The Body defeats the Midget

Jesse Ventura's backers slammed Ross Perot at the Reform Party convention. The prize: At least $30 million in campaign funds for a 2000 presidential race.

Published July 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The third annual convention of the Reform Party this past weekend was a gathering of the disenfranchised, the hopeful, the populist and the just plain weird.

But when it was all over, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's backers won a big victory when their candidate, Jack Gargan, defeated Patricia Benjamin of founder H. Ross Perot's wing of the party, in the race for party chair.

However significant the political battles, the most striking feature of the convention was its assortment of odd characters. Men who looked like potential assassins mixed with harmless outcasts with too much time on their hands; right-wingers and left-wingers came together, sharing suspicions about corporations and the political establishment; and eager activists dead serious about the need to challenge the Democrats and Republicans vied with personality cultists. Everyone paid his or her (or its) own way to participate in a scrappy three-day political convention just outside Detroit that sometimes resembled more of a high school week-in-Washington trip or a national gathering of "Star Trek" fans.

"Lousy communists! They killed Onassis' son and now they killed Kennedy's son!" steamed Reform Party member John Savas, an engineering consultant, reflecting some of the black-chopper and New World Order sentiment that could sometimes be heard among the 305 delegates and 150 or so observers on the convention floor.

The stakes were higher than the party's daffiness might suggest, however. Whomever the Reform Party nominates to run for president will receive $12.6 million in federal funding. Pat Choate, the party's vice-presidential candidate in 1996, estimates that the Reform Party ticket in 2000 will have a total of $30 million-$50 million at its disposal and should be on the ballot in every state.

"We are now a three-party system," Choate told Salon News. Choate says the Reform Party's positions on government reform issues -- term limits, campaign finance reform and protectionist trade measures -- stand as a clear contrast with the status quoism of the major parties' likely nominees, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "Then it's just a question of framing the debate as our candidate versus the other two," Choate explained.

Choate added that the virtual coronations of Gore and Bush are in themselves indicative of the bastardization of the Bill of Rights that is American politics at the end of the 20th century, and will drive even more voters into the Reform Party circus tent.

The weekend had been billed as a showdown between the party's two megalomaniac stars, Perot and Ventura. Ventura and his lieutenant governor, Mae Schunk, are the only Reform Party members to hold statewide elected office, and they got elected without any assistance from Perot and his Dallas cohorts.

But the confrontation never quite happened, even though Ventura had spent the last few weeks declaring that a Perot nomination would be a dead-end move for the party. Perot's popularity has clearly waned since he won 19 percent of the vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996.

Although the principals didn't clash openly, the Ventura and Perot camps did war with each other over details. Up for grabs was the chairmanship of
the party -- a race between vice-chair Benjamin --who'd been endorsed by Perot allies Choate and outgoing chair Russ Verney -- and Gargan, a
colorful, 68-year-old Floridian favored by Ventura.

With genteel nonchalance, Gargan charged that Perot's Dallas office didn't send him a list of delegates whom he could telephone in preparation for his campaign, as he had requested. Though Gargan shrugged off the arrogance of the Perot wing's refusal to provide him a list of voting delegates for what is supposed to be a democratically elected position in a populist movement, Gargan's struggle prompted even more floor murmurs about the need to reform the Reform Party.

The rules for next year's party nominating process were another source of conflict. Ventura and his supporters view the rules as prohibiting the candidacy of any candidate not as rich as, say, a certain diminutive Texarkansan.

Though various delegates attempted to create a ground swell of support to draft Donald Trump, General Colin Powell or Pat Buchanan as the party's presidential candidate for 2000, the weekend agenda mostly focused on the party as a whole, its leadership and its future.

On Friday night, the crowd heard from four speakers: octogenarian Doris Haddock, known as "Granny D," a Democrat who is walking across the country in the name of campaign finance reform; Paul Jacob, the national director of U.S. Term Limits; Dane Waters, an expert on the possibilities of initiatives and referendums; and Ventura himself, who spoke to the delegates via phone for about 15 minutes from his ranch home in Maple Grove, Minn.

