Jim Hedges, 78, first took a fancy to the Prohibition Party while he was still in high school.
“It just seemed like a good idea, idealistic people talking about social reforms,” the proud Pennsylvanian recollected, “and that’s been my attitude pretty much my whole life.”
The bulk of Hedges’ pre-political career was spent in the military, which he retired from in 1980. Over the course of 20 years, he estimates that he played “probably 2,000” funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and several hundred more at Capitol building events as a tuba player for the United States Marines Band in Washington, D.C.
In 2001, Hedges became the first Prohibition Party politician to hold any form of government office in more than 40 years when he was elected the tax assessor for Thompson Township, a small community of roughly a thousand residents to the south of McConnellsburg, Penn. His 2005 re-election bid was also successful – he held onto the post until the office was disestablished by Pennsylvania legislators two years later.
Having joined the Prohibition Party as a dues-paying member in the early ‘80s, Hedges slowly climbed his way up the organizational hierarchy. By 2003 he had risen to the rank of executive secretary, and by 2012, he was ready to make a run for the party’s presidential ticket. Alas, he lost out on the official nod, as the Prohibition Party National Convention instead nominated Jack Fellure, a perennial Republican also-ran who had campaigned for the presidency every year since 1988.
After Fellure jumped ship back to the G.O.P., it seemed like Prohibition Party Chairman Greg Seltzer was a lock for the 2016 ticket, with Hedges the front-runner for the veep slot. When Seltzer resigned from the party upon being appointed to Maryland’s elections board in 2015, however, Hedges soon found himself bumped up to the top of the ticket. He was formally named the Prohibition Party’s presidential nominee following a conference call that July.
“The fellow who ran in 2012 was an evangelist from a very conservative denomination, so the 2012 platform is pretty far right wing,” Hedges said. “I’ve tried to add some progressive planks.”
Indeed, the 2016 Prohibition Party platform is much more Bernie Sanders than it is Donald Trump. Among other policies, Hedges advocates increasing efforts to combat climate change, free college education and even a single-payer health care system.
And then, there’s Hedges’ stance on the so-called “War on Drugs,” which most certainly doesn’t sound like your typical social conservative chatter.
“I think it’s counterproductive to pursue and punish users, that’s one of the reasons our prisons are overflowing, meanwhile consumption has kept on rising,” he said. “We need to put a lot more emphasis on the manufacture and distribution, the supply of other drugs, and less attention on somebody who’s stopped on the street and has a joint in his pockets. Who cares?”
The Life of the Party
Long before the Libertarian Party, the Green Party and the Constitution Party, there was the Prohibition Party. Founded in 1869, it remains the longest-running third party in United States history.
From 1888 until 1916, Prohibition Party presidential nominees routinely received in excess of 200,000 general election votes. Ironically, the party experienced a steep decline once national prohibition became the law of the land in 1917. Just eight years after J. Frank Hanly received 221,000 votes, 1924 presidential nominee Herman P. Faris was marked on only 54,000 ballots.
The party experienced a slight uptick once prohibition was repealed in 1933, but membership has been in freefall since the end of World War II. The party hit its absolute nadir in 2012, recording just 518 votes nationwide.
“The thing that’s kept it going this long is Protestant, religious conservatives whose churches have doctrinal positions against alcohol – that’s really been the core of the party,” Hedges said.
While Hedges acknowledges that the Prohibition Party has drawn its fair share of hardline, socially conservative “wing nuts” over the years, he also said the party has championed many progressive social reforms, including women’s suffrage and the direct election of senators. The contemporary platform, he added, takes a much more centrist approach than the aggressive teetotallers of the early 20th century – and most certainly, the hellfire and brimstone rhetoric of former candidates like Fellure.
Of course, Hedges does want national prohibition to come back – eventually. However, he’s also quick to admit that the masses probably aren’t going to endorse the outlawing of alcohol anytime soon. With enough “public education” on the ills of alcohol consumption, though, Hedges believes Americans may be receptive to changing their tune on temperance.
“We changed it 100 years ago,” he said, “and we can change it again.”
The Path to Prohibition?
