When I Was a Socialist Candidate for the U.S. Senate: Ten Years Ago

Ten years ago, when I lived in Cincinnati, I was the Socialist Party’s candidate in Ohio for the U.S. Senate. No, I didn’t win. I didn’t even get many votes, just 25,000. But who thought then that there were so many socialists in Ohio? At the time I believed running a propaganda campaign as a socialist was a worthwhile project. I still do — even though, because of the extraordinary conditions in our country, this year I’m voting for Biden.

How did it come about that I ran as a socialist for the Senate? The Socialist Party and other “minor parties,” as they were called, had just won a lawsuit that argued that they had been unfairly excluded from the ballot. So the court lowered the bar and only a few hundred petition signatures were needed to qualify.

Members of the Socialist Party and some friends from the Green Party who had known me as an activist against racism, a supporter of immigrant rights, and an advocate for workers approached me and suggested I run for office.

The Debate over Socialism

I was interested in running because for the first time in my life — I was then 64 years old — we were in the midst of a public discussion of socialism. Throughout the entire post-war period, that is, since I was born, talk of socialism was taboo. But now it was on the agenda, and this is before Bernie Sanders. How did that happen?

In 2009 Barack Obama had proposed the Affordable Care Act, which first his critics and then everyone called “Obamacare.” When Senators and Representatives went home to hold town hall meetings hundreds or even thousands showed up for the legislators’ report-backs, which were usually dull, perfunctory affairs. Rightwing militants of what became the Tea Party movement showed up at the town halls waving signs and shouting our their opposition to what they called Obamacare “socialist.”

Suddenly the half-century taboo had been broken. We could talk about socialism again. So, as a longtime socialist, when my friends asked me to run for office, I was interested. No, I was excited.

At that time the Ohio Green Party was reluctant to run an open socialist for office. So, having read the Socialist Party program and finding it at that time to be an excellent statement of democratic socialist principles, I took the offer to run for the U.S. Senate as the SP’s candidate, now made possible by that court case I mentioned.

I would be running against Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Lee Fisher. From the beginning it was clear that Portman far ahead in he polls and Fisher didn’t stand a chance. Though that did not stop Democrats from attacking me as a spoiler.

On the Campaign Trail

When I decided to run, I was then (as I am now) a member of Solidarity, another socialist organization, so I sought and got its approval. Then I went to New York to meet with the leaders of the Socialist Party. They gave me their blessing but not much more and sent me back to Ohio to try to find the thirty or so SP members in the state.

I was not too discouraged by this, knowing that all of the groups on the left were then small, and I was less interested in the number of members than in the opportunity to talk reach thousands and talk about socialism. I eventually found a few of those party members and we began to recruit and reorganize the party.

I was then working as a schoolteacher, teaching Spanish at the local Waldorf School, so my campaigning would have to be done after work and on weekends. I could see that I would need some help, so I hired a young Solidarity member from Tennessee, Mike Cannon, to work as my assistant or a few months, offering him free room and board and a very modest salary. We eventually raised enough money, $10,000, to be able to pay him.

Through my experience as a labor, immigrant rights, and anti-racist activist, I had contacts in several cities, so we began to travel the state to set up local “La Botz for Senate” committees. We succeeded in establishing a few in Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, and Cleveland. Socialists from Detroit also drove over the state line to campaign for me in Toledo.

Jerry Tucker, the United Auto Worker leader who lived in St. Louis, Missouri, helped edit some of my campaign materials. And he sent me a little pocket-size Flip Video camera that proved invaluable. My son Traven helped me to use that camera to develop short videos introducing myself to the people of Ohio and others in which I made impassioned appeals to build a movement to fight to jobs during the economic crisis that had begun two years before. In yet others, including one made shortly after the election, I tried to provide a vision of socialism. Of course I also wrote essays or did interviews for the left press in which I laid out my views and explained my conception of socialism. We produced leaflets on the issues and we even had yard signs. We were a real campaign.

