The Lonely Crusade of Walt Brown


While Ralph Nader has been preoccupied fending off the disruptive tactics, legal challenges and other chicanery cooked up by mean-spirited Democrats desperately trying to keep the longtime consumer advocate off the ballot in state after state this autumn, and while the Green Party’s David Cobb – behaving more like some sort of namby-pamby apologist for the Democratic Party than a serious third-party challenger – has been waging an almost laughable “safe state” strategy implicitly designed to facilitate Democrat John Kerry’s candidacy in the crucial battleground states, at least one other progressive third-party aspirant for the nation’s highest office has been quietly canvassing the country in search of support on November 2. Lacking Nader’s considerable cachet and the Green Party’s relatively substantial organizational strength, the Socialist Party’s Walter F. “Walt” Brown – the darkest of dark-horse candidates – is arguably the most impressive third-party candidate in this year’s race for the White House.

Most Americans, of course, probably don’t even realize that the venerable Socialist Party USA – a party that once boasted 1,200 public officials in the United States, including a couple of congressmen and dozens of state legislators and mayors sprinkled across the country – is actually fielding a presidential ticket this year. This proud but withering party, whose rich and colorful history has included such influential American icons as labor leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, authors Jack London and Upton Sinclair, the courageous “Mother” Jones, Helen Keller, the gifted deaf and blind lecturer, physicist Albert Einstein, African-American trade unionist A. Phillip Randolph and the urbane and dignified Norman M. Thomas, is waging its seventh presidential campaign since 1976 and hopes to surpass the relatively modest 10,000-vote mark in a presidential election for the first time in more than half a century, when Darlington Hoopes, a former Socialist state legislator from Reading, Pennsylvania, garnered 20,065 votes during the 1952 Eisenhower landslide.

If experience and qualifications really mattered to the American electorate, Walt Brown would win in a landslide. He is arguably the most qualified and intriguing presidential candidate nominated by the Socialists since the party’s glory days of the late Norman Thomas. Like Nader – one of the few honest men left in American politics – Brown’s remarkable life story and long record of public service to his country are worth a glance. A former three-term state senator from Lake Oswego, Oregon, the 78-year-old Harvard and USC-educated lawyer wasn’t joking when he told a reporter from a small college newspaper in Portland shortly after winning his party’s nomination last year that he has “been everywhere and done everything.” And that’s putting it modestly.

Among other things, this ex-state legislator and former deputy district attorney of Malheur County has rubbed shoulders with Norman Thomas, ridden an elephant into a hidden city in India, dug canals in Third World countries, traveled up French mountains in a tram car, climbed Mount Shasta, ran for Congress twice – garnering more than 10,000 votes in 1998 – and was treated to tea and crumpets in the House of Lords in London. He also taught criminal law at Northwestern University and holds four degrees, including post-graduate degrees in government and library sciences from Boston University and the University of Oregon, respectively.

A Rhodes Scholar nominee in 1949, the Oregon tree farmer and public interest lawyer cuts a somewhat incongruous figure for a Socialist Party candidate, particularly given his long and distinguished military career. Born in Los Angeles three years before the stock market crash of 1929 and the deepening decade-long economic depression that followed, Brown enlisted in the Navy during World War II when he was barely eighteen, serving in the Pacific and China. Having served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam, his military record is by far the most impressive of any presidential candidate this year, especially in light of all of the controversies surrounding the military records of his major-party rivals, one whose heroism during the Vietnam War has been seriously questioned and the other whose service in keeping Texas and Alabama safe during that quagmire can’t be fully substantiated. Unlike his Democratic and Republican opponents, Brown served in the U.S. Navy for more than twenty-five years, rising from the enlisted ranks to a commissioned officer – including serving as a special prosecutor in Vietnam – before retiring as a judge advocate general in 1970.
Given his distinguished military record, Brown doesn’t consider himself a pacifist. He is, however, staunchly opposed to the war in Iraq and has been highly critical of the Bush administration’s handling of that conflict. “We’re supposed to have a defense department”, he says, “not a war department.”

A lifelong Unitarian, he is also highly critical of what he describes as President Bush’s racist war on Islam.

A passionate and persuasive advocate for the underdog, the avuncular Brown, whose white hair, merry blue eyes and cheery disposition belie his feisty nature, initially joined the Socialist Party in 1948, when he first became eligible to vote. That year, he actively stumped for Norman Thomas, the respectable rebel who was then waging his sixth and final campaign for the presidency. Dubbed the “American Isaiah,” Thomas, a former Presbyterian minister who served as the nation’s public conscience for more than four decades, carried the Socialist Party’s tattered banner in six consecutive presidential campaigns between 1928 and 1948, garnering nearly a million votes during the Great Depression in 1932.

Brown’s record on the environment is virtually unmatched by any of his rivals. As a member of the Oregon Senate, the self-described “hardcore environmentalist” and lifelong member of the Sierra Club sponsored the first legislation in the United States outlawing dangerous chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol cans in 1975 – a full year before the National Academy of Sciences issued its ominous warning about the harmful effects of CFC’s on the ozone layer. Brown, who owns a 185-acre tree farm, characteristically, took little personal satisfaction in being so prescient, saying at the time that he felt much like a physician who was proven correct in giving a grim diagnosis to one of his favorite patients. “Politically, I’m glad I was right,” he said. “But I wish I was wrong.” Like consumer activist Ralph Nader, the amiable public interest lawyer also has a strong record on consumer protection and has served on the board of the Oregon Consumer League since 1971. Despite his advanced years, the tireless civic watchdog also continues to serve as a volunteer attorney for the Oregon Consumer Justice Alliance in Portland, giving generously of his time and resources.

