Legalizing pot and lowering the drinking age aren't exactly at the top of most Vermont politicians' agendas. Don't count on Republican Governor Jim Douglas or his Democratic-Progressive challenger Peter Clavelle to commit what amounts to political suicide by endorsing either position.
Though Clavelle supports the legalization of medical marijuana, he's opposed to legalization for recreational use. His communications director, B.J. Rogers, confirms that the Burlington mayor has no plans to change the drinking age. Governor Douglas declined to return our calls. But at least one gubernatorial hopeful is actively toeing the "party" line: 35-year-old Libertarian Hardy Machia.
Machia is one of five contestants in this year's gubernatorial election. Besides Douglas and Clavelle, he's also facing perennial Liberty Union Party candidate Peter Diamondstone, who hopes to win the top spot on the Progressive ticket in September, and marijuana legalization activist Cris Ericson, who's running as an independent. Of the three "third party" candidates, Machia stands out, both for his radical goals and for his business-like approach to achieving them.
In addition to core Libertarian issues like tax cuts and downsizing government, Machia is promoting the pot-booze combo to reach out to the 18- to 24-year-old demographic. "It's a way to get the younger voters out and give them something to vote for," says the Grand Isle small business owner -- Machia founded Catamount Software in 1994. Though most of his bumper stickers say, simply, "Hardy for Governor," his unorthodox strategy gives him a natural, almost too-good-to-be-true slogan: "Party Hardy."
He actually printed the phrase on the banner he took to the Phish show in Coventry last weekend. Machia spent the weekend campaigning there. It was, after all, his target audience. "Ninety percent of them probably use one illegal substance or other," he notes zealously at a pre-show interview at a Burlington cafe. Machia's strategic analysis could very well send nervous parents into a panic.
To attract attention to his upstart campaign, Machia brought 500 green lighters to distribute to donors who spared him some change. The lighters, each fitted with a bottle-opener notch at the bottom, remind smokers to "Vote Nov. 2 to Legalize!" Machia's website address, http://www.FreeVermont.org, appears on one side in mustard-colored type, along with the legend, "Hardy for Governor," centered between two small, seven-pointed pot leaves.
Machia also handed out "Hardy favors" -- brown paper bags containing candy, gum and campaign goodies, including stickers, and a quarter-page flyer with a cartoon entitled "The Domino Effect." In it, a line of dominoes snakes from Vermont to Washington, D.C. A finger labeled "vote" is poised to topple the Vermont tile. "1930s -- It ended alcohol prohibition," declares the handwritten text to the right of the drawing. "2005 -- Legalize in Vermont to start the domino effect to end marijuana prohibition in the U.S.A." A single sign on the left-hand side proclaims, "Hardy, Free VT." The message is clear -- elect Hardy to start the chain reaction.
Oddly, Machia doesn't appear to be much of a party animal. The lanky 6-footer says he's smoked pot -- and yes, he's been to Amsterdam -- but a sheepish grin flashes across his boyish face when he admits he's "not a regular smoker." Maybe the confession hurts his street cred. Not that he's got much to begin with --when he whips out his wallet, there's a pocket-sized computer attached.
In fact, the short-haired, pro-pot pol appears positively wholesome in a buttoned-down Oxford and tie. He makes earnest, thoughtful arguments about the need to give Vermonters more control over their lives. He says he wears his seat-belt, and his bike helmet, and his snowboarding helmet, faithfully, but he believes the government ought to leave that decision up to him.
"There's a great bumper sticker that says 'I'm pro-choice 100 percent of the time,'" he says. For him, the sentiment reaches far beyond the abortion debate. If people want to eat at McDonald's every day rather than shop at a health-food store, he believes they ought to be able to do it. "One choice is healthier than the other, arguably, but it's your personal choice... I believe the government shouldn't be involved in telling you what to do in your personal life."
Machia traces his political awakening to his teenage years. The native Vermonter, who graduated from Essex High School, was irked when the state raised the drinking age from 18 to 21. The change took effect a few months before his 18th birthday. The campaign bio posted on his website informs potential voters that Machia started drinking illegally. He transformed his personal rebellion into political action when he got involved in the Perot campaign in 1992. He started "Libertarians for Privacy" in 1998.
In 1999, Machia won his first election -- he secured a seat on the Grand Isle Selectboard by a margin of only six votes. His colleagues elected him chair in 2000. He's currently one of Grand Isle's Justices of the Peace.
Machia's campaign lit also touts his experience as a small businessman and an activist -- he's on the board of Vermonters for Educational Choice and a charter member of Vermonters for Tax Reform, and he's the founder and president of the Vermont Chapter of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
It was in that role that he helped lobby for Vermont's medical marijuana bill, which recently became law. "It benefits people I know," says Machia. A cousin and his friend are quadriplegics, and another friend is on kidney dialysis. Machia says medicating with pot will keep her off opiate-based Oxycontin.
