Dan La Botz, a long-time family friend, recently decided to join the Ohio US Senate race. He got more than the required 500 signatures and will appear on the November ballot as a candidate for the Ohio Socialist Party, the state organization of the Socialist Party USA. Nationwide, he is the only candidate running for Senate as a member of the Party.
Choosing to identify and conduct a campaign as a socialist when the Tea Party and pundits like Glenn Beck have done their best to equate even progressivism with Hitlerism may seem like bad political timing. But Dan is not the only self-described socialist running for national office this fall. The Party has two candidates for Congress in Florida and Texas. Mel Packer in Pennsylvania is on the Green Party ticket for Senate, and Stewart Alexander will make a bid for governor in California with the Peace and Freedom Party. With the mounting pressure of these midterm elections, an important interruption to the traditional two-party narrative has appeared on both the Right and the Left.
Ohio, Dan says, is “political ground zero.” It is both a swing state and a microcosm representative of national politics. “It’s not that there’s something special about Ohio,” he says, rather, Ohio is “the most typical Midwestern state that shares and exemplifies all of the different problems” of the country.
In the Ohio race, there are eight candidates vying for retiring Republican George Voinovich’s Senate seat. The top contender is Democratic Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher, who leads with 41 percent to Republican Rob Portman’s 37 percent, according to a March 23-29 Quinnipiac poll. The other leading candidate is Ohio Secretary of State and Democrat Jennifer Brunner. The primary will take place May 4. The Socialist Party ballot will appear in the primary, even though Dan is running uncontested for the nomination.
Among the other third party candidates is Eric Deaton of Dayton, an electrical engineer representing the Constitution Party. According to his campaign website, Deaton’s interests include “Stamp & Coin collecting, Firearms: shooting, collecting and history, Vintage muscle cars (likes many, but owns Fords), Fishing; Hunting; Scouting.” He has published position papers on the Fair Tax, Immigration Control, and Promoting Family Values, and he claims to agree with the ideas of “The Founding Fathers’ Principles” and “States’ Rights.”
The current media coverage of third party politics in this country caters more to the Eric Deatons than the Dan La Botzes, but Dan sees this moment as an opening. He doesn’t think the Left is out of the picture. He told the The Cincinnati Beacon, “We can also see [discontent] in the demonstrations for immigrant rights. We see it in workers voting against contract concessions that give away wages and health plans. We see it in the LGBTQ movement for gay and lesbian marriage rights.” Dan claimed, “People want an alternative.” In this climate, candidates from non-major parties can wield power—whether or not they get elected.
When Dan first told me about his bid for Senate, he called and said, “I’ve got a story for you.”
“A Cincinnati school teacher is running for US Senate.”
Dan teaches Spanish at a Waldorf elementary school in Cincinnati. Now 64 years old, Dan is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Born in Illinois, he grew up outside of San Diego and over the years has worked as a truck driver, a journalist, a union staffer, and a professor of History and Latin American Studies at Miami University of Ohio, the University of Cincinnati, and Northern Kentucky University. Swapping conjugation for legislation requires a political platform.
In an interview with The Columbus Government Examiner Dan said he chose to run with the Socialist Party USA in order to promote “the vision of socialism and the program which the American people need at this time if we are to work our way out of the economic and environmental crisis, end war and enter into a path of peace on the planet.”
He notes that while he chose to affiliate with the party, “there has been no Socialist Party state structure in Ohio for a long time,” so much of his organizing has to come from scratch. “People who support my campaign will not necessarily be members of the Socialist Party,” he adds, “most will not be.”
Dan doesn’t have any official endorsers yet, but he says he has gotten individual support from people around the state involved in the Labor Party, the Single Payer Action Network, the peace movement, and the Progressive Action Network in Cincinnati.
He says he was surprised by the reactions he got when canvassing to get his name on the ballot. “Some people turned away and did not even want to talk with a socialist. But for the fist time in 40 years of being an activist, not one person told me to go back to Russia.” But he also found that among many people, especially young people who did not seem to be interested in politics, “once you said the word ‘socialist,’ then they’d turn and say, ‘let me sign that.’”
Dan thinks there has been a shift in people’s understanding of socialism. “It might be going too far to say that it has become fashionable,” he says, “but it has certainly become debatable and discussable in a way that it hasn’t in my entire lifetime.” To a certain extent, he credits the Tea Party movement, which “ grew up around talking about and attacking the Democrats as socialists.” Dan says people reacting to the attacks from the Right are starting to draw the conclusion, “Well, maybe I’m a socialist. If I want health care, I guess I’m a socialist. If I think I ought to be able to go to school without having to give an arm and a leg, then maybe I’m a socialist. If I think I should have a job, then maybe I’m a socialist. If I think gay people should have the right to marry, maybe I’m a socialist.”
These are Dan’s campaign talking points, and he uses them to illustrate his view of socialism: “Working class people have power, and working class people’s needs are met. And if their needs are met, then obviously everyone’s needs are met.”
Last week, the progressive blog Swiftspeech compared Dan to the late comedian George Carlin. They have the same white, billygoat beard and antagonistic speaking style. In a YouTube clip of one of his standup shows, Carlin challenges the audience to repudiate the two major parties, which he sees as controlled by corporations. “Good, honest, hardworking people continue—these people of modest means—continue to elect these rich cocksuckers who don’t give a fuck about them.”
Ohio (and Hamilton County, which contains Cincinnati) went blue in 2008, with Obama receiving 51.5 percent of the popular vote. Statewide, just over one percent of people voted for third party or independent presidential candidates, and Ralph Nader got .74 percent of the vote. But Democrats and Republicans may be losing significant ground. Recent polls have shown the state split in multiple ways—the Quinnipiac Poll showed 27 percent of independent voters undecided in the Senate race. A March 8 Rasmussen Reports poll reported 17 percent of voters consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement.
Dan recognizes the Tea Party’s legitimacy. However much prompted and publicized by the Glenn Becks and the Sarah Palins, “there’s a social reality to this,” he says. “Once people put in money and send out organizers and stir something up, it does become a movement with a life of its own.”
When I ask whether it’s worth arguing with what he calls “Tea-baggers,” Dan claims to see a way to make socialism attractive to them. “Middle and working class people who have turned to the Tea Party, it is out of frustration and alienation form the government and the two parties, which is understandable. Democrats and Republicans are doing nothing for them.” But, “if somebody said, ‘your enemy is really the corporations running the country through political parties, that’s the source of the problem, not the immigrant worker or some conspiracy,’ one can change the minds of people in the Tea Party.”
Dan doesn’t have a fully formed answer to the question: Why Dan La Botz, why now? “It’s a new thing to have to re-conceive yourself as a person who people will look to for leadership,” he says. In the social movement work he’s done over the years, he considered himself part of a team, not the head of it.
He cites labor movement figure Eugene Debs, who ran for president as a socialist four times in the beginning of the 20th century, as a model of the electoral socialist tradition. In a 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio, Debs expressed a similar lack of comfort with traditional leadership: “I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise, it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”
But Dan says running for office requires significant self-promotion. “I want this office because I believe these ideas matter and these ideas can change your life and change the country and change the direction we’re going,” he says. “But you have be able to say to people, ‘If you don’t vote for me, you’re wasting your vote and condemning yourself to continue in this system dominated by corporations.’”
SIMONE LANDON B'10.5 votes in Michigan.