He may be tilting at windmills, but Peace and Freedom candidate John Reiger figures someone has to do it
It is Tuesday morning, and 63-year-old John Reiger is a long way from the pottery studio in his South Sacramento house, in which he usually spends his days crafting everything from kitchen bowls to bathroom soap holders.
Standing at a makeshift podium in a barren conference room in a Midtown office building, the potter explains to a handful of not-terribly-enthused journalists why exactly he is running for Congress as the Peace and Freedom Party’s candidate in the special election necessitated by the recent death of Democratic Congressman Bob Matsui.
The press conference features three anti-war candidates: a nattily-dressed Pat Driscoll, of the Green Party; Julie Padilla, campaigning as a bring-home-the-troops Democrat against the party’s chosen candidate, Matsui’s widow, Doris; and Reiger. They are here to announce that they will be cooperating with each other to push to the fore opposition to the continuing military involvement in Iraq, to use the March 8 election as a platform upon which to build a critique of American foreign policy.
At times, their position is rather black-and-white: War bad, peace good. American foreign policy bad, bringing home the troops good. And so on. In some ways, they appear to represent the anti-war flip side to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s knee-jerk obsession with Iraq in the months following 9/11.
Reiger’s Web site calls for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, along with other top administration officials: It charges them with waging illegal wars, with undermining the U.S. Constitution and with alienating America from allies throughout the world. It calls for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from all overseas commitments, for a dramatic downsizing of the military, and for America to dismantle its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
On other issues, Reiger advocates universal health care, an abolition of the Electoral College system of choosing the president, public financing of elections, a renewed commitment to Social Security, and an American withdrawal from free-trade pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
There’s something more than a little quixotic about the potter’s campaign: Reiger is bald, with glasses, and has a neatly trimmed, near-white beard; he is tall and lanky, the lankiness accentuated by drainpipe black jeans descending down his legs to a pair of battered brown loafers, and a gray corduroy jacket that seems just a touch too small for its occupant. On his lapel is a pin: “Support Our Troops. Bring ’em Home Alive.” He looks more like a likeable and meek 1970s college professor than a candidate for the U.S. Congress.
Reiger has been a Peace and Freedom Party activist since the party’s founding, in San Francisco, in 1968. In an era in which mainstream politicians shy away from labels as mild as “liberal” or “progressive,” the potter is an unabashed socialist, though not, he adds somewhat defensively, of the Marxist-Leninist school of thinking. He would, he says, describe himself more as a “democratic socialist.” Certainly, many of his positions would place him very much in the political mainstream in countries such as Sweden or Germany.
As a student in the 1960s and 1970s, Reiger studied automobile design at the Art Center in Los Angeles (he still drives a 1978 maroon Triumph Spitfire sports car), then got a bachelor-of-arts degree in psychology from San Francisco State University and finally took the pottery courses that were to determine his subsequent career. He recalls that he “came to the conclusion that the underlying problem [responsible for society’s myriad ills, including the then-raging Vietnam War] was capitalism” and that the way in which problems such as war and racism could be solved was through a more socialistic, cooperative organizing of society.
In the early 1980s, these beliefs propelled Reiger to run, unsuccessfully, for the state Assembly and for Congress. More recently, in the fall of last year, he ran again for Congress, this time against the ailing Bob Matsui. Reiger received slightly less than 2 percent of the vote.
Matsui’s death opened the door to a special election bound by rules somewhat different from ordinary elections and somewhat more hospitable to third-party challenges. In March, an open primary will be fought, in which any and all registered voters can participate. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she wins the election outright; if, however, no single candidate receives that level of support, the leading candidate from each party on the ballot goes forward to a runoff election.
Thus, if Doris Matsui fails to win 50 percent in the first round of voting, then even if Reiger only received 1 percent or 2 percent of the vote, he would be guaranteed a spot in the runoff election as the Peace and Freedom Party’s only candidate. The same holds for Driscoll, of the Green Party, as well as for the Libertarian and Republican candidates.
In other words, even though the 5th District is a safe Democratic seat, there’s at least the possibility that minor candidates will get more attention and for a longer period of time than is the case in most elections.
Sitting at a cafe after the press conference, Reiger explains that this gives him the opportunity to take his anti-war sentiments to the voters. “The immediacy of the war is just overwhelming,” he says. “People are dying, we’re spending incredible sums of money, we’re creating more terrorists than we’re killing, and it’s distorting everything else: It got George Bush re-elected.”
And if pigs suddenly learned to fly, and Reiger got elected? Well, he says, smiling, “after I woke up from a dead faint, I’d have to talk with my wife about the possibility of actually doing it. I think my first step would be to bring articles of impeachment against the president and vice president.” Then he pauses, and reality sets in again. “But one of the joys of this campaign is that I don’t have to worry about moving to Washington, D.C.”