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Dry and Mighty

Earl Dodge is a party animal, but he doesn't have a shot.

Earl Dodge could use a drink. That is, if he believed reports that a daily alcoholic beverage or two drastically reduces the risks of coronary artery disease. But Dodge, who is recovering from multiple bypass surgery, is the last guy to have a cool one for his health's sake.

"Alcohol is a poison," says Dodge from the couch of his working-class home in west Denver, his post-surgery staples and scars covered by a rumpled dress shirt. "Why would I want to put a poison in my body?"

A devout Christian and Southern gospel buff who makes his living selling vintage political buttons, the 66-year-old Dodge takes his disdain for drink to religious heights. He is the chairman and designated driver for the National Prohibition Party, the same party that helped make alcohol illegal back in 1919.

His name may ring a bell with Colorado voters, who've seen it at the bottom of the ballot in the last four presidential elections. He'll be there in 2000 as well, having again accepted his party's nomination for president at its national convention on June 29.

Held in Pennsylvania and attended by 39 teetotalers, this year's event proved an exciting one for Dodge, who beat a surprise last-minute attempt to nominate another candidate in a 9-8 vote. His opposition had sought to elect Independent Party of America member Gary Van Horn in an effort to broaden the party's reach.

The close vote, Dodge says, was a result of two factors. First, some members may have considered Dodge physically unfit for running a campaign, and second, he says most of his supporters had left the convention early, figuring his election was a done deal.

But Lee McKenzie, the NPP member who brought Van Horn to the convention, wonders about that assessment. "I notified everyone at the start of the convention that I would present a challenger," says McKenzie. "It's not like everyone didn't know this was going to happen."

McKenzie's goal was to elect Van Horn and then to convince the Independent Party of America to adopt the Prohibition Party's stance on drinking, thus broadening its chances.

McKenzie agrees with Dodge's assessment, however, that the close vote was in no way a sign that the NPP is softening its stance. "The fact that I was re-elected shows that the party believes as I do," Dodge says, "that the alcohol issue is the key issue and that we're not going to abandon it or tone it down to get more votes."

Gaining more votes might be a nice change for Dodge, who in the 1996 presidential election received just 1,300 votes from the four states where his party was on the ballot. This showing, coupled with the fact that most Americans consider the NPP an extinct oddity from the nation's bone-dry past, makes it clear Dodge's odds at gaining the White House are slim. But, as Dodge proved at his convention, he's not about to water down his beliefs just to improve his chances.

"We believe that the social impact of the use of alcohol on Americans is greater than any other substance or any other activity that has ever been invented," Dodge says without a hint of the fire and brimstone one might expect with such sentiments.

"It's the chief cause of crime in America and the chief cause of broken homes, and in terms of economics, the cost of all this to the country is staggering," he adds. "No pun intended."

If this wasn't enough to knock a tippler from his bar stool, Dodge offers a prediction that surely will. "Twenty-five years from now," Dodge dreams, "alcohol will be as socially unacceptable as cigarettes are today."

If this sounds like Dodge has been in the sauce after all, it's a valid enough concern for those in the business of producing alcoholic beverages. Over the past few years the rise of the so-called "neo-prohibition" movement--a loose alliance of temperance-minded groups that includes civic and church organizations, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and politicians--has helped turn public policy against drinking with laws that have raised the drinking age in some states, lowered the blood alcohol limit for driving and made it harder for liquor stores and bars to open in some neighborhoods.

"The neo-prohibitionist movement is not something to be shrugged off or taken lightly," says David Edgar, director of the Boulder-based Institute for Brewing Studies, which represents craft brewers and microbrewers. "They're very well-organized. There's a lot of talk in the air that once they're done with tobacco, alcohol is next."

Rick Berman of the American Beverage Institute, a Washington, D.C., lobbying organization that represents restaurants and bars, agrees.

"We do see what's being called de facto prohibition," he says, "where there are more and more constraints and restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. Instead of trying to ban the product, groups are working to ban the use and consumption of it in certain situations."

It's a meaningless liberty to Dodge, however. "Are people really free with a drug like alcohol in society? Sure, if I'm a beer drinker I have freedom to drink, but I run the risk of becoming addicted, and then I'll be a slave," he says. While he estimates his actual party membership at around 1,000, Dodge says there are about 100,000 Americans "who would consider themselves party Prohibitionists," people who would vote NPP if Dodge could only get his name on their ballots.

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