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."
While acknowledging that party membership rolls might not be great (fewer than forty people attended the 1999 convention), Dodge argues that those numbers are kept low by restrictive or confusing voter-registration practices that keep supporters from declaring affiliation with the Prohibition cause. And he insists that he's long been on the lookout for someone "I could train to succeed me" -- but none of his main detractors happen to fit that bill.
During a long stretch of American history, the Prohibition Party battled in the vanguard of progressive reform. Except for its unique anti-alcohol stance, it marched in step with other groups to successfully oppose child labor and support women's rights and the direct election of U.S senators. In the party's prime, Prohibition candidates won statewide offices, and the organization attracted leading thinkers and prominent backers. Some history buffs suggest that had Abraham Lincoln lived, he would have bolted the Republican Party and jumped on the camel's hump.
But the party's greatest achievement still hangs over it like a cloud. From the dizzying high of the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919 (the booze ban took effect in 1920), the party's popularity plunged in the wake of Prohibition's repeal in 1933. While the reasons for Prohibition's failure are still debated, the amendment's unintentional boost to organized crime clearly contributed to its demise. Buoyed by a tidal wave of liquor and facing a cultural hangover, most support for the Prohibition cause faded, leaving only the hardest of the hardcore -- people like Earl Dodge.
Earl Higgerson, a Lakewood electrician, says he was initially awed by Dodge and his encyclopedic knowledge of the Prohibition tradition, a legacy intoxicating to those who link drink with society's woes. And he gladly accepted a position as treasurer of the party's national committee. But he quickly became concerned when Dodge refused to allow him to see the party's account books, he remembers. Higgerson, who is now in his late eighties, once considered himself close to Dodge, acting almost as a father figure. So he confronted Dodge on that basis.
"I asked Earl for a list of donors, and he wouldn't show me," Higgerson says. "He said, 'We don't give out the mailing list.' I looked him in the eye and said, 'Who's we? Name one other than you.' He wouldn't answer." Rather than be legally liable for figures he never saw, Higgerson resigned.
Dodge has a different version of Higgerson's defection: that Higgerson became "paranoid" after Prohibition Party leaders rejected a theory that AIDS was a federal plot. "It's a shame," Dodge says, hinting that his former associate suffers from the effects of aging. Asked to name some of his supporters, though, the chairman demurs. "I don't feel I have the need to defend myself within the party," he says. (Dodge's daughter, Prohibition National Committee treasurer Karen Thiessen of Wheat Ridge, did not return a phone call.)
Concerns over fuzzy finances foamed over in 2000. That year, W. Dean Watkins, a retired aerospace engineer from Tucson whose grandfather had topped the Prohibitionist ticket in 1920, was the vice-presidential nominee (and also tabbed as the party's national vice chairman); he wrote much of the five-page platform for the campaign. The Watkins-penned platform, while labeling alcohol "the number one problem in America," also addressed such topics as term limits for all in Congress, a balanced budget with a return to the gold standard, an end to all government farm subsidies, and continued "prohibition" against drugs such as LSD and marijuana. Initially, Watkins supported Dodge's fifth presidential run, but he eventually grew frustrated with his lack of candor. "He's too secretive," Watkins says of Dodge. "His financial reports don't make sense. And there's an appearance of wrongdoing." When Dodge balked at letting him in on the financial details, Watkins resigned and threw his support to Hedges.
While he credits Dodge with being a "true dry" and upholder of Prohibition beliefs, "our management styles were 180 degrees apart," Watkins says.
Although the former standard-bearer says he's through with organized politics, he still has his souvenirs, including some campaign buttons he made up two years ago. He only got a couple of the official buttons Dodge distributed. "He said he'd sell me more for $4 apiece," Watkins says, laughing.
Dodge bristles at any suggestion that he may be, in his words, "some racketeer" milking the Prohibition faithful. An independent Baptist, he teaches adult Bible classes and earns his living selling political memorabilia -- including buttons from his past five presidential campaigns. (One major collector describes Dodge as an active "sniper" on eBay, employing a common tactic that allows someone to purchase an item seconds before bidding ends without tipping his hand at the value. And while buttons may not seem lucrative, they can be valuable: A rare specimen was recently put up for auction by a dealer for $56,000.)
When he first began working for the Prohibition Party in Massachusetts, Dodge recalls, he was paid a $1-a-year stipend, supplemented by donations from benefactors. His wife's thriftiness was the only thing that "saved our family," he says.
"This isn't something I'd do if I wanted to get rich," he says, adding that he considers working for the party a calling. "I'm not trying to portray myself as a monk, but if I didn't think this was the Lord's work, I wouldn't be doing it."
Dodge says he has long since stopped collecting a salary as party chairman -- which never topped $175 a week, anyway. The party still pays his medical insurance, which runs about $8,000 annually, but over the past fifteen years, he points out, he and his wife have probably contributed that much each year to the cause.
The party's operations are run on a shoestring, according to Dodge, who estimates annual expenditures at about $40,000 a year. The party no longer files campaign expense reports with the Federal Election Commission, because it spends less than $5,000 per campaign. (In April, an individual known only as "Major Tom" did file a quarterly report with the FEC for a Denver party called the 21st Century Prohibition Party -- Rocky Mountain High. Dodge says it was a prank.) Any monies, including about $5,000 or so sent annually from a Pennsylvania trust established the year Prohibition disappeared, fund routine business expenses, education outreach and official travel, he says.
Dodge is clearly annoyed at questions about the sale of the party's condominium a few years ago ("I've answered that many times, and they keep asking about it"), explaining that any earnings were used to retire Prohibition Party debts and to bankroll party causes, including the Partisan Prohibition Historical Society. Hedges, one of those who raised concerns about the sale, was ousted from the society two years ago for various offenses, Dodge says, including "interfering" with the society's bank account. (Hedges says he was trying to determine who had the power to write checks.)
All of the infighting hasn't dampened Dodge's Prohibition fervor. After all, multiple bypass surgery weeks before the last convention didn't stop him, and he says he won't step back from plans to hold a convention next year in Denver, where party regulars will gear up for the 2004 election. Dodge is optimistic that the party will be back on the ballot in Tennessee and Florida, states where it's easy for third parties to file, as well as Colorado. And while votes for the party's ticket will undoubtedly fall short of the high-water mark of 1892, they could return to the quadruple-digit count of 1996, when Dodge persuaded 1,300 voters to swallow Prohibition's platform.
"But vote totals aren't the only measure of success," he says, citing his party's role in pushing measures such as teaching alcohol abstinence in Colorado public schools. "I tell people the only way I'll ever get to the White House is in a tour. But sometimes you can be what the Bible says -- the salt of the earth -- and do what you believe in."
And so Dodge is getting ready to saddle up for the sixth time as the camel party's candidate of choice.
"Unless someone else really good comes along," he says, "I guess I'm it."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.