Ventura had intended to attend the convention, but his plane was delayed for three hours because of bad weather. As he sat on the tarmac of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Ventura -- who had been experiencing severe back trouble -- decided he was in too much pain to make the trip, according to his spokesman.

"It is time to work together," Ventura told the crowd by phone. "If we are like bulldogs ... we can be successful ... If we unite and work together, we can elect the next president of the United States."

Though he was two states and a lake away, Ventura was represented well by Schunk; his campaign chair, Dean Barkley; his campaign manager, Doug Friedline; and his Internet guru, Phil Madsen. All the Venturans enjoyed a certain degree of convention celebrity, with Madsen most preposterously strutting around like Frank Sinatra at the Sands.

Saturday morning, after a ceremony honoring veterans, the convention virtually imploded over parliamentary minutiae. Infighting nearly caused the delegations of four states -- Virginia, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey -- to not be officially recognized at the national convention.

The Jersey delegation's dispute centered around a nasty battle between two New Jersey mobs, one of which is suing the other. After hearing from both sides in the dispute, an overwhelming majority of the national delegation refused to provide credentials for the officially recognized and affiliated organization -- which included Pat Benjamin of the party's Perot wing, an ominous sign for her candidacy for party chairman. A motion from the floor told the Jersey boys and girls to go into a room and not return until they could all play nice.

"These are the conflicts that occur, but we're taking care of them," said Steven Schoffler, 36, a self-employed metallurgical chemical supplier from Edwardsville, Ill. "It's democracy."

"It's like herding cats," U.S. Term Limits' Paul Jacob said of the task of a people's party. "A dog you can put on a leash, but a cat pretty much does whatever it damn well pleases." Jacob said that the infighting of the New Jersey group and others is a sign of the party's legitimacy. "At the Republican and Democratic conventions, people don't fight so much because they know the game. They get elected and they start handing out the jobs."

Another fight was waged behind the closed doors of the committee deciding requirements for the presidential nominees. The Ventura forces, pitted against the Perotistas, felt that the proposed nominating process excluded any candidate without the financial means to secure his name on the ballot in each of the 50 states. Ensuring a place on a state's ballot is a process weighted with expensive bureaucracy. A little cash goes a long way toward meeting the goal.

"Before we're going to fully embrace the National Reform Party, we need to make sure that it's a democratic and open-minded process," said Barkley, Ventura's 1998 campaign chair and a two-time losing Minnesota Senate candidate. The Reform Party is on the ballot in 19 states already, but Choate estimates it will need to spend about $2 million to secure a place on the ballot in the remaining 31.

The Venturans want the Reform Party to help foot the bill so as to lure candidates other than the cash-rich Perot into the fray. The Perot camp argues that the next candidate has to be able to bring something to the table to build the party. It took three days of effort, but a compromise was eventually hammered out requiring candidates to get the balloting process going themselves, with party aid -- and its millions of dollars in federal matching funds -- to come in due time.

Those working on the Reform Party platform were able to avoid some bickering by refraining from taking a position on some of the more divisive issues of the day, such as abortion, the death penalty and school prayer. By doing so, they are able to sit militia-esque gun enthusiasts in the same tent as ultra-left-wing Dr. Lenora Fulani, a perpetual candidate for office from the New Alliance Party and a candidate for Reform Party vice chair this past week.

They are unified in their view that something is rotten in the District of Columbia. They are outraged, and they are further outraged that others aren't more outraged.

But, joined in fellowship and common cause, the activists had occasional moments of levity.

Saturday night, before the party's stars spoke, Schunk led the crowd in some old-fashioned political cheerleading.

"If you're sick, you need a doctor, not a ... ?" the former schoolteacher said.

"Politician!" cheered the crowd.

"If you need to fix society, you need common citizens, not a ... ?"

"Politician!" whooped the masses.

Schunk was followed by outgoing Reform Party National Chairman Russ Verney, a Perotista who had endorsed Benjamin against the Ventura-backed Gargan.