The first step to winning the hearts and minds of the electorate, Hedges said, is highlighting the hefty societal costs of drinking, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tabbed at $223.5 billion in 2006 alone.
“People see the tax revenue of alcohol, but they don’t see as easily the financial downsides, the expenses, because they’re scattered widely,” Hedges said. Among the “hidden” costs of alcohol consumption, he said, are traffic accidents, an increase in taxpayer-subsidized medical services and additional expenditures on public services like policing and ambulances.
But the bigger impact, he said, concerns family well-being. “If the family breadwinner is a drunk and gets sick and gets into an accident because of alcohol,” Hedges said, “the family is going to depend on welfare of one sort or the other.”
He said he is well aware the pushback on Capitol Hill would be rough.
“There are always going to be people who make money off alcohol who are going to oppose restrictions and there are going to be people who represent the communities where alcohol is more widely accepted – German-American communities, Italian-American communities,” he said. “The legislators from the mid-continent, the red states, would be less likely to oppose us than the legislatures in states like New York, and Florida or Wisconsin.”
For the time being, Hedges said the party’s best shot is with local jurisdiction level reform – i.e., “dry elections” in which communities vote on whether or not to allow alcohol sales within their city and county limits.
As to how Hedges’ self-professed anti-alcohol propaganda would be distributed, “teaching by example” is his preferred method.
“Like social clubs not serving alcohol at meetings, for example,” he said before pausing for a few seconds. “It’s hard for me to think of these things, because I don’t go to places where alcohol is served, ordinarily.”
Crime and Punishment
While he vouches for a “zero tolerance” policy against alcohol production and distribution, Hedges said he’s not personally in favor of throwing the book at those charged with drinking-related offenses.
“If they are drunk and disorderly, obviously, they have to be restrained,” he said. “I am not a rehabilitation person myself, I’m a prevention person. If they want to go to rehab, the government should provide rehab. If they don’t want to go and get into trouble anyway, then lock them up.”
Naturally, Hedges’ stance on illegal substances follows the same thought process. Instead of putting users behind bars, he said he’d focus resources on interdicting the drug supply and destroying production facilities.
That said, Hedges doesn’t necessarily have a problem with individuals hypothetically harvesting and partaking of their own “goods” as long as it remains strictly recreational.
“A lot of other people in the party would disagree with me on this, but I would treat [marijuana] the same way we treat alcohol,” he said. “You’re allowed to grow your own for your own use, but if you provide it to other people – either by gift or by sale – and those other people get intoxicated on the stuff, then you are responsible for their misbehavior.”
What people do in their private residences, Hedges said, is nobody else’s business. But as soon as the stuff that goes on behind closed doors enters the public sphere, he said that’s time for the hammer to come down and penalties to be meted.
The fairly libertarian approach to individual drug use, Hedges said, isn’t a newfangled plank to the party platform. Rather, he said it has always been a central component of Prohibition Party principles.
The Other Campaign Issues
While reversing federal alcohol sales and manufacturing laws remains the Prohibition Party’s signature issue, Hedges is keenly aware of the importance of addressing other matters, such as national defense and economics.
On foreign trade, Hedges said he is all for it just as long trade occurs among “equal nations.” He’s OK with trade agreements with Canada, Japan and the Western Europe nations, but he doesn’t want to get involved in “a race to the bottom” with India and Pakistan. “Americans should not work for 10 cents an hour like they do in China,” he said. Hedges also supports raising trade tariffs and taxing international goods until they achieve an equilibrium with domestic product prices.
Hedges considers the Affordable Care Act a “step in the right direction” and is adamantly opposed to the private health insurance system.
“Because I’m military, I’m used to walking into a clinic, telling them what I need to get, they give it to me and then I go out the door, no paperwork, no hassle,” he said. “It may be too much to expect that for all American civilians, but that’s what I’m used to and I would like to see a national health service on the British model.”
And he’s willing to raise taxes – perhaps substantially – to make it happen. “For some people, it would cost more,” Hedges said, “but for a lot of people, it would cost less.”
Although Hedges said he doesn’t want to monkey around with Medicare and Medicaid, he does want to see some changes to Social Security. For starters, he wants to raise the retirement age to 70 and do away with early retirement payments. Furthermore, he would like to make Supplemental Security Income and Supplemental Security Disability Insurance entirely separate welfare programs, a move he said would clear up many “bookkeeping problems.”
