They gathered in the living room of an old farmhouse in West Rupert â€” young men and women with long, tousled hair/anti-war activists from Marlboro College and old radicals, many of them urban dropouts. They sat on the couch, in chairs or found space on the floor of the large room. A few shaggy dogs lumbered around the furniture. The more than 20 people that gathered that weekend in late June, 1970; at former Congressman William and Bertha Meyer’s house came to found a new political party, a party that would boldly address their issues, the war in Vietnam, the militarization of society, the problems of the poor and the destruction of the environment.
That weekend they founded the Liberty Union Party, which would become a major party in Vermont, fielding full slates of candidates and adding color and energy to numerous campaigns over the years. That party gasped what may be its final breath last week as the secretary of state announced that it had lost its ‘major party status,’ because it failed, for the first time since 1974, to win 5 percent of the vote. Despite its loss of major-party status, the Liberty Union Party will leave a legacy of third-party activism to Vermont politics. Its history also provides a classic tale of rapid success and then failure in volatile times.
Meyer A Folk Hero The late William Meyer, the first and only Democrat ever elected to represent Vermont in Congress, had joined with Richard Clarke, an artist from Chittenden, and Peter Diamondstone, a former legal aid lawyer from Brattleboro, to organize the founding meeting. Meyer was something of a folk hero to the young anti-war activists who gathered at his house that weekend. The large, open-faced forester, in his late 50s, had taken unpopular peace and freedom stands during his single term in the House from 1958-60. He now wanted to run for the U.S. Senate as a third party candidate. He, as the others in the room, were frustrated by the politics within the Vermont Democratic Party.
‘There was a great deal of discussion which often turned into argument that weekend, but by and large it was good-natured,, said dark, 66. ,Everybody was happy with what we were trying to do. We wanted to build a party that really wanted to do things.’ The meeting went from morning until sundown on Saturday. Bertha Meyer served a feast of cold chicken in the evening and some stayed the night. On Sunday, the group took up the contentious task of naming the party.
Finding A Name
The word ‘union’ was popular with Diamondstone. It brought to mind for the Queens, N.Y. native both the trade union movement and the Green Mountain Union, Marlboro College’s student anti-war group. But Dennis Morrisseau of Burlington, who had marched in Washington against the war dressed in his Army officer’s uniform, argued for the name ‘conservative.’ He wanted the new party to return to the original beliefs of the founding fathers. To him, that was conservatism with a radical twist. But that name wouldn’t do for most in the room, Morrisseau, 46, the current owner of Leunigis Old World Cafe in Burlington, remembered last week. So, the word ‘liberty’ was proposed, and a compromise of ‘Liberty Union’ emerged.
In the beginning, the Liberty Union fielded full slates of candidates for statewide elections and also ran candidates in some of the local elections. Often there were more Liberty Union candidates on the ballot than Democrats. Many of the candidates were unorthodox. In 1972, the party recruited former UPI reporter Rod Clarke, who was then living in Earth People’s Park, a Northeast Kingdom commune, to run for Essex County state’s attorney. The party was most successful in southern Vermont, thanks to Diamondstone. It was there that the only two Liberty Union candidates, were elected to minor offices â€” one laborer was elected a representative to the Representative Town Meeting in Brattleboro and a another Liberty Union candidate was elected justice of the peace in Westminster.
Despite only two minor wins, the party’s candidates were a constant thorn to mainstream party candidates. At debates, they tried to reveal the hypocrisy of Democrats and Republicans. They raised issues that others wanted left untouched.