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.
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."
What does she think about the Republican Party's rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment?
"I'm going to call my friends in the Ripon Society, who consider themselves liberal Republicans, and see what they are doing. I just can't imagine . . . [ they could now vote Republican]. If I were them, I couldn't accept that behavior."
Ms. Harris believes the united States is not as conservative as it appears at the moment.
"The conservative element that the media talks about is in the Congress because that is where the conservative money is being put. Congressional election reforms should be looked at very closely. [The religious fundamentalists] are well-financed, well-organized. They are a small percentage of the population who are doing a lot of damage to people like [Senators George] McGovern and [Frank] Church. Those two are constantly under attack in the crudest forms. This very vociferous minority of people are snapping headlines -- things like exposing a fetus, obnoxious forms of behavior. To me, it seems so unchristian."
Ms. Harris was raised by her grandparents in fundamentalist country.
"Some of the missionaries down there were notoriously bad," she claims. "If I have any scars of experience, it is going through what I call the 'missionary syndrome.'
"The missionaries were saying that something was wrong with grandfather, who stayed traditional, while grandmother took Christianity. That experience made me question people in authority and institutions more rapidly than Fred did."
Although Fred, her husband, who is teachiung at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, encourages her and was planning a fund raiser for the Citizens Party the next week, he has decided to stay in the Democratic Party. He supported Kennedy for president.
Switching parties was no great crisis for Ms. Harris.
"I think it's easier for women to adjust to change. It sounds sexist in some way, but I don't mean it to be. In our little organization [Americans for Indian Opportunity], we find that men of a certain age find it difficult to be flexible in an organization.
"The same with Fred and me in the kitchen. When he cooks, he stands right by the stove and watches it cook. I'll load a washinbg in, turn on the water outside, any number of things, while i cook. We think it's part of our socialization of men."
The Harrises have three children: one daughter who is a lawyer, another studying political science, and a son who is a filmmaker. "We all voted that he doesn't have to be political."
Ms. Harris says her youngest daughter is a strong feminist and a strong Indian. But the feminist movement did not affect herm until about 10 years ago, in Washington, when she noticed her women friends in government were paid less than men and, because of their sex, were not allowed to travel in their jobs.
What would she feel if the Equal Rights Amendment fails to pass?
"I don't know. Like the Supreme Court decision [barring the use of federal money for abortions] -- that was such a hurtful thing to me. I've seen them make decisions that I was against, but something about this was very personal. I resent it destroying my faith in the American system and istitutions."
Clearly, before Washington, Ms. Harris was already different from most senators' wives. "I turned out to be the only Senate wife to testify before Congress, on appropriations for the Office of Economic Opportunity. There was no fighting my participation in those things."
In that context, her switch to a different party from her husband is not surprising. "I had become so tired of struggling for the programs of the '50s, '60s and '70s, programs maintaining human services, raising the consciousness of people so it would be acceptable to have women's programs.
"When the presidential campaign started and I was watching it on television, I became very angry. I was literally screaming at the television, feeling frustrated and helpless. It didn't take me long to decide to support the citizens Party because it was something positive and would help my mental health.I had been becoming so negative that I felt I could easily drop out of the system, out of participation."
When Ms. Harris was asked to run as the party's vice-president, her participation began in earnest. All over the country, she was working to keep alive her hope and the voices of the Democratic left.
Just 5 percent of the November vote, only 5 percent -- but it looks like a tall order for the Citizens Party.