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).

“When President Obama went into that bar in Chicago, I thought that was sort of disgusting,” says Hedges. The Fix also brings up Hillary Clinton’s alcohol-themed photo-ops and Obama’s famous “Beer Summit.” “It’s OK to show that they’re ordinary folks, which a politician needs to do,” he says. “But at the same time, I’d wish they’d chosen ... a different method.”

Those positions don’t seem too out-there. But the same can’t be said for the Prohibition Party’s 2012 standard-bearer. “Many of our candidates have been ministers, in the past, but they’ve been people who are in tune with current issues,” says Hedges. “[Fellure’s] church is Missionary Baptist, which is pretty hard-core. It doesn’t have much to say to younger people, and I think that’s a problem. We need to somehow connect with people in their 20s and 30s.”

“I don’t see us gaining any strength or numbers. I’m not naive and think we’re going to close down the alcohol industry.”

Fellure’s over-the-top homophobic rhetoric is a big roadblock to that. He tells The Fix, from his snow-buried—post-Hurricane Sandy—home in West Virginia, “Our country started off as a Christian nation [with] basic, fundamental Christian philosophy and principles, and we’re so far off that now, we’re not even close to that. And we’re self-destructing. Unless the government of our nation, our society, gets back to those basic fundamental principles, we’re going to continue to go down. We’ve defied the laws of God Almighty going and coming. We’re even now—if you would believe—ordaining queers into the ministries and the churches.”

Seriously? “Queers”? How does that relate to the Prohibition Party, or to curbing drunkenness?

“OK, it doesn’t,” concedes the candidate, unperturbed.

So why’s he running? Fellure says he’s heading up the Prohibition ticket because the party asked him to. He’s under no illusions about his chances, or future political success for his right-wing cohort. “I don’t see [us] gaining any strength or numbers,” he says. “I’m not naive and think we’re going to close down the alcohol industry.”

But what if he did somehow win? What then?

“Oh, Lord. Alright, first of all, I’d make homosexuality illegal,” says Fellure, continuing to harp on what is evidently his most cherished policy position, demon liquor be damned. (Multi-issue voters, take note! Fellure also is for fiscal responsibility and common-sense gun control. Good to know.)

Of course, like any savvy politician, Fellure remembers to pay lip service to his base: “If I had my way, I’d wipe [everything alcohol-related] out tomorrow, starting with the dismantling of the alcohol industry itself, followed by any individual making or drinking the stuff.”

Unfortunately for the candidate, the Prohibition Party’s limited political machine is such that Fellure had little time or money to get out the message until just last month, when he began campaigning in Louisiana. So what kind of crowds has he been seeing, and what kind of people seem interested in his message?

At least he’s honest: “I don’t have the slightest idea,” he says.

Jeff Winkler has written for VICE magazine, The Awl and The Billfold, among others. He also wrote Drying Out With Jesus and Tales of a Breathalyzer Tech for The Fix.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
jeff winkler.jpg

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.