As an official candidate on the ballot, I was invited to speak before many more organizations than I could ever possibly get to, especially since many events were held during the workday. But still I spoke before many groups in various cities across Ohio. I sometimes got off work in Cincinnati at 3:00 p.m. and drove to Cleveland, getting there just in time or a 7:00 p.m. meeting. The virtue of being a Senate candidate was that I always spoke first and could leave to drive back home, arriving at midnight.

I spoke to the NAACP in Chillicothe, to faculty and students at Capital University in Columbus, to the American Association of University Women in Zanesville. I spoke to a convention of Ohio educators where I gave a more comprehensive analysis of our society’s problems. I also spoke as I was participating in protests on issues such as Israel’s attack on a peace flotilla, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the demands for LGBT rights. As an official candidate on the ballot Ohio newspapers printed my campaign platform and did video interviews with me; through those I reached thousands of people.

My campaign treasurer was Reginald Dyck, a literature professor and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He also helped to edit the book I wrote for the campaign, Vision from the Heartland: Socialism for the Twentieth Century, in which I laid out in a couple of hundred pages my view of the state of the country and especially Ohio. Some of that I wrote as Mike drove me through Ohio. I posted it on my website where people could download and read it for free.

When I was excluded from the television debates organized by the Ohio media and the Republican and Democratic parties, with the help of my attorney Mark Brown, I filed suit with the Federal Election Commission arguing that their television debate constituted an illegal campaign contribution to the other candidates. I demanded that I be allowed to participate. The lawsuit was covered in newspapers throughout Ohio and brought more publicity to the campaign.

I often talked in my campaign speeches about revolution, defining it as putting the people at the bottom of society in power at the top. I used as my example my own mother’s situation as a single mother of two, a grocery checker, raising two small children, though I never said I was talking about my mom. I argued that when working class and poor women like her had a voice in politics and their needs were met, rather than those of bankers and corporate executives, we would have carried out a revolution.

I had support from a diverse group of Ohioans, activists who helped my throughout my campaign with their time, money, and votes. And I won the support not only of the Socialist Party but also of several other socialist groups, creating a kind of united front of the democratic and revolutionary left: Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative and some chapters and individuals in the Democratic Socialist of America. I also had the support of my comrades and fellow editors of New Politics.

The Upshot of my Campaign

So for a few months, traveling 20,000 miles through Ohio in my car, I was able to talk about socialism. As predicted, Republican Rob Portman won the U.S. Senate seat, Lee Fisher finished far back in second place, I was one of several minor candidates on the ballot and got 25,000 votes. (I wrote a more detailed report on the campaign shortly afterwards.)

But there was also a longer-term impact. Socialist Alternative asked me to share my experience and my materials with their organization, and a few years later, in 2014, their candidate Kshama Sawant won election to the Seattle city council candidate.

And then, of course, Bernie Sanders announced in 2015 that he was running for president of the United States as an open socialist, sparking the massive growth of the Democratic Socialists of America.I’m not claiming I had any influence on Sanders. I didn’t. But my campaign in Ohio was part of what became a current of opinion, a trend: the rising interest in socialism in America. I am proud that in a small way I was able to contribute.

I would prefer this year to be voting for Bernie Sanders whose presidency would have opened up opportunities for the workers, social movements, and the left, though not without an enormous fight. In other years I have voted for the Green Party. But this year, given the threat that Trump’s authoritarian, racist, sexist, anti-worker and anti-immigrant government might continue, I am voting for Joe Biden.

My ideas since I ran for the Senate have not changed. I do not invest any hope in him or in the Democratic Party, but I feel we must stop Trump so that we can continue to work for all of the things I fought for in my 2010 socialist campaign for the Senate. We need no matter who wins to continue to build the movements and out of them to construct an independent, working class, socialist party.

Dan La Botz is a writer. His most recent book is Trotsky in Tijuana at trotskyintijuana.com