When you're a Libertarian candidate in Maryland, garnering more than 1 percent of the vote on Election Day counts as a win. But for Shawn Quinn, candidate for governor, nothing short of toppling both the major-party candidates will feel like victory.
"People think I'm nuts," Quinn said last week. "But I want to be the next governor of Maryland."
The Libertarian Party, founded in 1971, has never won more than a full percentage point of Maryland voters in statewide races.
Quinn is undeterred.
"I'm attacking this one voter at a time," he said.
The 52-year-old Lusby man spent two decades in the Navy as an aviation mechanic, then worked at a dive shop and taught CPR for the Red Cross. He says he also worked as a sheriff and corrections officer in Newport News, Va.
Quinn says that hodgepodge of jobs helped him develop his Libertarian philosophy that the best way to give people liberty is to get the government out of their lives. These days Quinn is semi-retired; he drives a tanker truck at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, where he was born.
Quinn says he solicits donations of only $5 apiece, and funds much of his campaign expenses out of his own pocket. In his most recent campaign finance report, from June, he said he had $1,300 on hand.
He never expects to raise enough cash to put out a television ad.
"I'm not doing this to become a celebrity," he said.
Next week, however, he plans to protest at the one of the state's biggest political events of the year. Organizers of the annual Maryland Association of Counties conference in Ocean City have declined Quinn's request to participate in a gubernatorial candidates' forum with Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Republican businessman Larry Hogan.
"MACo has decided to limit participation to the parties and candidates who have historically demonstrated significant statewide voter interest and support," Michael Sanderson, the association's executive director, wrote in an email.
Quinn's one-voter-at-a-time approach is, therefore, a necessity.
His platform hews to the limited-government and non-intervention policies of the Libertarian Party. Quinn wants to eliminate pensions for all politicians and impose maximum eight-year term limit on every office.
He wants to halve the state's sales tax from 6 to 3 percent, and cut income tax rates for people and all corporations to a flat 2 percent.
Quinn says he hasn't worked out all the details yet on how those cuts would impact Maryland's budget. But he promises that, if elected, he will hold an open house in Annapolis for two hours each weekday for people to stop by and meet with him.
He said he sees a lot of common ground between himself and Democrat Heather Mizeur, the Montgomery County delegate whose insurgent campaign drew passionate grass-roots support during the primary.
Like Mizeur, Quinn wants to legalize marijuana. But where Mizeur wanted to tax it and spend the proceeds on pre-kindergarten programs, Quinn wants to limit taxes on it so pot remains inexpensive. That, he said, discourages a black market for drugs.
Bob Johnston, chairman of the Maryland Libertarian Party, said that if Quinn can get to 10 percent of the vote on Nov. 4, "that would be a groundswell."
Roughly 14,000 of Maryland's 3.7 million voters have registered with the Libertarian Party, about 5,000 more than those registered with the Green Party.
"The electoral process is a means for getting our message out. Our vote totals have started to go up slowly," Johnston said. "We don't need to win a major office. When your candidates start polling in double digits in a three-way race, the other candidates have to change what they say."
In 2010, Libertarian candidate Susan Gaztanaga picked up 0.8 percent over the vote, amassing 14,137 votes to Gov. Martin O'Malley's more than 1 million. The party didn't field a candidate for the 2006 contest. In 2002, Spear Lancaster won 0.68 percent of the vote.
Johnston says Quinn's affable nature and relentless optimism bring something a little different to the Libertarian ticket this year.
"A lot of the Libertarians are very rational and academic," Johnston said. "Shawn really knows how to work a room."
And he rarely misses an opportunity to tell people they have more than two choices in the November election. In Baltimore last week, a man looking for directions approached Quinn and asked if he was a police officer.
"No, but I'm running for governor," he said, and reached into his pocket for his business card, which features the muscled, pipe-smoking leprechaun he uses as a campaign logo.
"Maybe in November you'll give me a chance," Quinn said.
Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College, said the two-party system leaves Quinn with grim odds of surpassing either Brown or Hogan on Election Day.
"It's conceivable that if Anthony Brown and Larry Hogan were caught together in an opium den — with prostitutes — in that case, it might be possible for a third party candidate to break through," Eberly said.
Susan Gaztanaga, the 2010 candidate — her husband, Lorenzo, ran for lieutenant governor in 2002, and is Quinn's running mate this year — says this year's ticket faces the same obstacles she did.
"People in the media perpetuate the idea of there only being two candidates, and it's really an uphill battle," she said. "We're normal people who just want a chance to be heard."