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The Commons
Photo 1

Murray Ngoima/Courtesy of Ben Mitchell

Peter Diamondstone (left), for many the public face of the Liberty Union Party in Vermont.

Voices / Memoir

Major party

Memories of the Liberty Union Party and its cofounder, Peter Diamondstone, who encouraged people who otherwise never participate in the political process to do so — and to question authority in the process

Steven K-Brooks has worked as a real estate agent since 1993, specializing in representing home buyers. He has been active in community affairs.

Originally published in The Commons issue #425 (Wednesday, September 13, 2017). This story appeared on page E1.

After relocating from New York City to Brattleboro in the early 1980s, my then-partner, now-wife Donna and I found ourselves feeling somewhat isolated. To our surprise, we felt unwelcome by our town’s “alternative community.”

With one or two exceptions, we found that the Common Ground Collective members — whom we had hoped would be our community — seemed to be cliquish and judgmental.

I took some comfort in realizing that I must not be imagining this when the managing editor of the Brattleboro Reformer, Norman Runnion, wrote a column characterizing the disdain exhibited by much of the local “counterculture” for new arrivals as, “Last one in, shut the door!"

As it turned out, many of our first friends were not hippies, but old-time, native Vermonters whose behavior defied stereotypes. We also found a welcome among activists whose radical politics made them pariahs among the more-conventional “peace and freedom” crowd.

Among about a half-dozen people at a war tax resister meeting held at Solar Hill was Bob Waite, a native-born Brattleboro guy. I am not sure that Bob had a strong ideology, but I think he was attracted to radical groups because he was a bit of a misfit and felt comfortable among other unconventional people.

Bob was the one who told us about the Liberty Union Party, whose cofounder, Peter Diamondstone, died Aug. 30. The very name itself, “Liberty Union,” fascinated me. It sounded like the very essence of the earliest days of Vermont.

It was clear from what Bob said that Liberty Union represented rebellion against established power. But, as he explained, Liberty Union was particularly interested in encouraging people who otherwise never participate in the political process. Such people would have an opportunity to be a candidate for office and to express their opinion.

As I later learned, most Liberty Union candidates supported socialism, but the party also fielded non-party-line candidates. One time, I even became a Liberty Union candidate, and made freedom to smoke weed my main issue. And one year, Peter asked Donna to serve on a town committee, which she did to help out.

* * *

Soon after we became friends with Bob Waite, we met Huebener Wellman at an animal-rights meeting. (Huebener would have been a sixth-generation Vermonter, but he said that he was not a native Vermonter because, although he was delivered in Brattleboro, he was conceived in Massachusetts, and he believed that birth begins at conception.)

With almost waist-length, silky white hair and a long, narrow silky white beard, Huebener stood out. He was short, and with his pointy red cap topping it all off, he looked like an elf.

Huebener knew half the people in town from all walks of life, and he alone totally broke our isolation simply by walking around with us and introducing us to Brattleboro. He was the one who first brought us to a Liberty Union gathering at Peter and Doris Diamondstone’s house.

While “outcasts” were welcome at Liberty Union, I was surprised to find a number of “respectable” people, including a lawyer, a dentist, schoolteachers, and a local radio celebrity, regularly attended party gatherings.

Most of the local gatherings alternated between the Diamondstone house in Brattleboro and Fred and Mal Herbert’s house in Putney. Even formal organizational meetings tended to be social events, like the monthly party committee meetings held in a pizza parlor.

A cadre of old gentlemen, including Judd Hall, Guido Condosta, and Peter, always seemed in court over one principled matter or another. “How is your case going?” seemed to be a ritualistic greeting.

Pretty soon, Donna and I became a part of the how-is-your-case-going group, when Peter invited us to become part of a group of plaintiffs in an election dispute.

* * *

There are certain requirements for major party status in Vermont, including being organized according to certain formalities: in at least 30 towns and seven counties, with committees and chairpersons, as well as a complex of other requirements.

It is clear that to have held major party status for decades required a large number of active participants. Those who say that Peter Diamondstone alone was Liberty Union do not realize how impossible that would have been.

To maintain that major party status, a party must obtain at least 5 percent of the vote in one or more statewide elections for a Vermont office. So every two years there was a bit of concern and anxiety about whether Liberty Union would once again pull it off and get 5 percent.

