Camel Jockeys

Can the Prohibition Party get over this hump?

The national Prohibition Party likens itself to an oasis, "a refreshing place to be," as one member calls it. But these days, the tiny group's disputed turf seems about as hospitable as Baghdad. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the party's emblem, a camel (chosen for its ability to travel long distances between drinks -- of water, of course), is an animal also known to hiss and spit.

Yes, trouble's brewing in the Prohibition Party, and the internal feud is as fizzy as the group's external profile is flat. You don't need a pollster to spot the trend: Popular support is evaporating for the dry party, which bills itself as the nation's oldest third party, with a pedigree stretching back to 1869 -- five years before the founding of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and well ahead of saloon-buster Carrie Nation's heyday.

Over a century ago, the Prohibition Party's nominee soaked up 271,000 votes, then better than 2 percent of the nation's electorate. But Lakewood's Earl F. Dodge, longtime Prohibition Party chairman and its perennial candidate for president, garnered just 208 votes during the 2000 election -- the party's worst quadrennial showing ever. (Dodge did achieve one distinction in that race: He topped Al Gore and finished just behind George Bush on the Federal Election Commission's alphabetical list of presidential candidates.) Colorado was the lone outpost in the electoral desert for the Prohibition ticket that year; the party rang up a more robust tally in 1996, when it was listed on four states' ballots.

And this fall, the party is fielding no candidates at all.

Activists blame the decline largely on the 69-year-old Dodge, who has embodied the party for close to half a century. "He is, in his own mind, the sole bulwark between the Prohibition Party and oblivion," says opposition leader James Hedges, who gives Dodge his historical due on the www.prohibitionists.org Web site. "That may be true -- certainly, it has kept going much longer than any other third party."

Nevertheless, Hedges -- the only elected Prohibition official in the country, who picked up 96 votes in an uncontested contest last year for Thompson Township assessor in Fulton County, Pennsylvania -- recently filed a complaint against Dodge with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The retired U.S. Marine Band tuba player (who has tooted in Washington, D.C., for five U.S. presidents, including Kennedy and Nixon) charges that Dodge, through his party newsletter, continues to solicit donations for political nonprofits with which he is no longer affiliated.

"He's trying to make it seem like he's still with those organizations," says Hedges.

In response, Dodge launches into a spirited rebuttal regarding the authenticity of two obscure organizations: the National Prohibition Foundation and the Partisan Prohibition Historical Society, each intended to support Prohibition causes. Dodge once headed both of them, but the groups lapsed into inactive status after he failed to file the required renewals with the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. Hedges and his allies subsequently paid the entities' filing fees and reorganized their boards -- without Dodge. Regardless of that technicality, Dodge insists that his groups remain legitimate.

Hedges says he filed the complaint "for the principle of the thing," knowing that only "perhaps a couple of thousand dollars" in donations may be involved.

"That's a load of baloney," responds Dodge. "These people only do negative things."

(According to a spokesman at the Denver postal inspection office, unless there are a number of alleged victims, or proof of significant loss, any action against Dodge is unlikely. That's a familiar response, Hedges says: About a year ago, he failed to interest the Colorado Secretary of State's Office in a probe of Dodge, and instead was told he'd have to file his own civil lawsuit.)

Writing in the Prohibition Party's May/June newsletter, The National Statesman, Dodge accused Hedges and his allies of "identity theft" for snapping up title to the lapsed entities. This unfortunate turn only came about, he said, because the post office failed to forward the biennial report forms when the National Prohibition Foundation moved from a Lakewood condominium into an office in Dodge's own house in early 2001. "The REAL Partisan Prohibition Historical Society, National Prohibition Foundation and the Prohibition National Committee are all headquartered" at that address, Dodge wrote.

Dodge, who oversees the www.prohibition.org. site, says he wrote the piece because he felt he had to warn party loyalists who might be duped into sending funds to Hedges's Pennsylvania address. And to be safe, he also registered a new group, the American Prohibition Foundation, with the Colorado secretary of state in June, with his name listed as the sole incorporator. (The Prohibition Party isn't recognized as an official third party in Colorado because it has never collected enough votes on a statewide ballot -- even though Dodge garnered just under 10,000 votes in 1998 when he ran for the University of Colorado regents at-large seat, finishing last.)

Dodge, who has held the Prohibition Party's top slot since 1979 and was executive secretary for eleven years before that, says his own standing is as solid as ever. The only serious threat to his reign, he claims, came during the national convention held in the dry township of Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania, in 1999, when rebel delegates came within one vote -- 9 to 8 -- of denying him his fifth straight nomination. Seeking to broaden the party's appeal, they'd tried to scuttle Dodge in favor of an Independent Party of America hopeful. Hedges calls Dodge a "Lyndon LaRouche sort of personality...who just loves to see his name on the ballot, but who is a weak campaigner."

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