mark in the minds of many). He backed Romney in 2012, and Kasich this year, before Johnson came calling; even when he could have backed a fellow Republican-turned-Libertarian in 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama instead (not that Barr was long for the LP . . .). Second, in 1990 he supported various restrictions on gun ownership, something which plays particularly badly in a group where Second Amendment rights may be more of a third rail than abortion or anything else. Third, Weld’s Massachusetts was hardly a model of fiscal prudence; admittedly, there was a great deal of bleeding to staunch after Michael Dukakis’ tenure, but like so many politicians Weld lost his nerve once actually in office. There’s more numbers to be had, but I’ll skip ahead: lastly, even now, he believes that Hillary Clinton, who has overseen a disastrous war in Libya, and who would gladly have added another in Syria (and probably still will), has been a “good Secretary of State.”
In his speech, Johnson emphasized what Weld would bring to the ticket: fundraising knowhow, and media access. The latter had already been proven on day one at the media credentials table, and underlined every day since with the numbers of reporters on the ground, many of whom acknowledged that they would never have been dispatched to Orlando if the dual-governor ticket weren’t a strong likelihood (and, of course, if the major-party candidates weren’t both so dreadful). Give me William Weld, he said, and anything is possible. Anyone else, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity would be lost.
Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include former Massachusetts governor William Weld?
It was a hard sell. Weld’s first nominating speaker, former Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, rang his endorsement of Weld, despite his disappointment at being eclipsed in the role. For that, he drew calls of “Statist!” from the crowd — something which is less true of Gray than possibly of any other single jurist in this country’s history. Things got tougher still with Marc Allan Feldman spoke as Weld’s second nominator — a speech which several of the anti-Weld radicals received as betrayal, though “backhanded” would be a mild way of describing the endorsement. Feldman felt that, with Johnson taking the top of the ticket, he should be given the running mate he pled for, and he agreed that a Johnson-Weld ticket would get far more media play than any alternative. That was it for the positives; the rest was taken up with every reason Weld shouldn’t get the post.
After some befuddled applause, and a few more boos, Weld rose and gave an animated, almost fiery speech, his best statement of the convention. While admitting his lack of familiarity with the LP and its workings, he nonetheless pledged to be “Libertarian for life,” and to work not only for his own campaign The party platform, meanwhile, which he had read two weeks before when considering Johnson’s proposal, he found elegant, “like the Declaration of Independence.” He noted that the whirlwind process had been “a learning experience,” that he would continue improving, and that he was “open to suggestion” as to how.
As Weld went to take media questions, Judd Weiss stepped up, not to make his case for vice president, but to pull out of the race. Weiss had been McAfee’s right-hand man, and with his boss out of the picture, he used his time to promote their video series and speak to the importance of supporting the grassroots and downballot candidates — noting that what he saw in the LP was a marketing problem; specifically, that the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”
Interestingly, he endorsed radical favorite Will Coley rather than McAfee’s preferred backup candidate, Derrick Grayson, who was an odd presence in several ways. First, he seemed to take issue with the speech McAfee gave before the VP nominations, in which the ex-candidate took the LP to task for the overwhelming (and visually verifiable) white-maleness of its ranks, even to the point of saying, “Shame on you, and shame on me,” for allowing the outreach effort to become so ossified. Grayson, a physically striking, smartly-dressed black Georgian with preacherly cadence, instead drew attention to the few people of color at the convention, before pivoting to say that, “When I enter this building, I don’t see race, I see people who love liberty” — which is great rhetoric for the mid-’90s, perhaps, but not ultimately convincing in an assembly that is whiter than Maine.
What Weiss saw in the LP was a marketing problem: the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”
Grayson had some memorable lines, though, including that the idea of nominating someone like Weld for media coverage and then fixing principle, rather than nominating someone for principle and then seeking media coverage was “butt-backwards.” It was almost enough for some to forget that this exact thing had been tried multiple times throughout party history — or, on an entirely different track, to forget Grayson’s campaign as a Republican, including having his primary challenge to US Sen. Johnny Isakson shut down by the FEC for failing to file campaign finance reports. Not everyone forgot, though: there were calls from the floor demanding to see Grayson’s party membership receipt, dated and timed, to ensure that he was eligible to run; unfortunately, the vehemence of these calls came off less as principled and more as unhinged, Birther-level conspiracy-mongering (especially when accompanied by calls to see the same for Weld, who was verified as a Life member).
After this, things got odd. Alicia Dearn, a St. Louis attorney who had done work for LP ballot access and the 2012 Johnson campaign (the fees for which she had later written off), had nonetheless been one of the major hopes of the Never Weld campaigners; Austin Peterson endorsed her in his own concession, and wore her sticker on his lapel. While other contingents didn’t mobilize around her, they did agree on a strategy to use the first ballot to establish the strongest competitor to Weld, and the second to band together and bring him down. But Dearn herself wasn’t convinced of the plan. After speaking on the importance of party unity, she posed a question to Weld: will you swear not to “betray” the LP?
