Ron Paul, a 12-term congressman from Texas, is attracting an intense and dedicated cadre of voters in the 2012 primary election season. But, to date, at least, their numbers suggest he is not a viable presidential candidate. The lack of a large-enough following to get even the chance to face President Obama in November has prompted national pundits to speculate on other goals Paul may be pursuing, such as landing a speaking role at this year’s Republican National Convention.
Such notions strike a group of five local Ron Paul enthusiasts I speak with on a Saturday in early February as absurd. Paul’s single-minded goal, they insist, is to become president of the United States. Several have found in Paul a libertarian soul mate. He has radically changed the minds of others, leading them to reject previous allegiances and join his camp.
What gives? Who are these people? Why are they so committed? What are they thinking?
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“I’d say there are similarities in Occupy to what I believe,” says Normal Heights resident Mario Perea, who attended Occupy San Diego several times over the past year. “But spending time there also allowed me to understand people’s fascination with socialism. The built-in hatred toward capitalism, I think, it comes up from our schools. And a lot of television makes it seem that capitalism is the problem.”
Perea, 32, works for a granite company. “I put in countertops,” he tells me. “That’s what I do for money. For fun, I’m an artist and a researcher.” His wife of a little more than a year is a nurse.
For a long time, Perea tells me, he felt alienated from politics. But instead of trying to find a way to participate, he took refuge in informal communities of graffiti artists. All along, however, he was reading a wide variety of political materials, including the works of Karl Marx and the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara. When he soured on each of them, friends asked if he no longer cared about the social ills they protested. Of course he did, but why did Marx need to introduce a socialist state to run things? And “why,” asks Perea, “did Che say that killing some people had to be part of the solution?”
So, Perea says he turned in another direction, eventually finding much in common with Tea Party partisans, especially their enthusiasm for capitalism. “Then, as we talked, they always came around to wanting to attack Iran, and that turns me off.”
The agreement with the Tea Party had mainly to do with capitalism, although Perea says that unabashedly pursuing his self-interest used to make him uneasy. Then he read Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness. Finally, an ideal he felt could become the guiding light for his life emerged. In the writings of Ron Paul, he discovered “liberty.”
Perea sat out the 2008 election, but this year he is working on his own as an informal volunteer for the Ron Paul campaign. “I go out to places like in front of the USS Midway Museum. I’ll pass out flyers and brochures and just talk to people.”
“The last book I read by Ron Paul was End the Fed,” says Perea, “which gives reasons as to why the Federal Reserve is immoral.” Perea had already been drawn to conspiracy theories of the 9/11 attacks, and after doing some research on his own, he admits that he leans toward some of the “conspiracy-orientated” interpretations of the Federal Reserve Board. “You know, people trying to run the world on the sly.” But it was Paul, he says, who led him to believe that “central banking plays favoritism to certain groups of people and that it’s an unconstitutional institution. Money is not something that the government should be controlling.
“I was at Occupy San Diego on the first day, and it was an amazing sight to see two or three thousand people marching to protest the federal government’s bailouts of huge corporations and the cronyism that is going on. But I think they fall short, because it wasn’t that they were against the bailouts. They just thought the money was going towards the wrong people. It was a surprise to me that the Federal Reserve wasn’t being called out by name at the Occupy because that’s why the Federal Reserve was put into place, as a bailout mechanism, as a lender of last resort. So it’s been one of my goals while I’m at the Occupy to summon the central banks and expose them to folks and to also be a promoter of capitalism, because I believe that it’s through capitalism that the individual is able to achieve.”
These days, Perea has been focusing on another issue, the intrusion of government, in the name of national security, into the lives of citizens. “My feeling on government snooping,” he says,” is that it sets a dangerous precedent. We saw the Patriot Act, and now we see the National Defense Authorization Act. Once, they could snoop on you; now, they can swoop you up and hold you indefinitely. The government’s solution is always more of what was wrong. And we see that in this particular situation, where the solution was the invasion of your privacy. ‘Well,’ they seem to say, ‘our solution is now to pile on more.’”
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“If you’re in the media,” says Jaclyn Koehl (pronounced Kale), “and you want to blow the whistle on some bad government activity, [law enforcement] could tap and say, ‘Hey, this is subversive to our national security,’ and they could quiet down that reporter.”
“With lots of lies coming at you from other politicians,” Jaclyn Koehl says, it has been “pretty easy” to become a follower of Paul’s presidential candidacy.
Koehl, 33, grew up in Indiana and currently lives in Santee. She says a good friend turned her on to Ron Paul close to six years ago. After that, she started reading Paul’s writings and material about him by other writers. She also looked at a few videos. “With lots of lies coming at you from other politicians,” she says, “it has been pretty easy to become a follower of Paul’s presidential candidacy.” Koehl thinks of him as having great integrity for relying on lots of small donations instead of money from huge special interests. She currently distributes Paul literature in her neighborhood and plans to walk precincts for him for the California primary election in June.
