The Citizens Party was formed on May 15, 1979 in Washington DC by Barry Commoner, who wanted to gather under one umbrella political organization all the enivronmentalist and liberal groups which were unsatisfied with President Carter’s moderate administration (Kruschke 45). The Citizens Party registered with the Federal Elections Commission at the end of 1979 (Havel 2:291).
Barry Commoner, a “professor of environmental science at Washington University in St. Louis,”(Kruschke 45) was the head of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems in St. Louis (Schap 96) and editor of Science Illustrated magazine (Kruschke, p. 45).
The first Citizens Party National Convention met in Cleveland in the Cleveland Plaza Hotel on 4/10–13/1980. There were 260 delegates from 30 states present. (Havel 2:291) The “proposals presented at the convention reportedly numbered some 300 items, a list largely irreducible to a manageable platform. . . Units of the party organization on the state level thus became more or less responsible for delineating their own briefer versions of the list of goals” (Kruschke, p. 46). The Party nominated Barry Commoner for President and La Donna Harris (who was the wife of U.S. Senator Fred Harris OK) for Vice President. (Hauss 147) La Donna Harris was “a leading feminist and a Comanche Indian [who] labeled herself as ‘a woman of color.’” (Kruschke, p. 46)
The Citizens Party in 1980 advocated several liberal programs. Among them were: • Creating a new party which was not tied to the capitalist economic system. (Kruschke, p. 45) • Environmental protection (Hauss 147) • Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (Hauss 147) • An increase in social spending (Hauss 147) • Reducing defense spending at least 30% (Schap 96) •Creating a nationalized health insurance (Schap 96) • Providing for government grants to discover energy sources in order to eliminate nuclear power (Schap 96) • Fostering “economic democracy” through nationalizing oil companies and railroads, granting employees greater management responsibilities in corporations, and providing for full employment. (Hauss 147, Schap 96)
Among the other leaders of the Citizens Party were William Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists (Schap 96), “Maggie Kuhn of the Gray Panthers; Archibald Gillies, former chairman of the John Hay Whitney Foundation; Harriet Barlow, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance; Adam Hochschild, publisher of Mother Jones magazine; and Don Rose, the former manager of Jane Byrne’s mayoral campaign in Chicago.” (Kruschke, p. 45)
In order to increase public awareness of its existence, the Citizens Party ran a commercial on 600 radio stations in which the party used profanity. Several of the radio stations tried to remove the profanity, but the Federal Communications Commission forbad them to do so. (Schap 96)
As the party's candidate for President in 1980, Commoner achieved ballot status in 29 states (22 and DC under the Citizens Party label, six as an Independent, and in PA with the Consumer Party), although his major activity was centered in CA, IL, MI, NY, and PA.
In addition to the national ticket, there were 22 other Citizens candidates on the ballot in various states (Kruschke, p. 45) including three for the U.S. Senate and eleven for the U.S. House. Commoner received 221,083 votes. Although Commoner did not garner more than one percent in any state, the party received enough support to be the first minor party to qualify for federal matching funds (about $157,000) for the 1984 election. (Hauss 147)
In 1982, the Citizens Party offered two candidates for Governor (PA and TX), three candidates for the Senate (PA, TX, and VT), and 15 candidates for the U.S. House.
In 1984, the Citizens Party held it second national convention at Hamline University in St. Paul MN on 8/10–12/1984 (Havel 2:318–320). There were 125 delegates from 30 states present (Havel 2:318–320). The convention nominated Sonia Johnson of Virginia, “a radical feminist” for President and Richard J. Walton of Rhode Island for Vice President. Johnson had been excommunicated from the Mormon Church in 1979 as a result of her outspoken support of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1982 Johnson undertook a publicized 37 day fast which was designed to encourage the legislature of IL to ratify the ERA. (Kruschke 47)
Two of the other minor parties endorsed the Citizens ticket in 1984. The Socialist Party meeting in New York City 9/3–5/1983 chose not to nominate candidates of its own and voted to try to run a joint ticket with the Citizens Party. In addition, the Peace and Freedom Party in California endorsed Johnson for President (although it ran Bill Thorn for Vice President) (Havel 2:318, 341).
In spite of the two additional endorsements, the Citizens Party suffered serious setbacks during 1984. It ran fewer candidates for office: one for the Senate (IL), one for Governor (VT), and two for the U.S. House. Johnson appeared on the ballot in thirteen states under the Citizens banner, two as an Independent, one (AR) as the Citizens Group nominee, and one (PA) as the Consumer nominee. The Citizens Party vote fell by two thirds – to 72,153 although Johnson significantly improved upon Commoner’s totals in PA and in LA.
In the 1986 election, the Citizens Party once again offered four candidates: two for Governor (PA and RI), one for the Senate (PA), and one for the U.S. House (MN). Note that two of these four candidates were actually Consumer Party candidates in PA.