It became clear she expected Weld to actually come up to the podium, which she relinquished to him when he did so. Weld wanted clarification, understandably: we’d already seen the very different definitions of what people in this audience counted as “betrayal.” But he said that he would never (unlike the specter in the background, Bob Barr) return to the GOP. “Is that sufficient?” he asked. “Yes!” cried some in the crowd, who may already have been supporters. “No!” shouted others, who never would be, no matter what he said. Still, the net result was Weld getting three extra minutes to stump, and a seeming endorsement from Dearn — except then she pulled back from that edge; she declined to withdraw, encouraging everyone to “vote their own heart,” even though she did not know hers yet.
That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc to survive even the first ballot. The two were a study in contrast: the former Tea Partier Coley relatively well-known from his radio show and his work with Muslims for Liberty, a forceful speaker with experience crafting talks for the liberty-curious; Sharpe an outsider not known for much of anything (certainly not his day job, a sales training course about as culty as others of its ilk), but with a genuinely inspiring life story and a winning manner. This life story was the interminable focus of his nominating speech, which included no speeches for the first ten minutes while a video played detailing Sharpe’s family history, the challenges he’d overcome, his leadership in the Marines and in Ivy League teaching gigs, etc. It was all fine enough, but a lot to ask of a crowd many of whose members had brought beers back with them from lunch. Coley was more traditional: several speakers from the Radical Caucus spoke for him, underlining the need to “balance” the ticket as well as the candidate’s ability to challenge Trump and Clinton on their biases against Muslims; then Coley himself spoke, promising to “inspire and electrify” voters, even though this speech was perhaps his most subdued on record. Then Johnson made his plea for Weld, and the ballots were distributed.
That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc.
As ever, it takes a while to hand out and recollect ballots, especially from the larger delegations like California and Texas. This left quite some time for the mood of the room to turn rowdy, and a little ugly. In the normal course of voting, there are speeches, there are parliamentary points, there are supporters of various candidates walking the aisles with the signs of their chosen. But now was added loud chanting, especially by a small Never Weld group, often making it impossible to hear points from the podium or floor microphone. Now was also the confrontation between several of these — including radical candidate for party chair, James Weeks II — and Feldman, as he defended his Weld endorsement as a chance to speak to the negatives, as well as to demonstrate the virtues of compromise, of “learning to live with people you hate.” But nothing spilled over into physical confrontation; the worst I saw was a visibly drunk 20-something guy yelling at a woman of similar age holding a Weld sign: “You hate Ron Paul! Hey, she hates Ron Paul!” He withered under her glare and, finding no support among those around him, bumbled on.
The vote count didn’t make anybody any happier. Weld couldn’t take the first ballot, bringing an initial cheer from the Never Welders that lasted about as long as it took to see the tally: the ex-gov took 426 votes; 49% of the total and single digits away from what he needed. The only hope would be to swing everyone behind Sharpe, who had gotten 264 — not just the Coley and Grayson totals, but also Dearn’s, and the NOTAs, and maybe even the spoiled ballots and write-ins.
As lowest votegetter, Dearn was granted time to concede, but could not be found — she’d left the event, and would have to rush back. In the meantime Coley went ahead and dropped, endorsing Sharpe as per their pre-vote agreement, but also reminding the delegates of Weld’s role in the past helping to shoot down Libertarian legitimacy. Dearn arrived in the meantime, and noted that she hadn’t even voted for herself; she and her husband both abstained from the first ballot. Now she completed the endorsement of Weld she had considered before, and earned lusty boos from pockets of the crowd for her perfidy.
Only after the second-round ballots had been printed did Grayson decide to withdraw. He also endorsed Sharpe, claiming those going Weld were “Kool-Aid drinkers.” This particular pedant must intrude here to note that the Jonestown massacre-suicide was through Flavor-Aid, not its better-known competitor, and besides that casting a vote in an LP VP contest is some distance away from killing yourself and your family. But the comment got under some delegates’ skins for other reasons, with one even trying with some vehemence to object to the point from the floor mic.
When Weeks kicked off his shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed.
Counting continued. With time running low on weekend and the use of the ballroom, the body moved as usual to allow candidates for party chair to speak during the ballot count. This meant incumbent chair Nicholas Sarwark handing off the gavel to prepare for his own speech — a fateful move. Sarwark had drawn the admiration of every other reporter I spoke with that weekend, many marveling at his ability not just to keep things moving, but to do so with grace and good humor. (An example: during a lull, one delegate asked for a point of information, which granted, said: “Mr. Chairman, is taxation theft?” Without missing a beat, Sarwark: “Yes, taxation is theft,” before acknowledging the next speaker.)
