"When people ask me what I believe in, I hold this up and say, 'This. This is what I believe in.'"
Arly Pederson waves a small pamphlet before an assembled body of 12 delegates at the American Party's national convention, held over the Jan. 9-10 weekend at the Travelodge motel in Kenner. Pederson, a rural Utah resident now in his ninth term as the American Party's national chairman, holds the "Permanent Principles and Platforms of the American Party." The guiding rules state first and foremost that "God is our foundation." Among other platforms set forth are opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, the statement that "homosexuality and lesbianism are a plague sweeping the nation and creating a wave of disease and immorality," withdrawal from the United Nations, and a call for "the reassertion of American sovereignty over the Panama Canal."
The delegates have come here from across the country: Utah, California, North Carolina, Indiana, Texas, Arkansas and Virginia. Most are in their 50s to 70s. Their entire convention -- except for a dinner of jambalaya and gumbo in the hotel restaurant -- takes place in the Travelodge's Armstrong Hall, which they've set apart from the rest of the hotel with a series of red, white and blue bows, all with store tags left on. Armstrong Hall is small, measuring roughly 25 by 50 feet, and is blanketed by a huge banner proclaiming "American Party for God, Family, Country" in red letters against a white backdrop, surrounded by blue stars. At the front of the room is a table laden with merchandise: book and video versions of Catherine Millard's The Christian Heritage of Our Nation and a stack of books by attendee Dr. Sterling Lacy titled Valley of Decision, which list more than a thousand Bible verses giving "God's insight into what we call the political arena," according to Lacy.
In addition to updating the permanent platform, the party members are gathered to nominate a presidential candidate, as the party has done for every election since 1972. The party was only on the ballot in two states, Hawaii and Colorado, in the 2000 presidential election, but the 2004 goal is 15 states. "The people are fed up with the 'Republicrats,'" Pederson tells the group. "They're ready for a third party. They're ready for our message."
Yet the convention's meandering agenda and open airing of comments suggest the group shares a larger concern than nominating a presidential candidate. Pederson's gavel strains to maintain procedure, but decorum is frequently interrupted by questions over procedure, along with soft-spoken rants complimenting Trent Lott's support of Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign, and railing against Hillary Clinton, communists and Marxists, gays, and "get-out-the-vote efforts for inner-city blacks."
The stated reason for the American Party's assembling in Kenner: "Resolve to do your part to guarantee a Happy New Year by committing to help deliver America and the Constitution from the clutches of the socialist, globalist and taxing conspirators and politicians!"
But why here, why now? The Americans are meeting in New Orleans for nostalgic reasons, as the party's Permanent Principles were first adopted here in 1973. But the real reason the group chose New Orleans was to support the Louisiana State Party of the American Party, which is active again after years of dormancy. Yet they're not fully active -- even the state chairman agreed to talk with Gambit Weekly only if the paper doesn't print his name. He works as an administrator for Orleans Parish Schools, he says, and he doesn't want the Democrats in his office to retaliate. "I don't agree with everything they say," he says of his fellow party members. "Some of it is just way too conservative. But my dad was real active in the American Party, and I was sad to see it die out here."
There's also a strategic reason for the party to meet in the state. If the Americans meet their 15-state goal, it'll help that Louisiana is a relatively easy place to land a presidential ticket on the ballot. The sole requirements are payment of a $500 fee and signatures from registered voters in all seven congressional districts.
The American Party dates back to 1968, when supporters of Alabama Gov. George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign met to keep the movement alive. Wallace had launched a bid on the American Independent ticket with a platform based on states' rights and segregation; he managed to win plurality in five states in the Deep South and win three outright, including Louisiana. Campaign workers met in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969 and established the American Party. (Wallace, a Democrat, did not lend his support.)
"After Wallace's campaign," says Pederson, himself active in that effort, "several of us saw that we had a good thing going, and said, 'Let's keep this going.'"
In 1972, the American Party nominated California congressman John G. Schmitz, who stumped on the notion that the Republican Party under Richard Nixon had become too moderate. Schmitz received a total of one million votes nationwide, more than 50,000 of those coming from Louisiana. That total ranks far below Wallace's net of 10 million votes. (Schmitz's supporters included the late Academy Award-winning actor Walter Brennan who is now honored by an annual award the party bestows in his name to "the American who has rendered extraordinary service above and beyond the call of duty to God and America.")
Since 1972, the American Party has gone about its business in relative obscurity and with ever-diminishing vote totals, although the party has managed to nominate a presidential candidate every four years, aiming to establish "a Christian Republic," as 1984 candidate Delmar Dennis put it.
In 1976, the American Party ticket received just more than 100,000 votes. Subsequent campaigns have been symbolic at best. Splintering factions include the Constitution Party, formerly known as the United States Taxpayers Party.
Despite this decreasing influence, radical-right parties remain a force in contemporary American politics, says Dan Levitas, the Atlanta-based author of the 2002 book The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right (Thomas Dunne Books). "It's easy to view these groups as cranks, laughable and be dismissive," Levitas says. "But, the people in Louisiana should know, this is the realm from which David Duke came. He started on the fringe, took those ideas and ran as a Republican, where he succeeded."