In the social arena, says Koehl, “People have the right to make their own decisions who they want to marry, what kind of food they want to eat. One group doesn’t have the right to tell other people how to behave as long as they’re not hurting anyone else.”
An example is “that there are some folks that want a constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage. If that’s what they believe, then they should have the right in their church or other social avenues to say so. And if they want to even ban somebody from being in their church, I think that’s okay. It’s just that the government should not be involved in those social transactions.”
Koehl is a stay-at-home mom with twins, a boy and a girl who are not quite three. “My daughter is allergic to the regular milk you buy off the shelf at the store, and she drinks raw milk. But the federal government says you can’t transport raw milk across state lines for sale. So, let’s say something happens to the short supply here in California; it’s illegal for me to buy the milk that [my daughter] can drink. Here is some bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., deciding for me what is safe for me to give to my child, while I feel fully capable and competent that I can do my own investigation and decide for myself what’s right for her.
“What happens in Washington, D.C., is that an arbitrary decision is made. And sometimes that decision is made not necessarily on pure evidence but by a political force. There are winners and losers.
“The Food and Drug Administration also wants to limit people’s ability to access dietary supplements. I think that if I can’t make the decision on my own, I’m fully capable of paying a doctor or someone else who’s trained in that area to work with and give me individual guidance rather than having a blanket statement come from someone who may be under political influence.”
But shouldn’t there be regulation of unethical companies that might put dangerous products on the market?
“I think that’s a social function,” says Koehl. “I can read in the newspaper that XYZ Corporation is swindling folks. I can talk to my neighbors and share my bad experience. People are quite adept at making sure that those who are swindling them come to justice. They have the court system available. And we have a great tool, the internet, where folks can post their own experience.”
How about illegal drugs?
From the perspective of Ron Paul, who is a licensed physician, Koehl tells me, “people’s overuse of those substances is a medical issue. It’s an issue between the person, their family, and their doctor, not an issue the federal government needs to be involved with.” Think “what happened during Prohibition with alcohol. It drove the sales underground, and a few people were able to produce and benefit.”
When her children are ready, Koehl will opt for homeschooling. “The Department of Education wants to tell everyone in the United States how their child should be educated,” she says. What happens is that we pay our federal taxes, and all that money goes to Washington, D.C., and then they say, ‘Okay, we’ll give the Department of Education X amount of money,’ and then everybody has to pile on and say, ‘We want a piece of that pie.’ All of a sudden, you have states competing for that money, and the Department of Education can then tell them, ‘Here are our rules to get that money.’ So they have a lot of influence. The rules become a blanket for the whole country to abide by, and people lose their ability to influence government at a local level.
“The government’s position on a lot of things,” says Koehl, “seems to be that ‘Jackie is not going to do the right thing on her own, so we have to require her to do what we think is right.’ It really comes down to a pessimistic view of humanity and an optimistic view. Ron Paul is very optimistic. He believes that in a free market, people can trade and they’ll be charitable toward each other. By the way, I think that, like the government, the Occupy movement is very pessimistic, too.”
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Angie Dodd lives in Oceanside, where, at 27 and single, she owns her own home. Prior to discovering Ron Paul in December, she had been a Democrat. She voted for Obama in the last presidential election.
“I really wanted somebody that would end wars,” says Dodd. “I don’t understand why we can spend so long in these countries that are very inferior to us. We can take them out quickly, but why do we stay there for so many years afterwards? I see at my work [for a defense contractor] that we keep building parts for them, and we go in and build buildings there. We spend so much money in these other places that we don’t want to leave. I want a politician who will actually stop this kind of stuff and the crony capitalism that goes along with it. So many politicians will say one thing, and you send them to Washington and then they say, ‘I’ll do what whoever pays me the most wants me to do.’ What I like about Ron Paul is that he doesn’t take money from special interests, and as long as he’s been in Congress, he keeps saying the same things. Even though they’re unpopular, he still stands by them.
“And it seems like every time we go into another country, we make people more upset at us, and it gets worse every year. We go over and tell them what they have to do and what they can’t do, and then we bomb them, a lot of people die, and we wonder why they hate us. As long as they’re already wishing they could kill us, we might as well be far away and they can wish that from across the sea. Then we’ll just say you can’t come over to us and we won’t go over to you. It might work out better, because things aren’t really going well with how it is now.”
For many people, the name Ron Paul conjures up a longing for few to no taxes. An argument invariably begins. One person will say that there once were no income taxes, and that’s the way it should be. No, another will say, the idea is totally unrealistic.