With Sarwark off the podium, podium duty fell to former LP chairman Jim Lark, a distinguished, almost august figure in the Party, but one not at all prepared to marshal a rambunctious group riding emotional and, in some cases, chemical highs. Lark could not effectively quiet the chanters, or get the aisles cleared, but what he was about to face may have been beyond the ability of any parliamentary chair to wrangle.
The candidates for chair were four: Sarwark, Brett Pojunis (Nevada state chair), Mark Rutherford (former chair in Indiana), and James Weeks II (former congressional candidate and county chair in Michigan). The debate between the former three a few nights earlier had been one of the most civil and well-mannered I’ve ever seen, even if the trio all substantially agreed with one another on most things. When the 20-sided die was cast, it was newcomer Weeks who would speak first, followed by the other three.
Weeks came to the stage with a nearly empty pint glass, which he deposited at the podium. Then he signaled for music to play, and started clapping in time, getting the delegates to do the same. He even did a little dance — nothing too odd, just getting the audience moving and on his side. And that was when he started removing his clothes. When he kicked off the shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed. Shirt and pants followed, leaving only black bikini briefs between the audience and full knowledge of what Weeks had to offer. After a brief dance, during which a couple friends of his (one hopes) rushed on stage to tuck dollar bills into his waistband, Weeks said he was withdrawing from the race, and the whole thing was on a dare; then gathering his clothes, he withdrew.
During all of this, I was about five feet away, right in front of the podium, probably closer than any other person in the room, and I could not stop laughing. It’s an odd thing, knowing with absolute certainty that what you are seeing is about to blow up online — the C-SPAN cameras and the internet’s appetite for novelty would ensure that. What I didn’t expect was the outrage from so many delegates about what was obviously a little bit of surrealist theater — and even that more Monty Python than Monster Raving Loony Party. But one should never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.
Delegates queued up to denounce Weeks, competing with each other on how best to punish him; one even suggested permanent expulsion from the Party. Another joked that Weeks’ presentation of his zaftig form constituted a “violation of the non-aggression principle”; at least a couple of observers took him seriously. Lark couldn’t handle the commotion; it took Sarwark, speaking from the floor this time, to calm everyone and get them to move on. (What didn’t get mentioned much, even in his local press, was Weeks’ Iron Cross tattoo, increasingly used by white supremacist groups in the US and elsewhere — though as often used by metalheads, bikers, or provocateurs of various stripes; conclusions are difficult to draw.) A later proposal to officially denounce Weeks failed, and the assembly returned to its business; though the striptease was widely reported (and how could it fail to be?), somehow it did not end up defining the LP’s weekend.
Never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.
Instead the focus remained on the LP’s ticket, and after the aisles were cleared of the indignant, the results of the second ballot were announced. Though Sharpe picked up nearly all the votes in play, “nearly all” wasn’t enough; by gaining only 15 more votes, William Weld was confirmed as the Party’s VP nominee. In his concession, Sharpe noted his admiration for Gary Johnson, saying the 2012 campaign was what brought him to the LP to begin with. Judging by his performance over the weekend, it’s not the last we’ll see from Sharpe within Party politics.
What struck me most, following the VP election, was what didn’t happen. The radicals may not have been represented on the ticket, but unlike in 2008 there was no immediate call to splinter off from the Party, or to abandon it to its new Republican masters. Instead of a mass gathering in the exhibition hall outside the convention ballroom, there was instead a small, only slightly downcast postmortem in the Petersen hospitality suite, with the door open to the adjoining McAfee suite. The candidates congratulated their operatives for good work against steep odds, and encouraged them to push on for the sake of the Party.
There’s not much chance Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen will ever be friends, but the latter will work for the former and wait for his chance down the line. John McAfee, who had planned to walk out if Johnson was nominated, said, “Nothing was lost today — this is just the beginning.” While some of the radical caucusers I spoke with were unsure about whether or not they could cast a vote for Johnson-Weld, they nonetheless were eager to dive into local downballots and grassroot-growing. (In the days after the election, Will Coley seemed encouraged by Johnson, if still wary of him, following personal phone calls in which Johnson sought guidance on how best to speak about ISIS, Iran, and Middle East politics generally.) And, to judge from the results of the officer elections, with Sarwark and vice-chair Arvin Vohra reelected handily, the Party as a whole seems content with its present leadership.
In the days after the convention, the media coverage was impressive: not only because there was media coverage, but also because it was generally sympathetic, or at least without the overt misrepresentation, scorn, or dismissal standard to accounts of American third parties. Even my driver to the airport had heard of the convention, and — as a self-described entrepreneur trying to "build his personal brand" so he can provide for his family — he's a natural for the LP's message, if only they can convey it to him and the millions of others who just want to be left alone to work hard and live as well as they're able.
It's on that basis that Johnson made his plea, and it worked: the Weld gambit is underway. With both major parties and especially their nominees deeply unpopular, everything is set for the LP to achieve historic highs in the election to come. What remains to be seen, as ever, is if they can keep from screwing it up.