Given their shoestring campaigns and the perception by the press and both major political parties that they're kooks, the invisible candidates of fringe parties need to be either very smart or very loud to get noticed. Two weeks ago, Green Party candidate Philip Hufford showed he was both.

The 46-year-old "social justice" and environmental candidate attended an appearance by Governor Roy Romer at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and when the governor asked for questions, Hufford, who had stationed himself directly beneath Romer's position on stage, loudly challenged him to a debate. Romer seemed startled at first, says Hufford, then "he looked at me, winked and pointed a finger, like he was saying, `You got me.'"

Romer may have had little choice but to accept, given his repeated hammering of Republican challenger Bruce Benson for backing out of a series of scheduled faceoffs. According to campaign press secretary Jim Carpenter, the governor will meet both Hufford and Kevin Swanson, the Colorado Taxpayers Party candidate, Thursday, October 27, at 5 p.m. on the campus of Colorado College in Colorado Springs. (Prohibition Party candidate Earl Dodge was not invited.)

Though he welcomes the chance to trade words with the governor, Hufford is miffed he'll have to share the platform with Swanson. "I was the one who challenged Romer, and I was the one he agreed to debate," he says. "I think Romer should debate Swanson one on one, just like I did." Hufford has met the Taxpayers Party candidate twice previously, he points out. The three-way format was presented as a "take it or leave it" proposition by the governor's camp, according to Hufford, who says he offered to meet Romer anytime, anywhere in the state. "It reminds me of the way state government has been run under Romer," Hufford grouses.

"I'm sorry he feels that way," says Carpenter. "October 27 is the date that the governor has available to debate. The bottom line is, the governor agreed to debate Phil Hufford and he is going to do it."

The lot of the third-party candidate isn't an easy one in Colorado, despite Ross Perot's strong showing in '92 and the fact that the number of unaffiliated voters barely lags behind the totals of the two major parties. Secretary of State Natalie Meyer won't even allow them to call themselves "third-party" candidates. "Under state law, they're `political organizations,'" she corrects. The state doesn't give such a group official status as a political party until its gubernatorial candidate garners at least 10 percent of the vote.

That's an unreasonable burden, argues Hufford. "It's one of the highest requirements in the country," he says, and one that can be met only once every four years, in effect preventing minor parties from getting a shot at equal footing with Republicans and Democrats--and the ballot access they enjoy--during intervening years.

Without official recognition, third parties must gather petition signatures of registered voters in order to get their candidates on the ballot for the general election. A thousand valid signatures are required for each candidate running for statewide office. "It's the only state in the West where there isn't simply a single petition to qualify a party [and all its candidates] for the ballot," says Richard Winger, editor of the San Francisco-based Ballot Access News. "In Utah, only 500 signatures are needed for a party to become fully qualified and eliminate petitioning to get on the ballot."

"That is not an unreasonable requirement," Meyer says of the 10 percent rule. "It's been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a number of states."

Even so, of five states checked (California, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas and Arizona), only one--Wyoming--uses a 10 percent threshold, and it applies to congressional races, which are held every two years. And although Colorado has only two official parties, each of the five states checked recognizes at least one other party, while Utah lends official status to four parties in addition to Republicans and Democrats.

As Colorado's gatekeeper for the election process, Meyer (who's not running for another term) comes under fire from political parties bridling under the current system. "She has a philosophy that third parties are undesirable for the system," charges the Prohibition Party's Earl Dodge, who at 61 is making his fifth run for the governor's office. "When I first ran in 1972, you could put on a slate of candidates statewide for 300 signatures," he says. "Now you need 6,000. That's twenty times what you needed before."

Dodge criticizes Meyer for "crusading" to make ballot access more restrictive for his party and others in the same boat. "A Republican or Democrat can run in a primary if they register sixty days ahead of time," he points out. "But we have to be registered a year ahead of time to qualify for the ballot. She's the one who persuades the Legislature to pass these laws. She's an ardent Republican, and she doesn't want third-party people taking votes away from her party."

Meyer acknowledges managing "multiple" Republican campaigns in her prior capacity as political director of the state GOP. However, she says, "My personal biases don't show in this office, as evidenced by twelve years of nonpartisan administration of this office." She denies ever lobbying for or initiating changes in election law that would work to the detriment of third-party candidates. "Talk is cheap, but they can't back it up with any facts," she says of her detractors. She suggests they take their objections to the legislature or the courts.

Colorado Taxpayers candidate Kevin Swanson faults Meyer's office for taking six weeks to validate his petition signatures and certify him for the ballot. "It took the wind out of our sails," says the thirty-year-old Swanson, an engineer who is running against abortion and taxes and for increased use of the death penalty and "arming law-abiding citizens on the street." The self-described "freedom-loving" candidate believes the lengthy validation process cost him media exposure he desperately needs.

"I wasn't a happy camper either about the amount of time it took," says Meyer. She blames a crush of last-minute filings and limited staffing for the delay.

Media exposure is also very much on Philip Hufford's mind. When KRMA-TV Channel 6 found itself with program space available following the collapse of the Benson-Romer debates, the station proposed filling an hour of it with a program focusing on the race for governor and including the third-party candidates. Hufford taped an interview that was to run in an edited form during the program. Then the station pulled the plug. Hufford suspects Romer's camp influenced that decision.

"We would not bow to pressure like that," says Cynthia Hessin, executive producer of the station's public-affairs programming. And in fact, she says, no one from the governor's campaign tried to influence the station, which decided against running the program when reporters from local commercial stations who were slated to appear backed out due to scheduling problems. KRMA is considering broadcasting Thursday's debate, Hessin adds.

For his part, Earl Dodge finds himself the most invisible of the overlooked candidates. "I have no idea why we were excluded from the debate," he says. "It reminds me of what Mr. Orwell said: Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others.


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