Brown’s lifelong commitment to civil rights also sets him apart from most of his rivals this year. As a young teenager, he wrote letters-to-the-editor protesting FDR’s unconstitutional incarceration of Japanese-Americans during WWII when few others dared to speak out on that issue. He also took part in the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

Four years ago, the gutsy Oregon lawyer traveled to war-ravaged East Timor to rescue two female medical students who had been expelled from Indonesian medical schools in the wake of that nation’s UN-sponsored independence election in August 1999. With the help of Nobel Peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, the celebrated resistance leader and founder of that island-nation’s Social Democratic Party, Brown obtained U.S. visas for the two women and took them to a Yale Medical School teaching hospital. The two women, Telma de Oliverira and Aida Goncalves, later enrolled in the International University of the Health Sciences of Medicine, a school accredited by the government of St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean.

Like Norman Thomas, who became a social worker in a blighted Manhattan neighborhood shortly after graduating from Princeton University in 1905, Brown has spent almost a lifetime working to improve the living conditions of the less fortunate. Despite his busy schedule, he continues to volunteer in a Portland soup kitchen once a week when he’s not on the road.
The campaign has been a difficult one for the ex-Naval commander. Earlier this year, he barely survived an attempt by the party’s feminist faction to dump him from the ticket on the grounds that he is personally opposed to abortion. His candidacy was also dealt a blow when he failed to capture the ballot-qualified Peace & Freedom Party’s presidential nomination in vote-heavy California.

Though falling short of his goal of obtaining ballot status in fifteen states, the former three-term Oregon legislator will appear on the ballot in eight states next month, including the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and Wisconsin. He is listed on the ballot as a Socialist in only half those states. His candidacy, to borrow a phrase from one of country music’s legendary songwriters, is truly “a coat of many colors.” In Delaware and Michigan, for instance, Brown – largely through his own efforts – will appear on the ballot as the nominee of the Natural Law Party, a now nationally defunct party founded in 1992 by Harvard-educated physicist John Hagelin, the party’s nominee in the past three presidential elections.

Moreover, Brown and his vice-presidential running mate, Mary Alice Herbert, an aging one-time Republican housewife and perennial Liberty Union Party candidate from Vermont who had been radicalized during the war in Vietnam, will appear on the left-leaning United Citizens Party line in South Carolina, a multiracial party founded in 1969, and under the “Protecting Working Families” label in Louisiana. They also hope to qualify as official write-in candidates in more than a dozen other states, including North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and California – where Brown polled more than forty percent of the vote in the Peace & Freedom Party’s presidential primary on March 2.

Brown, who’s doubling as his tiny party’s candidate for Congress in Oregon’s third congressional district, estimates that he will spend less than $100,000 on his long-shot quest for the presidency, most of it coming out of his own pocket. He has taken out a second mortgage on his home to keep up with the campaign’s mounting bills, including $20,000 in legal fees when the Colorado Secretary of State tried unsuccessfully to keep him off the ballot. His largest contribution is a $2,000 check from the witty and lettered J. Quinn Brisben, a retired Chicago public schoolteacher and poet who ran for president on the Socialist ticket a dozen years ago. One of Brown’s three sons, a self-made multi-millionaire before he was thirty, has also helped underwrite his father’s campaign.

Brown likes to remind his audiences – usually a small mix of party members and curiosity seekers – that it was the Socialist Party that first advocated the abolition of child labor, the creation of a Social Security system and Medicare, a 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining and federal minimum wage laws. “Do not be afraid to vote your hopes and dreams instead of your fears,” he tells anyone willing to listen. He particularly relishes the opportunity to talk about the party’s current platform, which calls for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, a 50% cut in military spending, the disbanding of NATO and other “aggressive military alliances,” the abolition of the CIA and the National Security Agency and an end to U.S. arms sales around the world. In addition to abolishing the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorist measures, the Socialists also want to end all U.S. military subsidies to Israel and fervently support self-determination for the Palestinian people.

Staunchly opposed to NAFTA, the IMF, the World Trade Organization and other corporate-sponsored “free trade” agreements, the party’s platform also includes planks advocating a single-payer health care program; a graduated income tax; full employment and the creation of a “Superfund for Workers” that would not only pay full wages and health care benefits for the unemployed, but would also provide necessary training if that worker lost his or her job as a result of “environmental transition, downsizing, corporate dismantlement, or capital flight.” The Socialist agenda also favors a moratorium on new prison construction and calls for fairer ballot access laws and proportional representation at all levels of government.

While acknowledging that the Bush administration is one of the most nefarious and deceitful in U.S. history, the Socialist standard-bearer concedes that the country might be marginally better off under a Kerry administration, but insists that a Democratic victory would mean little in terms of ending the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the curtailment of civil liberties at home. Nor, he says, would a Kerry presidency stem the rising tide of corporate domination of American life, particularly its growing influence in government and politics.

Despite the long odds against him and other left-wing challengers to the two-party system, Walt Brown remains optimistic about the future of American politics. “Time is on the side of democracy,” he maintains. “Time is running out for stupidity.”

DARCY G. RICHARDSON is the author of a four-volume history on independent and third-party politics in the United States. The first volume, Others: Third-Party Politics From the Nation’s Founding to the Rise and Fall of the Greenback-Labor Party, was published this past spring. Richardson can be reached at: