Small party, big ideas 

Back in the early ’70s, a student at the University of Michigan asked Human Rights Party leader Zolton Ferency whether he had ever smoked pot.

"‘I’m already high,’" was his response, recalls Regina "Reggie" McNulty, a 75-year-old Oak Park resident who was Ferency’s running mate in Michigan’s 1974 gubernatorial race. "We were all high on our beliefs – on what we thought could be possible. We thought we could change Michigan and the country and the world."

Formed by about three dozen dissatisfied Democrats at a Southfield motel in 1970 (and using the hippopotamus as its symbol), the party garnered enough petition signatures to appear on local ballots the next year. Followers dreamed of bringing about a socialist, democratic society based on equal rights for everyone, even if their high-water campaign only garnered 1 percent of the vote.

In contrast to today’s widespread cynicism about politics, McNulty remembers fondly the days of the Human Rights Party – a time of political activism sparked by the turmoil of the Vietnam War.

Inside her Oak Park home, where she has lived for 50 years, hangs a reminder from that era – a Life magazine cover depicting the deadly 1970 crackdown on student protestors at Kent State University.

McNulty also protested the Vietnam War, sometimes bringing along her two young children. Now those children are grown, but McNulty continues to preach the defunct party’s message to anyone who will listen, with the hope that someday there could be a revival – not just in ’60s and early ’70s fashion and music, but also in politics.

Matter of proportion

The Human Rights Party called for a new system that would blast Michigan politics wide-open: replacing the Legislature with a one-house (unicameral) body based on proportional representation; parties would receive seats according to the percentage of the popular vote they received.

Such a system, which can have several variations, is being used in New Zealand, South Africa, Cambridge, Mass., and elsewhere.

"If you get 10 percent of the vote in South Africa, then you get 10 percent of the seats in the legislature," says Eric Olson, deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. "If the Green Party in this country gets 10 percent of the votes, they get nothing.

"Under the current ‘winner-takes-all system,’" he explains, "you could conceivably get 49 percent of the vote and might never receive representation."

In addition to proportional representation, the Human Rights Party called for free health care, a moratorium on highway building, increased mass transportation, public ownership of waterfront property, and publicly owned utilities.

"We were feminists, we were socialists, and we were environmentalists," says McNulty, who chaired the party’s Oakland County branch. However, she says, the main focus was proportional representation, in hopes that would empower voters to make other changes. Proponents maintain that proportional representation is the most important step toward a more democratic United States.

"One argument is that you would have greater voter turnout – I’ve heard from 5 to 10 percent higher at the state level," says University of Michigan political science professor Barry Rabe. "The main incentive to vote is that (people) think their vote matters more … and that you could create a greater prospect for Zolton Ferency, or people like you and I to be successful."

But the concept has never become popular. Discussion of it is mostly limited to academic circles, Rabe says. Democrats and Republicans, he says, have little incentive to back a system that helps third parties. And many people may be uncomfortable with the idea of electing officials who don’t get a majority of the vote, he says.


Ferency, who died at age 70 in 1993, was Michigan’s best-known voice for proportional representation. A longtime Democratic Party insider, Ferency became state party chairman in ’63 and failed in a gubernatorial bid in ’66. He quit the state party chairmanship in ’68 in opposition to President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War. Six years later he topped the Human Rights Party ticket along with McNulty. They ran against incumbent Republican William Milliken, Democrat Sander Levin and their running mates, and against several other minor party candidates. Ferency and McNulty got about 28,700 votes, about 1 percent of the total.

"We knew we weren’t going to win," McNulty says. "We just wanted to get the word out."

McNulty, a retired district court clerk, is still keen on getting that message out – particularly the part about proportional representation. Although Ferency eventually returned to the Democratic Party, he pushed proportional representation until the end. McNulty doesn’t grab headlines the way Ferency did with his numerous political fights, but she stays the course quietly.

"By pushing, I mean talking to people in the market, everywhere," she says, laughing. "Whenever I’m in a political conversation, I end up saying, ‘We can change things, you know? And the most important thing is to change the electoral system.’"

Red Squad target

Harmless as McNulty seems today, in the ’70s the now-defunct Red Squad of the Michigan State Police kept close tabs on her as it did others it considered subversive.

McNulty spreads the contents of her Red Squad file across a flowered tablecloth on her wooden dining table as a way of mapping out her past.

The dossier, which she obtained in 1990, contains newspaper articles about McNulty and Ferency, a record of her comings and goings from airports, and a listing of license plates from cars parked outside political meetings.

After the release of the files, McNulty remembers, "One of the reporters asked me how I felt about this whole business of the Red Squad. … I tried to be cheerful. I said, ‘They’re the only ones who kept a good record of all the great things I did!’"

Moving pebbles

Six years after Ferency’s death, the country is preparing for another presidential election. Nowadays, however, the energy that fueled political life in the 1960s and early 1970s has long since faded.

While lamenting the current state of politics, McNulty ponders aloud about starting an educational fund to promote proportional representation. She says lawyers would probably donate as a memorial to Ferency, who was a lawyer and a Michigan State University professor.

According to Rabe, alienation from the major political parties could fuel interest in ideas such as proportional representation. He says that alienation will likely increase with partisan redistricting struggles after the year 2000.

Meanwhile, McNulty joins protests – including recent ones against Nike sweatshops and the bombing of Iraq – in addition to talking up proportional representation. Ferency would be proud, she says.

"We would discuss whatever terrible was happening," she says, her hazel eyes brimming with tears beneath silver-rimmed glasses. Then, she laughs. "And he would always say, ‘Well, what are you doing, Reggie?’ And I would say, ‘Moving mountains, Zolton – pebble by pebble.’"

For more information, call McNulty at 248-542-7190.

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