The Prohibition Party's Low Bottom

By Jeff Winkler 11/05/12

Concerned about intoxicant issues, and heading to the polls today? You’re out of luck. The presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party is a gay-baiting preacher who doesn’t put a great face on the latter-day temperance movement.

Third parties get no respect in America. Maybe you’ve heard of Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, or the Green Party’s Jill Stein. But surely the darkest-horse nominee on the ballot today (even if it’s only in Louisiana, and 14 other states as a write-in option) has got to be crackpot bigot Jack Fellure, who’s running atop the Prohibition Party ticket, alongside VP nominee Toby Davis.

“[The Prohibition Party is] active but nobody that’s about to win a significant political election is going to touch [us] with a ten-foot pole,” Fellure tells The Fix. “They’re going to jump [in bed with] the liquor industry.”

Sympathy for 21st-century liquor barons isn’t the only reason that the Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, is a sideshow shadow of its former self. Though it holds the distinction of being the country’s oldest continuously operating third party, today it claims only about a dozen members.

The nominating convention for this year's Prohibition Party candidate was held in the conference room of a Holiday Inn Express in Cullman, Alabama.

And yet, they’ve still managed to field a presidential ticket in every election for the past 140 years, according to historian Darcy Richardson, author of a book on the teetotaling party. Their longevity is “kind of amazing, in and of itself,” he tells The Fix.

The Prohibition Party ran its first candidate in 1872, on-the-wagon James Black, who garnered 5,000 votes—about 1% of the electorate—losing to famous drunkard (and, sure, Civil War hero) Ulysses S. Grant. The party’s high-water mark came in 1916, when its nominee, former Indiana Governor James Franklin Hanly, acted as a spoiler for the Republican candidate in California, helping hand the election to Woodrow Wilson. 

Since then, well—it’s been a rough ride. The repeal in 1933 of the 18th Amendment—Prohibition, which the party was relatively bullish on—had to sting. In the 1980s, the hard-luck club even split into two factions, due to a dispute over the trust fund that had been keeping them afloat financially. Yet, zombie-like, they refuse to lie down and die.

“Everyone has been predicting their demise, every cycle, for the last 20 years,” says Richardson. “But they always surprise everyone and manage to nominate a ticket.” 

This year’s nominee is the aforementioned Fellure, who edged out Secretary Jim Hedges at the party’s quadrennial convention in June 2011, held in the conference room of a Holiday Inn Express in Cullman, Alabama. (There were nine voting delegates in attendance.)

The Fix spoke by phone to the 74-year-old Hedges, a lifetime non-drinker whose association with the party began when he was in high school, and who comes across as reasonable, logical and level-headed. He doesn’t even hint at returning to all-out prohibition, but simply advocates for more awareness of the ills caused by booze.

“When you remove the social pressure against drinking, then there’s going to be more drinking,” he says, common-sensically. “If we restored the social pressure against drinking, I think it would go toward minimizing the alcohol problems in the community.” Not helping that cause, says Hedges, are those other presidential candidates who try to look “normal” to Joe Sixpack, like the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with (Mitt Romney’s faith-based abstinence notwithstanding).

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Jeff Winkler is a Nashville-based writer, video anchor, and documentary producer. He is the winner of the Carter Journalism Institute's Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award and you can find him on Twitter.