Photo by Jeanne RiceIn a country just now coming to grips with its millions of Muslim residents, and in a county that not long ago freaked out about the construction of a Hindu temple in Buena Park, a Druid running for governor is bound to raise eyebrows. But Libertarian gubernatorial candidate and Druid Gary Copeland doesn't just tolerate the flak: he welcomes it, like a guy who wrote the kick-me note he stuck on his own back—even when the flak is fired by fellow Libertarians.
"It doesn't bother me at all," says Copeland. "It's not an issue with me. It's their issue, not mine. When people speak, they speak for who they are. . . . It's my path to serve, and I'm doing that. I know not everyone's going to agree, but that's okay."
But everything's not entirely okay. Copeland doesn't mask his annoyance at a Newsweek article that dismissed him as a "whacko" or with postings on a Libertarian e-mail list that chastised him for noting that he's a Druid in the California voter's guide, although he didn't note that he once advocated the use of LSD for spiritual purposes.
Indeed, it seems there's unease within the party over Copeland's unconventional religious beliefs—a "culture of peer pressure," Copeland calls it—that one wouldn't expect from the liberty-loving Libs. It's as if it's all right for Copeland to harbor unusual religious beliefs so long as he doesn't talk much about them.
"Since Libertarians are a third party, we find it difficult to be taken seriously or to be considered by voters," says Mark Murphy, director of a group called Libertarian Activists and a former member of the Orange County Libertarian Party Central Committee. "Obviously, we want voters to see we aren't any different from many of them. So, when Gary—who's a friend of mine, by the way—declares himself a Druid, there's a concern that trying to be taken seriously just went out the window."
Doug Scribner disagrees. "I'm upset that people would find his beliefs a setback to his candidacy. After all, how many Christian politicians openly proclaim their beliefs in ballot guides?" says Scribner, vice chairman of the county's Libertarian Party.
Copeland remains philosophical about the criticism; indeed, he remains philosophical about everything. When you talk to him, he's philosophical at a hundred miles per hour and will frequently answer questions as if he's reading from a Celtic I Ching. Why is he running for governor, for instance? "Because the path brought me here," he says.
It can be kind of frustrating. But beneath it, there's a refreshing sense that Copeland is deeply invested in his beliefs, both as a Druid and a Libertarian.
"It's an asset," he says. "I love my Druidry as much as I love my Libertarianism. I describe myself as an existentialist libertarian Druid. If I can't find an answer from one philosophy, I go to another. Anything that's indefinable, I go to Druidry."
Copeland says Druidry is a Celtic philosophy of magic, similar to the more popular Wicca. It's a circle of logic and spirituality based on the ideal of service to others—like The Lion King minus the cheesy soundtrack. One of the central tenets of Druidry is that no one should have authority over anyone but himself or herself—a point Copeland illustrates with a reference to The Lord of the Rings, noting that the ring Frodo carries has "so much power that, even if you did good things with it, it would pervert, subvert and seduce you."
"That is the basis of all Celtic philosophy: that absolute power corrupts absolutely."
That idea led Copeland to the steadfastly secular Libertarian Party. Around 1980, Copeland was working with Timothy Leary's Brotherhood of Eternal Love to spread the gospel of LSD and enlightenment when he got busted. Fortunately for him, he says, he was screwing the narcotics agent. Not wanting to deal with that, he says, the cops charged him only with low-level possession.
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"I was using LSD to be spiritually enlightened," he says. "I was one of those peyote people who for thousands of years had been using hallucinogens to connect to the spiritual world. Who were the cops to tell me I couldn't?"
Soon after, he began running the Orange County branch of NORML, the marijuana-legalization folks, and soon after that, he fell in with the anti-prohibitionist Libertarians. In 1992, he ran for Congress against Dana Rohrabacher—himself a former Libertarian—and got killed, garnering just 7.7 percent of the vote. In '96, he ran for county supervisor, beating the Democrat in the race—which tells you something about the state of the Democratic Party in Orange County. He has worked in computers and recently founded his own company, NextCure, which will distribute information on drugs under FDA review.
None of this really gives him a leg up in the gubernatorial race against berbland rivals Davis and Simon, but Copeland would rather run as he is than tailor his biography and message for the mainstream.
"The problem with most politicians is that they're pretending to be something they're not," he says. "They're trying to be something outside their natures. They think people won't like them if they're different. But people like to go to a taco stand and try different tacos. I'm not stupid; when I put the Druid thing in, I knew it would be a hook. If I hadn't done it, I wouldn't be talking to you right now."