“With the tax system,” Dodd tells me, “there are so many rules that you have to have your own tax specialist to work out how much to pay.”
Does the little guy get taxed too much?
“I don’t know because I don’t really pay much income tax, so it’s working out for me. Yes, I have a job,” says Dodd, “but also own a house. And I give to a charity, so I actually don’t pay too much.”
Do Republicans favor the rich when it comes to taxes? And Paul’s a Republican, right?
“He is,” says Dodd. “But for most Republican lawmakers, it’s like you must vote Republican on every issue, and being Republican is your thing. Ron Paul has principles and wants to follow the principles and not necessarily follow the party.
“And if you’re really rich, you can do something weird with your money and you don’t pay anything. So people structure their businesses around how they can avoid paying taxes. We need to get rid of a bunch of these rules and these different concessions because they’ve all been started by lobbyists, who say, ‘Make it so my friend, or this company, doesn’t have to pay any taxes.’ And there are all these people fighting to keep it the way it is. I think you need people like Ron Paul who don’t get influenced by lobbyists.”
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When viewed alongside Ron Paul, says Mike Benoit (pronounced Ben-WAH), who is 60, all the other presidential candidates this year, including Obama, are the same. Benoit has run six consecutive times for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Libertarian candidate. He has run against the two Duncan Hunters, father and then son, to represent the 52nd Congressional District. He is running in the 50th Congressional District in 2012. He is a divorced father of two adult children and has two grandchildren.
Benoit says he does not base his politics on Ron Paul’s, but the platforms of their campaigns invariably coincide. Benoit was already a Libertarian when Paul first came to his attention in 1996. He calls the independent organization he is running to increase support for Paul completely “grass roots” because it does not raise money.
“If government limited itself to its legitimate functions,” says Benoit, “taxes would be very light in comparison to what they are now.” No personal income tax would be necessary. Some excise and sales taxes might be acceptable to both Benoit and Ron Paul, depending on the particulars.
I ask Benoit about the desire by many, such as the Hunters, for a fence along the entire border of the United States and Mexico. Impractical, he says. “People can tunnel under a fence or go around and come up off the coast, as they are doing now.
“If you look back to 1960, we didn’t need a border fence. We didn’t really have an immigration problem. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society started undermining our individual liberties in such a way that migrant workers were absolutely needed now because of new laws against high school kids going out and working in the fields in the summer. And then they cut down the flow of the migrant workers who used to come up and work and go back home afterwards.”
Why does the United States seem to be always fighting a foreign war or occupying a country in the aftermath? Even a politician like Obama, who promised to extricate us from the Middle East, can’t seem to leave.
“Sometimes,” says Benoit, “the same people who own the big military industrial complex own the media corporations. The industries control the military, not the other way around. The industries are pushing for all these wars and for candidates that will support them so they can keep up war profiteering.”
But the main thing “Ron Paul keeps talking about is liberty,” according to Benoit. “The things we have complaints about — the Patriot Act or the National Defense Authorization Act, the Military Commissions Act, these things, even the Transportation Security Administration — these are reactions to something the government actually failed us in. And their reaction is to take more of our liberties away. Our government’s purpose is only to secure these rights.
“But they turn all liberties into privileges. It’s as if we wouldn’t be safe if we didn’t have a license that says we can drive or we wouldn’t be okay if the government didn’t give us a marriage license.” Control over marriage is “not a function of government. This is government involved in a social function that it should not have any involvement in whatsoever.” It’s not right to be “forced to get a marriage license to be married, to be recognized as being married. One hundred and fifty years ago, people got the Bible out and wrote their names in it, and the witnesses said so-and-so got married today on this date. There was no license from the state to do that.”
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Kira Mercado, 25, and her husband rent an apartment in Lakeside. They have a daughter who is almost 2. “I’m a former Democrat and voted for Obama,” she says. Now, however, she carries Ron Paul brochures in her purse and at restaurants leaves, along with her tips, a card from Paul about how “to keep your hard-earned money.”
According to Kira Mercado, “Ron Paul’s message is so different than Obama’s was. He’s been consistent for 30 years of his life and not likely to turn away from that, because he’s not just giving people promises, he’s waking them up.”
What did you like about Obama?
“He said that he was going to bring the troops home,” she says, “and he was going to change our country for the better. He tricked us.
“I don’t believe that we have any right to police the world and tell people how to live their life, just like our government doesn’t have the right to police us and tell us what to do. What if we had a foreign country come into our land and start killing innocent people here? We’d be doing the same thing. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, if we kill enough people, they’ll back down,’ because it’s not human nature to just back down.”
