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LaDonna Harris' Citizens Party wants just 5%

By June GoodwinStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 1980

New York

Cotton County, Okla., where LaDonna Harris grew up, harvests cotton, raises turkeys, and is home turf to "yellow dog Democrats." Her grandfather, a Comanche Indian with long braids, would have sooner voted for a yellow dog than a Republican. Like others in southwest Oklahoma, he looked to the party, rather than to churches or other institutions, to bring about social change during and after the depression.

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Ms. Harris knows in her bones that asking such people to switch parties is like asking them to change religions. But that doesn't stop her from asking.

Convinced that the two main parties are simply replicas of each other, she thinks the time has come for a third party in US politics. To her, candidate John Anderson "is a warmed-over Jimmy Carter, and the Democratic Party looks like a warmed-over Republican Party.It you put a blindfold on, you couldn't tell [Carter and REagan] from each other, aside from their accents. They may change their phraseology a bit -- 'superior arms over the Russians' to 'increasing arms control.' But it's not that much difference. Often you have to choose the lesser of two evils, but this is a case of the evil of two lessers. We have to stand up and disagree."

Hoping to speak to disenchanted American voters, especially the 100 million who did not vote in 1978, the Citizens Party was born in Cleveland in April this year. The convention, attended by 275 delegates representing 30 states, nominated the environmentalist and scientist Barry Commoner for president and for vice-president, LaDonna Harris, an activist on Indian issues and the wife of former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris.

Ms. Harris notes that none of what she considers the forces for change in American society -- the Vietnam war protests, the civil rights movement, the women's movement -- started in established institutions; they came through indidividuals organizing themselves as the Citizens Party has.

"We have to prove ourselves to a certain point; then we are going to attract the labor unions and other organizations," she says.

"We're babies," she admits. "But if we can get 5 percent of the nation's vote in November, we will qualify for federal funds, seed funds which will allow candidates to put themselves up for local office.

That essential 5 percent is the goal of the party members, whoe energies are devoted to collecting signatures on petitions that would allow the party on the ballot. The aim is to get on ballots in 35 states. For example, in New York, a major target along with populous California, the law requires 20,000 signatures.

In July, Ms. Harris came to New York for a fund-raising meeting (so far, money has come from a handful of wealthy people, but most of it is in small amounts) and to arouse interest in Harlem. Although the party has a rule that 20 percent of all officers and staff must be minorities, it has been called white and middle-class. And she attended a meeting sponsored by the women's caucus of the party.

"The Citizens Party is the only political group where women can get in on the ground floor," said Cindy Anderton, a party member in New York. Under party rules, 50 percent of the officers and staff of the party are women.

New York women (and 10 men) showed up in force at the July women's caucus meeting, sitting on the floor of a party member's apartment, throwing questions at Ms. Harris.

Although the Citizen sParty is far less unified on issues other than feminist ones, and is, in fact, still writing its platform, its major ideas include public control of energy and other key industries, reduced military spending, and a halt to nuclear power in favor of renewable energy sources.

Problems faced by the party are immediately evident and openly discussed. Some are: the party has not attracted attention from the press ("Perhaps we should have had a national press person," Ms. Harris said); membership is young and largely inexperienced; the Anderson campaign has kept some members waiting to see; and poor organization lost the party's attempt to get on the ballot in Masachusetts.

It was a hot summer night with no air conditioning in the room, but no one left the meeting early. Ms. Harris sat high on a mammoth cut-velvet sofa which looked large enough to seat a chief and a dozen advisers. her black hair hung below her shoulders.

How does she answer people who say they won't vote for the Citizens Party because that could put REagan in the White House?

"If there's no Citizens Party after November, there will be no voices out there. Kennedy is going to have either to withdraw totally from the Democratic Party, taking away a lieral 'voice', or follow Carter in some way. We must band together and give people an option."