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October 22, 2014

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After struggling to gain a foothold, Nevada’s Libertarians now face a leadership void

Nevada’s hardscrabble, pioneer spirit supposedly emboldens Nevadans to embrace libertarian values.

But you could fit every member of the official Libertarian Party of Nevada into a classroom.

For a minor political party that hosted about 50 members at its annual state convention in Las Vegas this weekend, there’s plenty of room for growth.

The party’s live-and-let-live philosophy has gained traction within factions of the Republican Party of late, but the actual Libertarian Party has struggled in Nevada.

Last year, no Libertarian candidate got more than 4 percent of the vote. The Independent American Party, the other minor party that ran candidates in Nevada last year, had more candidates and won more votes.

“People think of Libertarians as wacko potheads who live out in the desert,” said Chris Roberts, the party’s former vice chairman. “We’re trying to rebrand the Libertarian Party as a rational, professional political party. ... When 50 people are infighting over leadership, it’s silly.”

Tired of laboring without seeing significant gains, the party’s old leadership effectively resigned Saturday, ushering in a new cohort of leaders. Those new leaders say the party needs to do a better job of branding the party, raising money, recruiting quality candidates and growing its membership among Nevadans, who they say should be receptive to the party’s principles of civil liberties and a small, limited government.

That was also the mission of the former chairman, Joe Silvestri, a teacher in the Clark County School District.

“If you really believe in civil liberties and small government and low taxes, you can’t go to the Republicans or Democrats,” he said. “It’s your life. It’s your right not to be coerced. As long as you’re not hurting anybody, you should be left alone.”

But Silvestri, who ran for Congress against Democrat Steven Horsford and Republican Danny Tarkanian in 2012, struggled for more than a decade to grow the party in Nevada.

He recently wrote on his website that he has “conceded defeat” because the party with 9,300 registered voters statewide has no money, no income streams and no paid workers, and is “infested with idiots.”

Even people he talks to — Nevadans who may be sympathetic to libertarian principles — shy away from the Libertarian Party. Silvestri said most people aren’t happy with Republicans or Democrats but vote for those parties because they see them as the only two viable options.

“They look at the (Libertarian) Party and they say this isn’t worth it,” he said. “They say, ‘I’ll wait ’til the ship gets going,’ and then they’ll jump on board.”

The new chairman, Brett Pojunis, runs The Libertarian Post, a libertarian news service, and Big L Solutions, a Libertarian political consulting firm.

Pojunis said he’s concentrating on running serious, quality candidates for local offices and state Senate and Assembly races in the 2014 election.

“We’re not going to have the crazy candidates who dress up like George Washington,” he said.

For many years, the party has run candidates who have received between 1 and 5 percent of the vote in elections dominated by Democrats and Republicans, who raise far more money than Libertarian candidates. Libertarians cheer when they get close to double digits in percent of the vote.

Roberts pointed to Virginia as a state that has a strong Libertarian Party. Robert Sarvis, a candidate in that state’s recent governor’s race, got 6.5 percent of the vote.

But for years, the Nevada Libertarian Party has struggled to get anybody elected.

James Libertarian Burns has a special claim in the Nevada political world.

The Beatty Water and Sanitation District board member says he is the only Libertarian Party member in elected office in Nevada.

Burns, whose legal middle name is Libertarian, said the state party started in 1972 with 25 people and gained ballot access for the first time in 1976.

He said five Libertarians have held elected office in Nevada, all of them in Nye County except for Ernest Walker, who served a term on the Sparks City Council.

About 30 years after he got involved in the party, he says it has never grown larger than a few hundred members.

These days, Republican candidates such as presidential candidate Ron Paul embrace many libertarian principles.

Libertarians oppose President Barack Obama’s health care law because they don’t believe government should compel people to buy health insurance. They support same-sex marriage, saying the state should have no role in defining marriage or what happens in somebody’s home.

They support legalizing many drugs that the government has criminalized, and they oppose the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs that collect phone data on Americans.

But without money, they say they have little influence in attracting people.

“What we really need for this party to grow is money, a lot of money,” Roberts said, noting it’d be great if “a rich benefactor” such as Las Vegas entertainer and self-professed libertarian Penn Jillette would back the party.

But all is not doom and gloom.

Silvestri, who resigned as chairman before Pojunis was elected, said he has hopes for the future of the party in Nevada.

“I have hope because 10 years ago you never heard the word libertarian, and now you hear it in a positive sense,” he said. “More and more people are looking at libertarian principles.”

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