Then came Choate. Having pushed for more stringent immigration laws, Choate strode to the podium to the background accompaniment of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." Suggesting that the creation of the American democracy "is not equal to its vision," Choate said that the Reform Party presidential nominee will be a real alternative to the "two princelings," Gore and Bush.

The real star of the show was Reform Party founder, leader, savior, two-time presidential nominee and American folk hero H. Ross Perot, who jetted in for an address full of applause lines, common-sense bromides and oversimplifications that make Jesse Ventura look like Adlai Stevenson.

"Not one penny of special-interest money paid for this convention; you paid for it with your own pocket," Perot said, the crowd hanging on his every word. Calling politics "a strange game played by strange rules," Perot pumped up the crowd, saying, "We're not going to get frustrated; we're gonna fix all that, right?"

Perot championed the party platform -- which, he said, their candidate will not only have read, but will run on. Some of the bullet points he highlighted -- between raucous cheers of approval -- included a "fair and paperless" tax system, a law requiring a national referendum before any tax increase and a return to ethics and morality among public officials.

When not delivering populist aphorisms and praise for the crowd, the leery Lilliputian took the opportunity to bash the media, his former pollster Frank Luntz and his former campaign aide Ed Rollins. He thanked the delegates and activists for their love of country and hard work and then hopped on a jet to return to Texas without mussing his hands by touching or meeting any of them.

"I get a kick out of how enthusiastic people are to his little anecdotes and stuff," said Sarah Lyons, a 36-year-old Staten Island word processor from the party's growing liberal wing.

Elvis having left the building, politicking for Sunday's votes resumed.

Saturday night, in Hospitality Suite 1001, vice-chair candidate Mike "Big Z" Zumbluskas -- a 39-year-old New Yorker between jobs -- provided an open bar and ear for interested delegates. Clad in purple-and-yellow shirts and caps with Big Z's trademark big "Z," the Big Z and his Z-boys -- who drove 12 hours in an RV to attend the convention -- served up peanuts and booze for open-minded activists and thirsty journalists.

A former Dungeons-and-Dragons player, Big Z -- the media darling of the weekend because he got everybody drunk -- sold himself to the Reformers as a big-picture kinda guy, looking at the party's future not just for 2000, but for 2040. Big Z pointed out that Reform Party status was lost in Nevada just because "no one knew that all you had to do was file papers."

Sunday's vote brought bad news for the Big Z; he didn't even make the second ballot of the top three vote-getters in the seven-person race.

In what was seen as a slap at the arrogance of the Perot faction, and another feather in the boa of former pro-wrestler Ventura, incumbent vice chair Benjamin was also defeated; Gargan, a self-confessed motorcycle-riding, night-crawling pool shark "with an eye for the ladies" won decisively, with 213 delegates to Benjamin's 135.

Gargan plans to move the Reform Party out of Perot's backyard in Dallas and, probably, to Tampa. I couldn't find Gargan after his election, but Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard claimed that the Reform Party's new chairman was so elated by his victory that he ripped off his shirt, revealing a Nike sports bra.

"The division existed between a hierarchical organization and an egalitarian organization, and the egalitarian -- or the grass roots -- of the party has now prevailed," said Don Torgersen, press secretary for the American Reform Party -- which split from the National Reform Party in 1996 when Perot denied a fair and open nominating process when faced with competition from former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm. "Ross opened up the political dialogue for this party, and he helped the Amercian voter learn about politics, but the great thing about this [convention] is that the party will now not be perceived as a Perot party." Torgersen added that Gargan is also a healer who will be able to bring the disparate Reform Party factions together.

Now the work begins, of course. "We need to concentrate on the best available presidential candidate for next year," Torgersen said, mentioning as possibilities former Republican Connecticut Senator Lowell Weiker, former conservative Democratic senators Sam Nunn of Georgia and David Boren of Oklahoma, Jew-baiting CNN blatherer Pat Buchanan, consumer activist Ralph Nader and partyless New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith.

On a Fox News interview broadcast Sunday, Ventura added another potential Reform Party candidate, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. The time is ripe, Ventura said. "The temperament nationally is no different than it was in Minnesota in 1998."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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