While it’s not the official party line, Hedges – who describes himself as a “fortress American isolationist” – said he wants to take an emphasis off empire-building and playing the role of “the world’s bully” when it comes to international affairs. “Other counties should solve their own problems in their own way in the own plans while America defends its own territory,” he said.
And Hedges’ approach to immigration reform? As long as you follow the rules and go through the proper channels to get in, Hedges believes everyone is welcome to migrate to America. “I don’t think it’s practical to round up 11 million Mexicans and send them back,” he said. “I think it’s a silly idea and invariably ends up penalizing a lot of our Latino citizens in the same way that the freed blacks up in the north before the Civil War were difficult to distinguish between escaped slaves from the south … I think anybody who has proper documents ought to be allowed to stay.”
As a counterweight to Hedges’ fairly liberal policy stances, his veep selection – Mississippian Bill Bayes – displays more of a “traditional” Prohibition Party mentality. “He is more focused on the social conservative issues and in that respect, balances the ticket,” Hedges said. “Our priorities are different and that is good because it gives us a broader balance.”
The Battle for the Ballot
While Hillary’s emails and Donald’s dubious soundbites have been the big controversies of the 2016 campaign cycle, the Prohibition Party’s biggest problem has been the United States Postal Service. While approved for ballots in Arkansas, Colorado and Mississippi, the party’s attempts to make it on the docket elsewhere have been bumpy, to say the least.
“We filed in four others, but there were various problems,” Hedges recounts. “The most absurd one was Iowa, where our package of petitions was intercepted by somebody at the post office somewhere who stamped it as an insufficient address and returned it. By the time we got it back, the deadline for filing had passed.”
Hedges suspects foul play. “The address was the very address listed on the Iowa Secretary of State’s website,” he said. “There was nothing wrong with the address … some klutz at the post office did this to us.”
Efforts to make it on the ballot elsewhere have been just as stressful.
“In Tennessee we filed and on the morning of the last day, two of our electors were persuaded to change parties and then we didn’t have enough electors,” Hedges said. “In New Jersey, we were messed up by the contractors who got their signatures. It turned out that some of the people they talked to gave him false names and addresses and nobody verified them.”
Hedges acknowledges that it’s very unlikely that he’s going to sweep the electoral college. After all, he said the current national party has just 30 members, with maybe 200 sympathizers coast-to-coast.
But that doesn’t mean he is without any expectations for Nov. 8.
“As much discontent as there is with the major party candidates, I think all third parties are going to do well, relatively,” he said. “If I get a thousand votes in each of those three states, that would be our best showing in probably 12 years or 16 years. Even though it’s a lot less than I had hoped to get when we started out, it’s still an improvement over our recent past and I would be happy with that.”
I’d (Not?) Drink to That
Concerning this year’s Democratic and Republican presidential nominees, Hedges certainly prefers Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Indeed, when asked what he thought the biggest issue of the 2016 election overall is, Hedges succinctly responded “Donald Trump’s sanity.”
While he questions The Donald’s knowledge of foreign affairs and domestic social issues, Hedges deems Clinton a solid candidate – or, at the very least, the lesser of two evils. “I think Hillary would make a good president,” he said, “it’s just that she would be doing things that I don’t want to have done.”
The fairly unsavory attributes of both presidential candidates, Hedges said, is reason enough for on-the-fence voters to consider switching over to the Prohibition Party.
“If they know anything at all about the history of the party and its candidates, I think they would be attracted by our history for advocating for progressive reforms,” he said, “and by the fact that none of our presidential candidates have ever been plagued by the ethical and personality problems that we see this year.”
His party, Hedges said, is the only one that truly places an emphasis on the “welfare” of families and communities. “If you like the place you live in, if you love your family and you want to stay among your friends and still have a good job and a safe – and, of course, sober – community,” he quipped, “vote Prohibition.”
And if that isn’t enough to get you to opt for Hedges over Trump or Clinton, he offers a concise – and virtually indisputable – advantage he has over both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.
“I don’t have as much baggage as they do.”