Las Vegas Sun

July 7, 2015

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New parties registered to muddy political waters

In an effort to mislead voters — or mock the system — Nevada political operatives find little resistance in forming parties

Political operatives in Nevada have adopted a new tactic to confuse voters and influence elections. They are co-opting the names of political movements with which they have no affiliation — and often those they’re at odds with.

Remember U.S. Senate candidate Jon Scott Ashjian’s “Tea Party of Nevada”? Those claiming to be true Tea Party adherents claimed he was an impostor, and sued in a failed attempt to remove him from the ballot.

Another example came last week when a former Republican organizer registered the name “Tequila Party of Nevada” with the secretary of state’s office. This came two days after the Sun broke the news that Hispanic leaders were debating whether to form an independent grass-roots political group by the same name.

The individuals who registered the Tequila Party name, George Harris and Irma Aguirre, did not discuss their plans with Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, Nevada’s oldest Hispanic political group, and one of the leaders behind the idea. In fact, Republican political operative Chuck Muth (who later taunted Romero on his blog, “if you snooze, you lose”) admits having hatched the plan.

Muth said Harris, an anti-tax conservative and past chairman and treasurer of the Clark County GOP, had toyed with the idea of forming a “Hispanic Party of Nevada” earlier this year, but the effort fizzled. Then he saw the Sun story, publicizing the Tequila Party name and the Hispanic leaders’ plan.

“I said, ‘You ought to form it rather than let Fernando do it,’ ” Muth said he told Harris.

A day later, Aguirre prepared the party’s organizing documents, and Muth delivered them to the secretary of state.

“I was totally caught off guard,” Romero said. “I’ve known both of them for many years, and I basically consider them friends. Why they did this without actually calling me, I don’t know. I assume the fact they have a tequila product to sell might have something to do with it.”

Harris and Aguirre founded Alien Tequila Spirits Co., a small tequila producer. They also own a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas.

Romero said he has considered suing Harris and Aguirre, but won’t “if they carry forth the message that they say that they are.” The Tequila Party’s principles include educating Hispanics to make more informed political decisions, empowering them to choose schools that are best for their children and pursuing “common sense” immigration reform. Harris and Aguirre also list as party tenets low taxes, small government and free-market capitalism, more traditionally Republican agendas that could run counter to their empowerment platforms.

Muth is no stranger to registering political parties with misleading names. He’s behind Nevada’s recently founded “Organized Labor Party,” another GOP creation intended to sound like a Democratic group.

Unlike Aguirre, who despite co-opting the Tequila Party name says she legitimately wants the group to help empower Hispanics, Muth admits his party is a political stunt. Muth founded the Organized Labor Party to protest Ashjian’s Tea Party, and more specifically Secretary of State Ross Miller’s approval of it.

“Sometimes the best way to expose absurdity is with absurdity,” Muth said.

Click to enlarge photo

Political organizer Fernando Romero says if immigration reform isn't tackled soon, Hispanics may strike out on their own.

He maintains that Ashjian and his Tea Party of Nevada label should not have been allowed on the November ballot because he did not collect enough signatures. Muth, Tea Party leaders and the conservative Independent American Party of Nevada sued Ashjian and Miller twice to try to remove the party from the ballot. They lost.

Ashjian, a former Republican, registered the name “Tea Party of Nevada” with Miller’s office in January and announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in March. Leaders of dozens of Nevada Tea Party groups immediately denounced him and accused him of stealing their name. Many claimed Ashjian was a plant of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid intended to split the conservative vote. Ashjian maintained that he was a legitimate Tea Party candidate.

“Clearly the Tea Party was an effort to pull votes away from Republicans,” Muth said this week. “So we organized OLP. Two can play that game.”

Around the same time, Muth said, he noted to Harris: “We could get all sorts of people to form all sorts of parties.”

The process for qualifying as a minor party is simple: File organizing documents with the secretary of state and collect signatures to earn a spot on the ballot. There isn’t even a filing fee.

Ross Miller

Ross Miller

The name-taking strategy isn’t unique but has rarely been used in Nevada and never with such frequency, local political observers said.

In 2004, Colorado Republicans accused Democrats of registering two parties — the Gun Owners’ Rights Party and the Pro Life Party — in an effort to mislead voters and siphon votes away from the GOP. The effort failed. The parties never called a convention, never nominated candidates and, after the 2006 elections, were removed from the ballot.

Richard Winger, an expert on election law and the editor of Ballot Access News, said there’s no harm in the tactic unless a party makes it on the ballot and ultimately confuses voters.

Ashjian appeared on the Nevada ballot but won less than 1 percent of the vote. It’s expected that the Tequila Party will field a candidate in upcoming elections. The concern is that uneducated voters could fall for the trick.

Even Muth hopes his actions spur reform and that his party is decertified. “I hope the Legislature does plug this loophole to stop making a mockery of this process,” he said.

Secretary of state spokeswoman Pam duPre said Miller “is considering looking into the party formation statutes to see if they need some cleaning up and updating.” She would not say if that was in response to the lawsuits or recent claims of name stealing. She said that with Nevada’s tenuous budget, it’s not a priority.

So for now, Nevadans will have to wait and see if the Legislature acts — and hope that a Democrat-backed “Citizens against Obamacare” party or a Republican “Hope and Change” party don’t materialize.

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