Now here's the deal

The split between Reform Party factions may be a harbinger of the return of Ross Perot.

Published February 2, 2000 3:00PM (EST)

At times in recent months, the cat fight raging inside the Reform Party of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and a disparate cast of presidential wannabes has been worthy of top WWF billing. But figuring who has been choreographing this wild show has been difficult to discern.

That may be changing. On Tuesday morning, for the first time, a solid clue emerged in the form of an e-mail communication to party faithful hinting that the man still pulling the strings is the party's founder, Texas billionaire Ross Perot. In fact, the e-mail strongly implied that Perot himself may be preparing to launch his third run at the presidency under the Reform Party banner.

To a great extent, the war between the factions inside the Reform Party has been waged over the Internet.

As a result, political Web junkies now have an alternative to the Reform Party Web site. In a break with the majority of the party's governing executive committee, forces loyal to chairman Jack Gargan have launched a rival site.

The split occurred when Gargan made an unsuccessful attempt to acquire control of the domain name from longtime Reform webmaster Dror Bar-Sadeh. When Gargan began his tenure as chairman, Bar-Sadeh, with the support of a majority of the party's executive committee, refused to turn over control of the site, claiming the domain name as his personal property. Gargan says he then felt compelled to dismiss Bar-Sadeh, and only developed the rival site when it became clear that the executive board backed Bar-Sadeh.

The dueling camps are already so alienated from each other that the factions have announced rival plans for the party's convention, with Gargan forces planning on St. Paul, Minn., and the executive committee packing for Long Beach, Calif. Charges of financial mismanagement and manipulation of the voting process also have been flying back and forth.

Gargan's allies charge that the executive committee is power-hungry and misses the Perot days when the lack of competing voices in the party concentrated power in the board's hands. Gargan himself charges that the executive board has been working for his ouster since he won the chairmanship during the fractious party convention in July.

The executive committee counter-charges that Gargan is running roughshod over the party's constitution. "The chairman seems to have had a falling out with the entire party," said Russ Verney, former party chairman and current national committee representative from Texas.

However, party communications director Mary Clare Wohlford had another explanation for what has happened, saying Gargan's enemies are in fact confined to a powerful few. "It's a group that has never accepted that Jack Gargan was elected."

Public relations chairman Tom Johnson agrees with this assessment: "It's like a small Central American country where the dictator proclaims that we're now going to have a democratically held election." Johnson says that Perot's forces assumed that their pick for party chair, Pat Benjamin, would assume the position, and were therefore unprepared to have Gargan, Ventura's pick, win the election.

Reform officials on the other side say that Gargan brought these problems on himself by taking up Ventura's cause after his controversial Playboy magazine interview in October. In the wake of the article, Gargan and Verney battled on the talk-show circuit, with Verney calling for Ventura to leave the party and Gargan saying he should stay. According to both Bar-Sadeh and Verney, this severely compromised Gargan's neutrality as party chairman.

"There is no Ventura-Gargan axis," Gargan counters. The chairman does acknowledge that Ventura's heavy-handed endorsement did more harm than good. "That did not go down well with people," Gargan admits, but says that he hasn't spoken with Ventura in months.

The chairman is also concerned about the lack of a paper trail during this turf battle, saying that the executive committee has been giving him insufficient notice for meetings and has used the party Web site to publish incomplete and self-serving records.

Jim Mangia, Reform Party secretary and self-described agnostic in the Gargan/anti-Gargan battle, feels that the regular Web site is fine, but does allow that the e-mail dependence has not served the party well in this dispute. "People aren't really talking to each other," Mangia says, "just writing nasty e-mails. [The messages] are just hateful and personal."

Johnson agrees that the party's reliance on telecommunications may have contributed to the escalating rancor in this dispute. "We rely very heavily on the Internet; it is the future of our party. But there are times when people will say things over the Web that they wouldn't say in a face-to-face conversation," Johnson noted.

The anti-Gargan faction plans to achieve that face time with the party's national committee at a Feb. 12 meeting in Nashville. They've made it clear that "solving" the Gargan issue will be priority No. 1. "After Nashville," said Verney, "there probably won't be a problem."

Though both Verney and Bar-Sadeh refused to discuss which presidential hopeful they support, each insisted that the dispute would not hamper the party's nominee. "When the candidate appears, the rest will be superfluous," said Bar-Sadeh. "Does that make sense?"

Well, it didn't make much sense until a "White House Bulletin" was sent out to the party's e-mail list Tuesday morning implying that there is a growing drum beat within the party for Perot's return to head up this year's ticket. The bulletin quotes Verney as saying that this development "has ignited, or re-ignited a lot of hopes and aspirations of members of the party, who feel their principles are embodied in Ross Perot."

Before long, it may be time for us all to go "back to the charts again."

By Alicia Montgomery

Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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