Reform's raison d'

Reform Party activists prepare for what could be a showdown between the forces of Ross Perot and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

By Sarah Keech
July 23, 1999 5:00PM (UTC)
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Although George W. Bush, Al Gore and Bill Bradley are the current front-runners
in the still embryonic 2000 presidential race, they may want to take a collective
look over their shoulders as November 2000 approaches. While the Republicans cling
blindly to their $36 million baby and the Democrats ponder the pros and cons of
an Internet addict and a former hoops star, the Reform party is quietly looking
for its own presidential candidate.

With the Reform party's recent success across the nation, highlighted by the
election of Jesse
Ventura
to the governorship of Minnesota last November and the prospect of
$13 million in federal matching funds, the upcoming presidential election may be
the party's first legitimate chance to win the White House. At the least, the Reform Party may yet again add some flavor to a presidential race that, up to now, has been as exciting as Melba
toast.

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While party founder Ross Perot remains coy about his plans for 2000, he is still a force to be reckoned with within the Reform Party.
Meanwhile, Ventura's candidate of choice appears to be former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker. The two
met for three hours in New York City last month to discuss the possibilities of a
presidential run. On CNN's "Late Edition" last week, Ventura spoke of their
meeting. "I thought that Lowell would be a good national candidate for us to step
forward with. I think on the national level, we need to come forward with
somebody with some name recognition." Both men have avoided firm answers on the
subject ever since. In an interview with Salon News, Weicker said he thinks
Ventura "is a fine man. What you see is what you get." Despite this mutual
love-fest, Weicker is not scheduled to speak at this weekend's Reform Party National Convention in Dearborn, Mich., and says he is still not sure if he will even attend.

But whether he's there or not, Weicker will loom large as subtext as the rowdy bunch
of political
malcontents
known fondly as the Reform Party gathers in Dearborn. In recent
months, a vital split among warring tribes of megalomaniacs, led by generals Perot
and Ventura respectively, has divided the Reform Party. This weekend's
convention will be a crucial test for Reformers as a viable political force, as the "party of none of the above" struggles to find an identity.

It is well known that Perot, father of the Reform Party and two-time
presidential nominee, refuses to acknowledge the recent success of Ventura. The
Texas chapter of the Reform Party has blasted Ventura for courting Weicker,
commenting in their Saturday message, "It is not Gov. Ventura's place to tell
the members of the Reform party whom they should select as candidates."

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Tension between the Perot and Ventura wings
has been widely suggested as the reason
Russell Verney, current chairman of the Reform Party and Perot loyalist, will
step down from his position after the party's national convention. But Doug
Friedline, campaign manager to Ventura and president of Ventura for
Minnesota, explained that the governor's recent outspoken leadership is not an
attempt at a power grab.

"The governor wants to stick together, to unify the party," Friedline said. "He respects Mr. Perot. Without Ross Perot the Reform party would not be here today ... But the governor wants a new candidate for the presidential election.
He wants a credible candidate who will be a major force in 2000."

Verney admits not knowing much about Weicker's background and points out that Perot "has not made a statement," in regard to his plans in 2000. The current chairman said that whoever runs as the Reform candidate "will need to review the party platform and endorse the
party platform. Then he will need to present his skills, experience and vision to
the party members over the next few months."

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Verney went on to add that "the candidate will have to have principle, integrity and
pledge to tell the public the truth," and be a strong advocate for government reform.

So is Weicker up to the run? That is the question of the moment. There's no exploratory committee, no FEC filings, no Web site -- yet. But Weicker certainly speaks in generalities fitting of a top-notch presidential contender. "To be
successful on the national level, a third-party candidate must be a centrist and have a wide appeal, addressing many issues -- the broad spectrum, not just one issue. Once established, the third party would produce true competition,
resulting in ideas and actions far superior to those in government today."

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Weicker is a true political maverick. The former Republican member of Congress
left the party to win the governorship of Connecticut as an independent. And
looking at Weicker's history in politics, it is obvious he is no stranger to
two-pronged attacks -- from both the left and the right.

Weicker's early career in politics is littered with the sorts of problems all
moderate Republicans face; he was too socially liberal for the controlling
conservative right wing of the party, too fiscally conservative to join the
Democrats. He is pro-choice and against school prayer. He believes that term
limits "take power out of people's hands." His three terms in the Senate are
marked with his overwhelming support of traditionally Democratic liberal social
issues. In 1988, he introduced what was to become the Americans with Disabilities
Act, and he was one of the first politicians to publicize AIDS awareness and seek
funding for research in the early '80s. In the late '70s, he helped create
legislation to protect the oceans from oil drilling and promote fish farming.
While still in the Senate, he took an active interest in oceanic research and
Hydro-Lab, an underwater habitation, where he spent a total of 10 days
underwater.

