ALBANY, Ga. -- The word "Libertarian" used to be the punchline to some bad political joke. But with the growing interest in the ideology of the Libertarian Party -- nationally, statewide and locally -- no one's laughing anymore.
The Southwest Georgia chapter of the party has 150 active members and plans to get even bigger. Given the number of frustrated Democrats and Republicans dotting the spectrum of the political landscape and growing interest in the so-called tea party, it's not a stretch to project that happening.
"The Libertarian party is the party of inclusion," Tim Nelson, the recently elected vice chair of the Southwest Georgia chapter of the party, said. "Our members may not agree personally on issues like abortion and immigration, but we agree with every person's right to make those choices for themselves.
"Libertarians are for small government, they're fiscally conservative and they believe a free-market economy should be responsible for creating jobs, not the government. We're not looking for a certain 'kind' of person; everyone's welcome."
Nelson found the local Libertarian Party through the SWGAPolitics.com political blog of Jeff Sexton and Tom Knighton, both advocates of the party. And he soon realized he'd found his calling.
"It turns out I've always been a Libertarian, even though I never knew the party existed," Nelson laughs.
Now the newly converted party member is singing the praises of a slate of Libertarian candidates that has made its way onto the Georgia ballot, including Chuck Donovan, who is running for U.S. Senate, gubernatorial candidate John Monds, Rhonda Martini -- lieutenant governor, Don Smart -- attorney general, David Chastain -- secretary of state, Kira Willis -- school superintendent, Shane Bruce -- insurance commissioner, Kevin Cherry -- agriculture commissioner, and William Costa -- labor commissioner.
Local Libertarians will be able to add Sexton to that list when he officially qualifies to run for a vacant seat on the Leesburg City Council.
But the governor's race is the one that party members across the state are keeping their eye on.
"That's the best thing going for us," Nelson said. "If Monds can get 20 percent of the vote, our candidates will be allowed to run in the future as members of a recognized political party. Now we have to secure signatures to get on the ballot, and that can be costly and time-consuming.
"I think he has a good chance of doing well, and that would be huge for Georgia. Three candidates gives voters more choice. My hope is that voters will vote for the person with whom they share similar beliefs. I hope they don't say 'I agree with so-and-so, but he doesn't have a chance to win so I'm voting for someone else.' It's a way to let the career politicians know you're not happy with the way things are going."
The Libertarian movement started in the 1970s -- "This is not a fly-by-night organization," Nelson says -- and there are those who say if it is ever going to make serious political hay, the party's time is now.
"People say they're looking for change," Nelson says, "and the Libertarian Party can provide it. We're going to make a widespread effort to get the word out during this election year, let people know there is another viable choice.
"We welcome anyone; we exclude no one. Everyone is welcome to come to our meetings to see what we stand for. If you disagree with issues like the federal government trying to tell us how to educate our children in Southwest Georgia, of the federal government providing 10 percent of the state's education budget then forcing programs that cost 30 percent of the budget, then come take a look at the Libertarian Party."
Persons interested in finding out more about the local Libertarian Party may call Nelson at (229) 395-9249.