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Libertarians Let Contractors Plan Nominating Bash

Sisters Michele Poague, left, and Bette Rose Ryan build a "soapbox" for those who want to exercise their free-speech rights at the Libertarian Party National Convention in Denver next month.
Jeff Brady, NPR /
Sisters Michele Poague, left, and Bette Rose Ryan build a "soapbox" for those who want to exercise their free-speech rights at the Libertarian Party National Convention in Denver next month.

When it comes to funding their presidential nominating conventions — as with many things — Libertarians carve their own path.

Unlike Republicans and Democrats, who use host committees to raise most of the money for their conventions, Libertarians outsource their entire affair to a private company. Both methods successfully skirt the soft-money bans to parties contained in the 2002 McCain-Feingold act, which revamped campaign finance laws.

Once the Libertarian Party chooses a contractor, it has no control over its own convention — the order of events, the decorations, the speakers. All those decisions are left to the contractor.

"We show up ... conduct our business, choose our presidential candidates or officers, change our platform and bylaws, and go home and call it a day," says Shane Cory, executive director of the Libertarian National Committee.

The contractor takes care of all the finances. Money collected from delegates and from sponsors isn't subject to soft-money limits ($28,500 per donor) and bans (on any money from corporations and unions).

The Libertarians will hold their convention May 22-26 at the Sheraton in downtown Denver. This year's contractor is Denver LP Con 2008, owned by two sisters, Michele Poague and Bette Rose Ryan.

A month before their convention, the two were in Poague's suburban Denver garage wielding 2-by-4s, a circular saw and a cordless drill. With help from a few volunteers, they built a box about 18 inches high and just large enough — when turned bottom-side up — to hold two adults standing close together.

"In traditional politics, people used to stand in the court centers and get up on a soapbox and talk," Poague says. "And so we're going to build a soapbox that will sit in the middle of the exhibit hall."

Poague and Ryan are longtime Libertarians, and they're not above taking a few jabs at those organizing the Republican and Democratic gatherings.

"I'm going to put on a convention for 1,000 people that's probably going to cost less than $200,000 — including security," Ryan says.

After she's told that the major parties will spend something north of $120 million for their conventions, Ryan's eyes widen: "I could put on ahhhh ... one big convention for $1 million."

One irony of the major party conventions: As their price tags have risen — more than ten-fold since 1980 — they have drifted from their original purpose. They're now little more than a multi-day advertising campaign for the party's candidate.

That's not the case at the Libertarian bash. "We have a big field of individuals seeking our nomination this year — about 14 candidates so far," Cory says.

Of the Republicans and Democrats, he says, "There's going to be a lot of glitter and balloons thrown around, but there's not going to be much of a debate as far as who the nominee is going to be." That's assuming the battle between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is resolved before the Democrats meet in Denver in August.

Libertarians clearly take a lot of pleasure in teasing their major-party cousins about their conventions. But some of that may be jealousy. Cory says he'd like to imitate the host-committee models for raising money.

"I would like to go ahead, form the convention committee," Cory says. "And then the host committees can form on their own. ... And then we could really start taking advantage of these same benefits, where individuals can give unlimited amounts to these host committees."

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Jeff Brady
Jeff Brady is the Climate and Energy Correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He reports on the intersection of climate change and politics to reveal whether and how the U.S. is meeting its obligations to address the breakdown of the climate. And his reporting examines who's reshaping the energy system and who are the winners and losers. A key element of Brady's reporting is holding accountable those who block or stall efforts to address climate change in an effort to preserve their business.