Levitas adds that numerous splits within the American Party have largely decimated its influence. Those active in the party today, he says, are longing for a past that exists only in history books. "If you rewind 15, 20 years, this group had some momentum to their efforts," he says. "Now, the American Party really is a throwback to an earlier generation of right-wing extremists which once had the potential to create a halfway functional electoral vehicle to spread its message. Today, what's left of the American Party is certain to accomplish nothing in that regard.
"These people take themselves very seriously," Levitas continues. "The party consists of a smattering of what seems to be very competent lawyers and wealthy contributors. It appears their goal is to take the presidency, but there isn't the slightest likelihood. So, you have to ask: Why are they doing this? There has always been a small number of true believers in the party that thought they could make a run for public office, but the real strategists behind the party always saw it as a means to gain legitimacy for publicly unpalatable ideas."
On Saturday morning, the American Party's main agenda item is to nominate a candidate for president. Pederson is confident the vote will be a mere formality. "I don't want to get ahead of myself, but Diane Templin in all likelihood will be our candidate," he says about the California attorney who also was the party's 1996 presidential candidate.
There are also a number of housekeeping duties to get out of the way. The site of the January 2005 meeting must be selected (Orlando won) and there's the ongoing need to clean up the Web site's chat room, which Douglas Joy of North Carolina says is "full of inane ideas." Currently, under the "discussion" portion of the site, chat room subject entries include lines such as "You guys SUCK! Can you spell SUCK?," along with conspiracy theories about President George W. Bush's ties to aliens and Satan.
The floor then opens for reports from the states represented. No delegate gives specifics on any state's party activities. Linda Patterson sits at a back table with her husband, Don, who's dressed in a red shirt bracketed by white suspenders featuring red stars and blue stripes. "We're not busy meeting in Indiana," Linda admits. "We held one, but nobody came. But you can do a lot without holding meetings. Me and Don have a running meeting between us that lasts all the time." Appreciative laughter fills Armstrong Hall.
The group holds drawings for American Party coffee mugs and American flag T-shirts. Afterward, the floor is open for presidential nominations, and Templin walks to the podium.
Templin, 56, wears a red suit with a blue sash tied around her waist. Her 20-minute speech begins with, "I'm very flattered and honored to accept this nomination. I spent a lot of time praying last night about this." Her stated views are a mix of far-right beliefs and a number of proclamations that would also appeal to liberals. She says the American military is "immorally" involved in Iraq, though she proposes the strongest defense possible of the United States. She speaks against the income tax, "the homosexual agenda in school curriculums," illegal immigrants, and the poverty-level wages of Wal-Mart. Templin concludes by arguing that George W. Bush is not a "Godly" man, and that her campaign will be led by "her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
After Templin, two short speeches nominate Al Moore, a 64-year-old party member from Mechanicsville, Va.; one speaker commends him as a "neighbor in the former Confederacy." The nomination seems to surprise several in the room, though Moore ran for vice-president in 2000. Moore begins his speech with concern over the current shape of the country, explaining that several Marxist tenets are now in place, including Bush's "No Child Left Behind" educational policy.
The two candidates then field questions. The first concerns Moore's health, which he admits was bad for a while, but much improved, having weighed 282 lbs. at his last checkup, down from a high of 330 lbs. The next is about the group's financial stability. Pederson says the party has $5,000 in the bank. The money is not to be used toward presidential campaigns, thus making the candidates responsible for their own funding. Templin explains she owns three houses and is successful with a law practice, real estate deals and a pre-paid legal services business plan. Moore says he is now retired after 30 years in data processing, receives monthly checks and has more than $350,000 in savings. The two both agree they would appear on the ticket as either president or vice president, depending on the outcome of today's vote. Indiana delegate Linda Patterson sleeps through it all.
Each delegate can cast proxy votes to represent their state. The vote is taken aloud, and there's some confusion when Joy tries to cast one-and-a-half votes for each candidate. The end result is a tie. The last time this happened, in Wichita, Kan. in March 1996, "we huddled in prayer six or seven times until we found the answer," Pederson says.
After some private discussion between Moore and Joy, Templin receives the majority vote. The group erupts in applause. Everyone then stands and turns to a door handle, on which someone has duct-taped an American flag. There's a spirited rendition of "God Bless America," led by Linda Patterson, now fully awake.
When Templin, who ran for governor of California last year, is asked how she prepares for a campaign facing such long odds, she responds, "When I'm asked this, I tell a joke: What's the difference between a lady lawyer and a pit bull? Lipstick. I'm very aggressive." Templin then hands over a pamphlet for pre-paid legal services, saying "This is a fabulous venture to make lots of money, something you should seriously consider."
Days later, back home in Virginia, Moore explains what went on with Joy that led to the final vote for Templin. "We asked each other, What is the best thing to offer this nation? America is in a real pickle. That's what this is all about -- everyone in the American Party is trying to do the best they can to save America. And, hopefully, we'll have the wisdom to be there when the American people call on us."