Social and environmental issues notwithstanding, Weicker's most damaging and
noted "betrayal" of the Republican Party came during the Watergate investigation,
when he led the charge against the Nixon administration. A March 1973 editorial
in the Bridgeport Post praised his diligence to seek the truth, and asked, "What more
could be asked of a United States senator?" Republican colleagues, on the other
hand, remembered this transgression and quickly turned against him.

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Weicker has already done battle with the Bush political dynasty. In
1982, with the support of national party officials, Prescott Bush Jr., uncle to
current Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush, challenged Weicker
for his Senate seat in the Republican primary. But, after 51 of 69 Republicans in
the Connecticut state legislature endorsed Weicker, Bush dropped out of the race; Weicker went on to win his third term in the Senate. Eventually his failing
relations with state and national Republican party officials cost him his seat.
In 1988, Weicker lost to Democrat Joe Lieberman, with 49 percent of the vote to Lieberman's 50 percent.

In 1990, feeling his strength was with the people rather than the establishment,
Weicker registered as an independent and ran as the "A Connecticut Party" candidate
for governor. Running on a platform of name recognition and a promise not to
increase taxes, Weicker won the three-way race.

But sometimes winning is the easy part. Just as Weicker was sworn into office in
January 1991, Connecticut was falling into economic chaos. Connecticut in the
early '90s, like the rest of the nation, was facing an economic recession. As
governor, Weicker was shackled with enormous debt, increasing unemployment and,
as an independent, no allies in the state legislature to turn to for help and support.

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"The problem was simple," Weicker said. "The state was about to go belly up,
corporate taxes and the sales tax were already the highest in the nation and we
were facing a $1 billion deficit -- and this was the wealthiest state in the Union.
Something had to be done to get out of the red and keep out of the red."

The answer to the economic crisis came in the form of a statewide income tax -- Connecticut's first. Weicker knew the consequences the proposed tax would have on his political
future, but he also understood it was the only way to get the state moving in the
right direction. The income tax did not go over well with his constituents. On
Connecticut radio call-in shows during the early years of Weicker's tenure as governor,
in the face of a level of economic hardship unmatched since the Great Depression, people often cursed Weicker's name. The low point for Gov. Weicker came when a
Republican-led rally to repeal the tax sent more than 15,000 people to the
streets surrounding the capitol building.

Even with the economic controversy, Weicker managed to exert his independent
influence in the state legislature. He signed off on legislation protecting gays
and lesbians from discrimination, he worked to improve tense race relations and
he pushed through strict gun control laws. But, in the end, the hallmark of his
four years in Hartford turned out to be what was most controversial -- the
personal income tax.

Weicker calls Connecticut's current economic situation "terrific." The residents
enjoy the highest personal income in the nation, business is booming and,
although the income tax still exists, it has been significantly reduced. The
success of Weicker's income tax has other states looking. A March editorial
in New Hampshire's Concord Monitor suggests implementing a similar
tax there, stressing, "a state income tax worked in Connecticut. It would work
here too."

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Weicker's tenure as governor was also a major breakthrough for third-party
candidates. The New York Times praised his work in April 1994: "Mr. Weicker,
most politicians grant, has proven that a governor can govern without a major
party behind him. He has accustomed the state to hearing its chief executive say
what many people think: partisan politics does not make good government."

Over the past decade, third-party candidates at the local and state levels have
established a political foothold all over the country with great electoral
success. Currently, independent politicians hold two governorships -- Ventura in
Minnesota and Angus King in Maine -- and in 1998, Democratic party bad boy Jerry
Brown registered independent and was elected mayor of Oakland, Calif. Each
of these politicians has faced criticism from the traditional partisan loyalists but they are also enjoying huge popularity with their constituents.

In his 32 years in public service, Weicker has had the kind of success that makes
the current front-runners quake in their boots. He has proven it is possible for
a third-party candidate to build coalitions that result in tangible progress.

"It's real," said Craig Crawford, editor in chief of the Hotline, Washington's
daily journal for political junkies, referring to the threat of a third-party
candidate. "It's pretty incredible the unprecedented animosity toward the two
parties right now. Both parties are as unpopular as they have ever been."

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Crawford went on to explain that third-party candidates attract fewer traditional
voters. But he went on to stress, "the only way a third party can take off is to
crystallize around an individual" who can be a major figure on the national stage.

Whether or not Lowell Weicker will try to become that figure will be a big part of
the discussion at the national convention this weekend, but a final decision from
Weicker himself could come relatively soon. Friedline expects Weicker to make a
decision on his presidential prospects in the next 30 to 60 days.

Crawford gave the Reformers a fighting chance in the 2000 presidential campaign, but said they would be better off with their most prominent politician at the top of the ticket. "Ventura could take the party further" than Weicker, he said. Still, he added, the former governor would be "a decent name to maintain the Reform Party."


Sarah Keech

Sarah Keech is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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