After the disappointing number of votes cast in favor of the Citizens Party nominees, the Party disintegrated. The Socialist Party meeting in 1987 decided to field its own ticket for 1988. The Consumer Party in Pennsylvania resumed its separate existence. Founded in 1967 (Phila Inquirer 6/1/1988) by Max Weiner (1914–1989: Phila Inquirer 10/23/1989), the Consumer Party joined the Citizens Party in 1980 as the Pennsylvania affiliate. Consumer Party workers heard that Eugene McCarthy was interested in another run for the Presidency in the spring of 1988 (Inquirer 6/1/1988); after the initial contact, McCarthy visited party activists in Philadelphia and agreed to run on their ticket (PI 6/6/88). Weiner said later “Even though it was late, we decided to support him” (Phila Inquirer 6/1/1988).
McCarthy announced his candidacy in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on 6/1/1988, where he announced that he was “the responsible government in exile since 1968.” There were about 100 people in the crowd to hear McCarthy’s speech. “This year, the one thing that we have to do is shake up the two-party system, and that’s what I hope to do.” He said “In 1968, we expected the Democrats to do something about the war in Vietnam, but they turned it aside. Since that time, they’ve been reduced to a kind of residual function usually reserved for the Republuicans, second-guessing the Democrats. The Democrats are now second-guessing the Republicans. . . If any initiative is to be provided, if any leadership, if new direction is given to this country, it has to come through a third party movement such as we initiate here in Philadelphia today. And I willingly offer myself as the candidate.” McCarthy realized he had little chance of victory. The Consumer Party state chairman, Lance Haver, stated “Sen. McCarthy has allowed us to use his name as a building block. In the same way the Republican Party started four years before they elected a President, we’re starting now with the senator.” Haver hoped that the party would raise $200,000, the amount needed in order to qualify for federal matching funds. The Party planned a national nominating convention for 9/1988 (Phila Inquirer 6/2/1988; Washington Post, 6/2/1988).
Weiner established the Consumer Party’s McCarthy for President National Headquarters at 1901 Chestnut Street, where he oversaw the progress of the efforts to gain ballot status in the various states (PI 6/6/88). Party workers were in the process of collecting the requisite 25,568 signatures in Pennsylvania and hoped to gain ballot status in half of the states (Phila Inquirer 6/1/1988). The Party also needed to raise a significant amount of funds, as it only had $3000 in the bank when McCarthy’s press conference was held (PI 6/6/88).
Another goal of the Consumer Party was to increase its voter registration. In 1984, the Pennsylvania General Assembly stripped the Consumer Party of its ballot status and increased the requirements to either gain a registration of 900,000 or collect 25,568 signatures. During the next four years, about half of the Consumer Party members switched their registration to other parties, which left only 2,500 on the rolls in the summer of 1988 (PI 6/6/88). The Consumer Party had members in NJ, PA, MI, AR, TN, and VT (Washington Post, 6/2/1988).
By 9/22, it was clear that the Consumer Party would not be able to host a national convention to nominate McCarthy. On that day, McCarthy held a press conference to announce that he had obtained ballot status in four states: PA and NJ under the Consumer label, MN under the Minnesota Progressive label, and MI as an Independent. (New York Times, 9/23, 26/1988). It is possible that McCarthy’s support of the Strategic Defense Initiative as a means of achieving world peace was responsible for the lack of interest of party members in collecting the needed signatures (New York Times, 9/23/1988). McCarthy’s campaign manager, Darcy Richardson, was running at the same time for the U.S. Senate from Pa on a platform of opposition to the space based defense program (Phila Inquirer, 10/26/1988).
Although the Consumer Party had worked with other minor parties in the past, it was less inclined to follow suit in 1988. The Peace and Freedom Party, which had endorsed Johnson in 1984, met during the week of 8/16/1988 in Oakland CA and wanted to endorse McCarthy. He spoke with them about their principles and considered their offer. He finally chose to decline their offer. “I told them to forget about it because I couldn’t get an impression of what’s going on out there . . . and I didn’t want to compromise my positions,” he later stated (Washington Post 8/16/1988).
Appearing on the ballot in only four states, Eugene McCarthy received 30,905 votes. In these same states, Johnson had only garnered 25,285 votes in 1984, but Commoner received 38,970 in these four states in 1980. After this disappointing result in 1988, the Consumer Party ceased to function as a national party. It ran local candidates in the Philadelphia area into the 1990s.
“Citizens’ Party” in Earl R. Kruschke, ed., Encyclopedia of Third Parties in the United States (Santa Barbara CA: ABC-CLIO, 1991), p. 45.
Charles S. Hauss, “Citizens Party,” in L. Sandy Maisel, ed., Political Parties and Elections in the United States (NYC: Garland Publishing Inc., 1991), p. 147.
“Citizen’s Party (CP),” in Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, Political Parties and Civic Action Groups (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1981), p. 96.