COLORADO SPRINGS — Gambling tables, booze, and attendees sporting 1920s speakeasy-themed attire were the backdrop to this year’s state nominating convention of the Colorado Libertarian Party.
The scene, held in a hotel ballroom in the state’s second largest-city, made sense. Plenty of Americans didn’t heed Prohibition, flaunting the federal law with civil disobedience and a general assumption that they knew better than the government about what they could put in their own bodies.
Indeed, when asked at the press registration table what was going on back there in the ballroom, party spokeswoman Cayrn Ann Harlos— dyed pink hair, statue of liberty crown— said anything as long as it didn’t forcibly interfere with the freedom of others to do the same.
The party’s Friday night kickoff to their state nominating convention resembled a scene from “Boardwalk Empire.” Men in white suits, hats and bow ties mingled with women in flapper-wear. A three-piece band playing in the background competed with the sound of gambling chips bouncing off felt tables around the room. There was a silent auction for a 1922 phonograph machine.
Near the bar, a business-owner from California told those around him about how the government there had forced him to sell his first company, a real estate venture, by passing new laws requiring certain licensure. Another man told of recent college graduates getting their first paycheck and being shocked by how much of it is gobbled up by taxes. Those former students will not be feeling “the Bern,” he offered.
The party’s state chairman, 19-year-old Colorado School of Mines student Nathan Grabau, made a brief speech thanking people for coming. When he urged the 60 or so snazzily dressed party goers to buy gambling chips so the money could support the party, someone hollered back cheerfully from a blackjack table, “Don’t tell me what to do!”
Nationally, the Libertarians are the third largest political party, and that’s also true in Colorado. There are about 25,000 active members in the Centennial State. (For comparison, the Green Party has about 7,000.) And while their ranks in government here include posts on local water and sanitation boards, no Libertarian holds a state or federal office in Colorado.
Why the socially tolerant, small-government party that is dedicated to individual liberty, fiscal restraint, and free markets, does poorly at the polls was the topic of a convention speech by Brett Bittner, who traveled from Indianapolis.
“Essentially it comes down to just a couple of things,” he said, leaning on a cane near a card table. “We aim too high the first time out, we haven’t built a proper network, and we aren’t involved enough to be able to motivate the people necessary to get us there.”
Bittner’s first point might have been underscored minutes before when two Libertarians gave speeches, stumping for their party’s nomination in the big Colorado U.S. Senate race, which already features 13 Republicans who want to beat Democrat Michael Bennet in the fall.
One of the Libertarians running is Lily Tang Williams, an immigrant and real estate investor from Parker, Colorado, who gave an impassioned speech to the crowd in which she called herself a former “slave” from Communist China who will turn Washington upside down.
Williams, 51, was running for the nomination against Gaylon Kent, 50, a humorist writer from California who lives near Steamboat Springs and works the front desk at a time share company. In 2014 he got a record 2.6 percent of the vote in the U.S. Senate race between Democrat Mark Udall and Republican Cory Gardner.
But while Williams has been able to generate decent news coverage for her candidacy this year— she does a lot of radio— Kent hasn’t really caught on, noted Michael Pickens, the former chairman of Washington State’s Libertarian Party who had traveled to Colorado to help with candidate recruiting.
“He would actually be much better running for a local office where he can reach people,” Pickens said. “Where he lives right now is about three hours north or something like that. He’s out of the population density. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to be pragmatic. That’s also a problem that Libertarians have when they run for office.”
During the nomination contest Saturday at the state convention, Williams received more support than Kent, who later chose to run successfully for the nomination as the Libertarian Party’s choice for the 3rd Congressional District. Williams was considered again for U.S. Senate, and received unanimous support, so she’ll be on the ballot in the fall.
In an interview with The Colorado Independent, Williams said what she meant by being a slave is that when she came to America at 24 she realized that’s what she’d been while in China.
“I did not know I was a slave,” she said. In China she couldn’t vote, and couldn’t own guns or private property. When she first came to America, she said, if she’d taken a political quiz she would likely have identified with being a statist.
“When you are brainwashed all your life you do not know the difference,” she said. “You don’t know how to think out of the box.”
Then she met her husband, a Libertarian. It took him 20 years to “really reverse my indoctrination,” she said. She became a Republican, but left the party after the Bush years and came into the Libertarian fold. She’s running for U.S. Senate because she opposes big government, the Common Core educational standards, corporate welfare, and the nation’s surveillance programs. Coming from China, she says she’ll have no problem calling out her Senate colleagues as communists if she has to. She’d limit herself to two terms.
“I think I’m a mainstream American who cares about freedom,” she says. “If I have a chance and the press treats me fairly about my race, reports about my race, if they invite me to the debates, I think I can win because my message is universal.”
Libertarians might not have won any state or federal races in Colorado in recent years, but they have played the spoiler. In 2010, when a Democratic senator won re-election by 340 votes, Republicans blamed the Libertarians who had a candidate in that race. Two years later it happened again with a different Democratic senator winning by 584 votes.
That’s why Frank Atwood, a man in a Mackenzie-Childs-looking checkered bow tie and hat, who is not a registered Libertarian, was trawling the crowd with literature about something called approval voting. That’s an election system that allows voters to vote for as many candidates as they want on a ballot, and the candidate with the most votes wins.
That takes away “the wasted vote argument,” Atwood said, which “leaves the major parties vulnerable to spoilers and sabotage.”
But within the current system, Colorado’s Libertarians see an opportunity for outreach this year as a chaotic presidential primary creates a disturbance in the force among the nation’s two major parties.
Says, Grabau, Colorado’s Libertarian Party chairman: “We think we’ll have a large growth in our presidential vote totals in 2016 because of that.”
*A previous version of this story stated the Libertarian Party is the third largest minor party in America. It is the third largest political party.