I met Barry Commoner only once, in 1980 when he was running for President on the Citizens Party ticket. At the time he was seeking the Peace & Freedom Party’s nomination for President in California and he wound up debating Angela Davis (Soul Sister #1, then running for Vice President with Gus Hall on the Communist Party ticket), David McReynolds (the first openly Gay candidate for President, head of the War Resisters League, running on the Socialist Party ticket), Deirdre Griswold (Workers World Party candidate), and Tom Condit who was advocating that PFP nominate Ben Spock, who’d run for President on the PFP/Peoples Party ticket in 1972 and Vice President in 1976. It was an incredible exchange of ideas in the “Alphabet Group Soup” of the left, e.g., PFP, CP (Citizens Party), CP (Communist Party), SP, WWP…….
Along with Casey Peters I was convention co-floor leader for David McReynolds. Dave is one of the really dynamic, committed and courageous people on the left, having been arrested everywhere from Washington to Moscow during the Cold War campaigning for peace. Dave gave one of the best — and I really mean BEST — speeches I’ve ever heard in my life, and the speeches I’ve heard from true orators that I consider the BEST I can count on the fingers of one hand.
Earlier in the 70s, I’d worked with Dave and the War Resisters League (although I was not a member) helping Mandy Carter, who had been dispatched to Los Angeles as a field organizer to get together logistics for a coast to coast march against war led by Buddhist monks. I was very impressed with Dave and his leadership of pacifist resistance to war (even though I’m not a pacifist).
Angela Davis was not yet out of the closet (she didn’t out herself until 1997) inasmuch as in those days, the Communist Party was still defending the Soviet Union’s persecution of LGBTI people and there was still considerable personal homophobia within the party. It was of some left-historical note that in this debate between the first openly Gay candidate for President, Dave McReynolds, that he wound up debating a closeted Lesbian. Eventually of course not only would Angela come out, she broke with the Communist Party and wound up with the Committees of Correspondence (COC), a group that essentially represents what used to be the “Euro-communist” philosophy that promoted democratic means of taking power and a commitment to democratization of society rather than implementation of Soviet style authoritarian rule. I saw her some years ago in San Francisco at a COC conference which entailed fascinating discussions of the profound challenges facing leftists in America and throughout the world.
As an aside, one of the semi-humorous aspects of Angela’s sexual orientation is that for years, both the right and the left made points about her supposed relationship with George Jackson. Jackson was a Black Panther, reputedly one of the founders of the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), and one of the “Soledad Brothers” who was killed August 21, 1971 (while I was just shy of 16 and attending my first PFP State Convention) during a San Quentin escape attempt. The right tried to portray Angela as being involved with Jackson as a purported motive for her to have assisted the escape attempt (she was acquitted at trial). The left would say weird stuff like ‘they killed her man.’ For those of us who knew of her orientation before she came out, it was all completely ridiculous.
Deirdre Griswold of the Workers World Party was, for a purported Trotskyist, more Stalinist than the Communist Party. While the WWP was ostensibly Trotskyist in orientation, it has supported everything from the 1956 Russian suppression of Hungary to the repression of what it called the “counter-revolutionary rebellion” in Tiananmen Square in the Peoples Republic of China. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, they did criticize the Soviet Union….for not putting enough troops into the country.
During the Cold War the various communist regimes around the world maintained franchises throughout the world, effectively as lobbying groups for their national interests. The Soviet Union would always have an official Communist Party, a People to People “Friendship Association,” and it would always maintain an unofficial pro-Soviet party just in case the official party got taken over by “Euro-Communists.” In that eventuality, the unofficial party would take over the role of supporting its interests in whatever country it was needed. In the case of the United States, my take is that the WWP fulfilled this role for the USSR.
Ben Spock really did not want to run again. He hadn’t wanted to run in 1976 either (he told me so while I was in New York prior to the PFP/Peoples Party convention in St. Louis in 1975; but Ben was a real trooper. He would never say that publicly. He understood his role as a media star was important to the party and would not exploit his fame to try to influence the rank and file or the leadership decisions. If the party wanted him to run, he’d do his duty. Ben had his faults, but like a few others I’ve known, he was the closest thing to a hero I’ve ever met in politics).
In spite of his extreme reluctance, Tom Condit nominated Ben Spock at the 1980 convention, but in spite of a lot of expectations and strategies, it was just not in the cards for him to run that year and I’m sure Ben thanked his lucky stars.
Strategies and Tactics
So there you have it: The choices for the PFP in 1980 were Barry Commoner, Gus Hall-Angela Davis, Deirdre Griswold, Ben Spock, and David McReynolds all vying for the nomination. The thinking we went into in the McReynolds camp was that Dave would probably be eliminated on the first ballot and that Commoner would wow the convention with his celebrity and we’d fall in line behind him. If anything went wrong, our Plan B was to go for Ben Spock, as the other candidates were just hopelessly and patently unacceptable to us. The convention rule was that the candidate with the least votes was eliminated on the next ballot until somebody received a majority vote of the delegates.
Well, as they say, “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
First, Barry Commoner goes into the convention having skipped running in the primary election and gives a completely false version of why he skipped, citing a non-existent ruling by the California Secretary of State’s office. Then he left the convention after speaking, thinking he had the nomination in the bag. The problem was, after he left, Lew McCammon, who wasn’t committed to any candidate at that point that I recall, explained the truth of what had been going on with the Secretary State to the convention and there was documentary evidence to prove Commoner’s prevarication.
Commoner was eliminated on the first ballot.
The other major factor was that David McReynolds gave this absolutely astounding speech. As I’ve pointed out, it was one of the best I’ve every heard in my life. All of a sudden his candidacy drew a new breath of life. Lots of uncommitted delegates were all of a sudden gravitating to McReynolds.
Ben Spock was eliminated on the second ballot. The Commoner and Spock delegates started lining up for McReynolds.
The third ballot was critical. The Communist Party had also come into the convention with a lot of strength as had the WWP. If we got eliminated, we had no place to go but there was no telling where the independents supporting McReynolds would go for what would be a fourth and final ballot. Blowing our minds, McReynolds came in second to the Gus Hall/Angela Davis ticket on the third ballot, eliminating the WWP.
The Compromise and a New Precedent
Nobody had ever expected this outcome. The SP vs the CP on the final ballot. Historically divided political tendencies, sometimes aligned in Europe but in America almost invariably at each others’ throats. We worked out a compromise. Since the CP had come in first, with a plurality, on the third ballot, they got to choose one of their supporters within PFP for President. The McReynolds camp as number two got to chose one of our supporters for Vice President. So we wound up with the first all female ticket on the California ballot, Maureen Smith for President and Elizabeth Cervantes Barron for Vice President.
Maureen O’Flaherty Smith was one of the founders of the Peace & Freedom Party and has been, to this day, a stalwart of activism in the peace, civil rights, and environmental movements. She still active to this day, along with her husband Mike.
Elizabeth Cervantes Barron was my running mate in 1978 when she ran for State Controller and I for Lieutenant Governor, and again in 1994 when she ran for U.S. Senate and I for State Treasurer. In 1978 she set the all time high PFP vote in the runoff (I hold the record for the highest primary election vote ever for PFP) garnering an amazing 5% of the vote.