Divorce, Reform-style

As he walks away from the Reform Party, Jesse Ventura not only undermines its likely nominee, Pat Buchanan, but fuels rumors of more surprise moves to come.

Published February 12, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Jesse Ventura or Ross Perot? Donald Trump or Pat Buchanan? Jack Gargan or Russ Verney? St. Paul or Long Beach? Www.rpusa.org or www.reformparty.org?

The signs that a major split was building within the Reform Party have been apparent for months now, with open conflicts over who is in charge, where the convention should be and even which Web site is the "official" one. Friday, the dam finally burst with the announcement by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the party's top elected official, that he was leaving the national Reform Party because it "is hopelessly dysfunctional."

Who could disagree? It's been apparent from day one that the party apparatus brought into existence by Ross Perot's 1996 run for the presidency was uncomfortable with the prospect of sharing the stage with Ventura or handing the baton to the new generation of leadership that he represents. And ever since Jack Gargan, Ventura's candidate, was elected the party's new national chairman last summer, there have been increasingly bitter fights between the factions.

One major focus of the battle has been over the transfer of power between Russ Verney -- the Perot aide who was Reform's founding chairman -- and Gargan.

Indeed, at the same time as Ventura's announcement, the party's new national treasurer, Ronn Young, was filing suit against the outgoing leadership for failing to turn over the assets of the party, including its books, records, voter lists, press lists and Web domain, to the new slate of officers, who were either elected with Gargan or appointed by him. "They want to rule or ruin," Young said of the "Dallas gang," and "they have been very successful in their attempts to cripple the party."

Friday, Ventura made it clear that the party was now over -- at least for him. He mentioned several factors in his decision. First was his distaste for the party's likely presidential nominee, Pat Buchanan. "I can't stay in a party that will have Pat Buchanan as its nominee and is getting David Duke's support."

Then there was the effect that the national party's turmoil was having on Ventura's efforts to build the Minnesota Reform Party: "Seeing qualified people avoiding our party, like [moderate Democrat] Tim Penny, didn't help."

And finally, Ventura said, it was "seeing that Jack Gargan wasn't getting his due" when he took over the party reins on Jan. 1 that propelled the governor to walk away.

"I'm an Angus King independent now," Ventura declared, aligning himself with Maine's governor, who belongs to no party.

But no one should conclude that this means Ventura's own third-party project is over. For starters, it is likely that the Minnesota Reform Party will follow him in disaffiliating from the national party and changing its name back to the Independence Party -- a question that will be formally taken up by the state party's central committee this weekend.

And Ventura's top aides left a trail of tantalizing hints about what else might be coming. No, not a Ventura presidential run -- at least not this year. Minnesota Reform Party chair Rick McCluhan wouldn't say if other state branches of the national party were ready to bolt too, but claimed to be fielding calls from leaders and activists in many other states.

Phil Madsen, the party's webmaster, argued that the old top-down vs. bottom-up dynamic of the Perot movement had been discarded. "There's an opening now for people in other states -- not for us to do the work for them, but for them to emulate what we've done here in building a viable third party and then come and affiliate with us." He envisioned the steady growth of centrist parties modeled on Minnesota, "now that we've taken out the garbage."

But both Dean Barkley and Doug Friedline, the two men who ran Ventura's successful 1998 campaign, left the door open to yet one other possibility: a fresh face running as an independent for president this year, with Ventura's backing. Barkley argued that Ventura's decision had enhanced his options in deciding whom he might endorse in 2000, saying "Now he has the choice of waiting to see who wins the nomination of each major party -- or if an independent surfaces."

And Friedline went further, insisting that the Minnesota party's effort to find a centrist independent -- something that they had wanted in part to stop Buchanan from getting the Reform nomination -- was not dead. "There are discussions still going on behind the scenes, phone calls from people all over the country, people with real resources too." Was this the harbinger of a Donald Trump announcement as the candidate of some new Independence Party? "Personally, I expect him to announce next Tuesday that he's not running," Friedline answered. "A lot also depends on what happens with McCain, and to a lesser degree, with Bradley by March 7," he added.

One thing is clear from Friday's news: Pat Buchanan now has a clear path to the Reform Party nomination. But with ongoing squabbles and lawsuits clouding the party's future and the popular Ventura on the outside, pissing in, it's doubtful whether that nomination will be worth very much.

By Micah L. Sifry

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