Later, by email, Mercado adds, “I respect our troops for putting their lives on the line in the name of their country and I pray for them every day to come home safely.… I would prefer to have our troops here defending our country (our borders) instead of [in] other countries policing the world.…” She goes on to say that people who are gung ho about fighting might try “listening to what our troops are telling us and that’s [that] they support Ron Paul [for opposing foreign wars]. He gets more support than any other candidate, including the president himself, from our troops. So instead of supporting your troops by putting a magnet on your car, and wanting to so readily put their lives in danger, support them by bringing them home to their families.”
Some might say Paul would do the same as Obama and not live up to his promises.
“I’ve definitely thought about that,” says Mercado. “But Ron Paul’s message is so different than Obama’s was. He’s been consistent for 30 years of his life and not likely to turn away from that, because he’s not just giving people promises, he’s waking them up. He’s not saying, ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ He says, ‘You’re going to take care of yourself. I’m going to give you the opportunity to do that.’ And that’s what people want. I remember when the Occupy Wall Street movement first started, and I thought, ‘This is nice. People are finally realizing that something is wrong with our country.’ But then I started listening to what they were saying, which seemed like, ‘We want the government to take care of us.’ But Ron Paul supporters, we don’t want the government that involved with our lives.”
For that reason, too, Mercado supports the idea of making drugs and prostitution legal. “Then the states can actually regulate them, put their own taxes on them, and keep them out of the hands of children much easier, rather than [letting] a drug dealer…sell to a 13-year-old child. If people are going to do drugs, they are going to do it whether they are legal or not, and just because they are legal doesn’t mean I’m going to run out and start doing them. Same with prostitution.… It all comes down to values and character, and it’s a parent’s job to teach their children those things, not the government’s, by making something illegal.”
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Carlos, who asks that his full name not be disclosed, meets me in a gym both he and I belong to.
For Carlos, “liberty” means that he can choose to be homeless, even when much of the time he probably could pay for an apartment. Recently, he spent a full month applying for any kind of job he could think of, including work in fast-food outlets. “They just don’t want a 52-year-old man whose most recent work experience has been self-employment.” Carlos works as a web designer, and his short-term jobs come in fits and starts. He spends his nights in a tent, where he keeps all his belongings, including the laptop that allows him to do his work. He often works in a local college library or in the gym that also allows him to shower daily.
He was born in Chile but remembers nothing of the country, since his father took him to Kentucky early in life. He obtained U.S. citizenship in his late teens. He is hoping to earn enough money soon to go back to Chile, where his mother still lives.
Politically, Carlos breathes Ron Paul. “I’ve always personally been against the U.S. Census coming and asking all kinds of questions: how much I make, where I live, how many people are in my family. What business of the government is it to know that stuff about me? I’m an individual who values privacy. At the same time, I openly say things, but I choose to do that. So, in my life I’ve always tried to go out of my way to avoid U.S. Census workers, if I can. I haven’t always succeeded, but I do it if I can. Now, as a homeless man, it’s relatively easy. I really like that about being homeless. It gives me a level of privacy that I wouldn’t experience otherwise.”
Besides commonplace Ron Paul talking points, what are some of Carlos’s strong beliefs? “Well,” he says, “I think it was wrong for Obama to take out Osama bin Laden. It was a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”
Or, take global warming. “The idea,” he says, “is little more than an attempt to raise money by putting fees on companies to give them a carbon-exchange framework, you know, where the companies pay for being able to pollute so much. It’s just a ridiculous ploy.” Carlos believes that there are much greater threats to Americans than global warming.
Has Obama gone too far on health insurance? “If someone doesn’t buy health insurance, I don’t think it’s the role of government to help that person out. That kind of care should fall to the churches, the communities, to individuals stepping up to the plate and saying, ‘I’m going to help this guy.’”
How about the states doing it?
“If they want to,” says Carlos, “that’s fine, but it’s not a mandate of the federal government to take care of every person who falls into need because of choices they’ve made. I don’t have health insurance. I’ve chosen not to have health insurance. It’s a risk I take. As a Christian, I know I’m headed to heaven when I die, so the concept of dying is not a massive thing for me. In fact, oftentimes I think I’d be better off in heaven. So it’s a risk I take. I might win, I might lose. But the government, and my fellow Americans, should not be obligated to take care of me just because I made a choice not to have health insurance.”
Does Carlos do anything special to help Paul win this year? “I don’t believe that Ron Paul has any chance of winning the Republican nomination,” Carlos writes me by email, “so it seems like a waste of my time to put in any effort at all to see him get elected. The American people have gone off the deep end, as far as I am concerned.” He does tell others, when he gets the chance, that Paul is “the only candidate (Democrat or Republican) who will make any difference in the furtherance of liberty and a return to respecting our Constitution and reining in our out-of-control government.”