"Decriminalizing medical marijuana was a no-brainer," Machia points out, citing the referendum in which Burlington voters approved the measure by 82 percent. "A vote to legalize recreational use would be closer, but I think it would pass."
He says legalizing pot would solve overcrowding in Vermont's prisons, allowing the state to bring home convicts incarcerated out of state. And he predicts it would boost Vermont's farm economy by allowing farmers to grow hemp. "They're doing it in Canada," he says. "We can do it here." Sure, those pesky federal anti-drug laws would also have to be eliminated, but that's where the domino effect comes in.
But Machia adds that the weed war is actually a relatively minor issue in his campaign. "I'm also out there for Vermonters for Tax Reform, and the gun owners, and the home-schoolers," he insists.
In fact, his website and most of his literature emphasizes his decidedly un-sexy push to cut taxes. As governor, Machia says he would work to eliminate the sales tax, cut property taxes in half, and immediately reduce state spending to its 2001 level. One of his biggest complaints is that Governor Douglas is a spendthrift -- Machia claims the budget has gone up 17 percent since Douglas took office. "He's just as bad as Clavelle," the Libertarian charges.
Machia starts to sound more like a traditional politician when he complains about taxes. "When you buy gas, 18 to 19 percent of that money goes to federal gas taxes," he says. "That money goes from the pump in Burlington to Washington, D.C. They send the money back with all these rules attached to it. That money should be raised and spent in Vermont."
He concedes that one of those rules will strip Vermont of its federal highway funding should he become governor and lower the drinking age to 18. To make up for the shortfall, he proposes streamlining the Department of Transportation.
Does he actually stand a chance of winning? Machia dodges the question. "It's all about money," he says. Douglas and Clavelle have lots of it. Clavelle has raised upwards of $260,000. Douglas has brought in just over $500,000. So far, Machia has come up with about $6500 from 360 donors -- totals that do not include what he raised at the Phish show. He's also thrown $3000 of his own money into the race.
And whereas the major parties have hundreds of volunteers, his Yahoo email listserv has attracted a mere 32 members. His supporters trade messages about letters-to-the-editor drives and schedules for a Hardy for Governor bar hop.
Thirty-five-year-old Brian Silver of Burlington is glad Machia is in the race. When asked if he thinks the Libertarian can win, Silver says, "No, probably not." But, he says, "There's definitely a push-pull. The more votes he gets, the more these parties are going to be pushed and pulled."
Silver, who describes himself as a likely Bush voter, says he'll cast his gubernatorial vote for Machia. "I appreciate Hardy's forthrightness and honesty," he says.
Even one of Burlington's outspoken Progressive Representatives praises the Libertarian. David Zuckerman, who worked with Machia on the medical marijuana law, says he deserves to be heard. "I think Hardy has some good things to offer, and some positions that I think folks should think about," he says.
Zuckerman supports Clavelle, but defends Machia against the fringe candidate wing-nut label. "He pays a lot of attention and does his homework," the Prog says of his ideological opposite. "He has been around the Statehouse, I would hazard a guess, more than Jim Douglas was last year."
Still, Machia faces an uphill fight. Chances are, he'll be running his software company full-time next year instead of changing the state's pot policy.
But he's used to being the underdog -- in his business life he's currently suing Microsoft for trademark infringement. He won't talk about the case, except to say that it relates to a program called "Pocketmoney" he wrote in 1994. He spent last week in the Burlington courtroom of Judge William Sessions. Machia and his somewhat rumpled counsel leaned back in their blue leather chairs, while a legal team from Microsoft -- a local guy, a man from Redmond, Washington, a man and a woman from a firm in Chicago, plus a paralegal -- wore unforgiving dark suits and sat up straight, glancing periodically at their multiple laptops. The deck was clearly stacked. "It's sort of like David vs. Goliath," Machia says.
He could easily have been talking about his gubernatorial campaign, and he admits as much. Is he crazy, then, or merely living up to the promise of his tough, resistant, able-bodied first name. It's up to the voters to decide.
Whatever the outcome of the election, Machia probably won't be here for long. Last year he and his wife --no, they don't believe in state-sanctioned marriage --signed a pledge for the Free State Project in New Hampshire. The Free Staters hope to transform New Hampshire into a Libertarian state by enticing 20,000 Libs to move there. When they hit 20 thou, the couple will pack their bags. Machia says he hopes that's at least 10 years from now -- "I'd like to fight in Vermont first and try to improve things here." After all, says Party Hardy, "I'm planning on winning the governorship."