It was in 1988 when two days after election day, the Associated Press reported a Liberty Union total of about 6 percent for one particular statewide office.

We breathed a sigh of relief — that is, until a couple of days later, when Secretary of State Jim Douglas (who later would be elected governor) announced that the Liberty Union total for that office was tallied at about 3.4 percent. The AP retracted its earlier report.

After over a decade of major party status, Liberty Union became a minor party. But two years later, the party won back its major party status.

We were skeptical about the initial results being changed, not only because we just did not want to believe it, but also because when we looked at tallies from individual towns, they were incongruent with aggregate totals.

Adding to the perception of a fix: Leading up to the election, Secretary Douglas had continually complained that his job was complicated by there being too many parties fielding candidates, dramatizing his disdain by calling it a “bed-sheet ballot.”

* * *

Peter recruited a number of people, including Donna and me, as plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking a judicial declaration that, in fact, Liberty Union had achieved more than 5 percent of that vote and a court order requiring that Vermont recognize Liberty Union as a major party.

I had no courtroom experience, other than having been a misdemeanor criminal defendant three times in the past. I learned a lot from being involved in this case.

Peter asked each of us to write a statement expressing our opinions. Peter said that really meant we would present our views to the court and that we could title it as a “memorandum of law” as a means to get it before the judge. What did I know? I had never even heard the term “memorandum of law.”

The trial was a completely new experience for me. Some of it was fascinating, and there were humorous moments.

During a break, Peter told us, “When we return it will be time for oral arguments.”

“And when do we get to make anal arguments?” asked Lisa Steckler, a Marlboro College student who had originally been credited with the 6 percent as the Liberty Union candidate for lieutenant governor.

* * *

I had a chance to examine Secretary Douglas under oath, and asked him his salary as secretary of state. He replied, “$40,000 a year,” grousing that it was too little. To me, scrounging to get by with a $5-an-hour job, that was quite a large salary, and I was astounded that he sounded totally sincere in his complaint.

Douglas’s personality surprised me. He obviously was not happy to be forced into court, but he showed not the slightest personal animosity. In fact, he was relaxed, friendly, and cracked jokes. For me, it was a revelation that by exercising your legal rights, you can force even a state official to answer your questions.

Later, Fred Herbert explained to me that Peter believed that it is important to demystify the legal process and to get people involved with courts over relatively safe matters so that if they ever find themselves on trial for something serious, they will have some familiarity with the process and be less vulnerable to becoming overawed and frozen with fear by the majestic ambiance of a courtroom.

The heart of our case — the mathematic incongruity of the numbers — was pursued by Plaintiff Judson Best Hall of Westminster. Judd questioned Chris Graff, then head of the Associated Press’s Vermont bureau.

Prior to the trial, Peter had served what he called a subpoena duces tecum, demanding that Graff bring as evidence the reports that came in to the state AP from each polling station. Graff, who in college had been a roommate of Jim Douglas, said that he and his colleagues would write the vote tally from each site on a piece of paper and that as a matter of routine, after the election they discard those papers.

Hall, using a blackboard, then gave a lengthy presentation, tediously showing the vote count town by town. He did so to demonstrate that, mathematically, the reported statewide totals did not make sense.

The defense attorney was getting annoyed and kept trying to interrupt Judd, telling him, “Get to the point!”

Judd would then cantankerously reply, “This is the point,” and then he would continue to drone on.

After the trial, I told Fred Herbert that I thought Judd had antagonized the judge, and that it was too bad that he did not know how to present his main argument concisely.

Fred responded that he loved what Judd had done.

“No matter what evidence we presented or how we presented it, the court was going to rule against us,” he said. “So at least I had the satisfaction of watching Judd annoy all of them for an hour.”

* * *

In the end, the judge agreed that we had presented evidence that the election count had been inaccurate, but he still ruled against us using what I thought was a flawed definition.

The judge said that we were charging that the result of the election was inaccurate, but he insisted that the “result” of an election means which candidate was elected. He said that the percentage of the vote that a losing candidate received is not a “result.”

I was pretty outraged. Of course it was a result, since it changed Liberty Union’s official status, thus denying the party significant benefits for the next two years.

Peter did not seem bitter or discouraged. He just got to work.

He rebuilt Liberty Union, and two years later, we regained major party status.

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