Mark Rutherford wants America’s third-largest political party to make inroads by showing competence at the grassroots level of government.
An Indianapolis business attorney has been elected second-in-command of the U.S. Libertarian Party. His ambition is to move America’s third-largest political movement from the margins to the mainstream by focusing on competence at the local office level.
“You don’t apply to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company straight out of college. You start in the mailroom,” said Mark Rutherford, a partner with Thrasher Buschmann & Voelkel. “Why should people think we should lead national office until we’ve proved it at the City-County Council or county commissioner level?”
Libertarians elected Rutherford their vice chairman at their national convention in May. Rutherford, 50, is a New Albany native who grew up in Carmel, spent his teen years in Columbus, earned his undergraduate degree from Wabash College, and his law degree from Valparaiso University School of Law.
The son of Republican parents, Rutherford said he knew he wanted to be an attorney at age 8. His first law job was to serve for three years as a deputy prosecutor under Stephen Goldsmith. He then moved to private practice, where he focused on commercial and bankruptcy law, often serving as defense counsel for clients accused of white-collar crimes.
“The prosecution has lots of resources and an awful lot of power. It’s easy to be misused,” Rutherford said. “I feel much more satisfaction keeping government at bay and making sure it does things fairly.”
As you’d expect from a Libertarian, Rutherford’s views align with conservatives on many business issues. He bemoans the encroachment of regulation and criminal penalties in a wide number of areas, from fishing licenses to waste disposal to nursing home management. But on social issues like ballot access, civil rights and personal freedoms, he sides with liberals.
He wants government to keep an eye on the country’s borders, not its citizens’ bedrooms. Bottom line, he embraces the Libertarian view to abridge the rules for everyone, then live and let live.
“Congress would be better off if they tried to approach everything as simply as the 10 Commandments,” said Rutherford, who is married with no kids. “When you start adding all these regulations, you give a lot of control to the prosecution, because who knows what’s a crime anymore?”
Rutherford’s election to the Libertarian Party’s National Committee didn’t come out of the blue. He spent most of the last decade as chairman of the Indiana Libertarian Party with a strategy then, as now, of focusing on grassroots victories. Today six Libertarians hold Hoosier elected office.
“Building a party is a slow business, unless you get lucky or are a media darling,” he said.
Libertarians face a substantial foe for the top third-party bragging rights. Rutherford doesn’t like the term “fringe” for parties besides the Republicans and Democrats, but he acknowledges that the Tea Party currently has the most momentum among them.
Rutherford likes their enthusiasm, but finds Tea Party supporters inconsistent in their aim to reduce taxes without an equal emphasis on cutting spending. Tea Partiers share Libertarians’ dislike of the political dominance of Democrats and Republicans, but Rutherford said the Tea Party “picks and chooses when big government is OK,” and has too many members who still want their Medicare.
“Libertarians say you can’t have it both ways,” Rutherford said.
If history is any guide, neither the Libertarian Party nor the Tea Party is likely to compete with the Democratic or Republican parties in mainstream politics anytime soon, said Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis political science professor Brian Vargus. The United States actually has more than 50 active parties. The most successful in recent years was Ross Perot’s Reform Party, which not only had a well-known leader at the top of the ticket, but made significant inroads at the grassroots level in the 1990s.
The Reform Party’s fortunes have faded, Vargus said. That’s largely because sustaining a bottom-up political strategy in the long-term is incredibly difficult. Most people pay little attention to politics, Vargus said, and when polled, about a third of voters in any congressional district can’t name any candidate running. So they fall back on socialization and vote for the party their parents favored – or vote the opposite way for the same reason.
Grassroots efforts can have a big impact on local races, where investments in shoe leather could literally introduce a candidate to every voter. But bottom line, Vargus said, it’s tough for a political party to build sustainable support quickly.
“This would be equivalent to turning the Queen Mary around in the White River,” Vargus said.
Rutherford understands the challenge. But he said Libertarians are here for the long haul, and he’s committed to helping them gain ground.
“When I first got involved, one of the hardest, biggest things we had to overcome was no one had heard the word ‘Libertarian.’ Now the biggest problem is people misunderstand the term,” he said. “We’ve made the hurdle. It’s made the vernacular. Now we can educate people what it means.”•
This story was originally published by the Indianapolis Business Journal July 6, 2010.