The godfather from Dallas ends the party

By throwing Jesse Ventura's followers out of the Reform Party, Ross Perot's faction destroyed its chances of affecting this year's elections.

Published February 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Power politics reigned supreme in the Reform Party this weekend as a well-organized group loyal to former party chairman Russ Verney -- and by extension Ross Perot -- successfully staged a rump meeting of the party's 164-member national committee and purged its adversaries from power.

The assembled delegates voted to recall elected party chair Jack Gargan; threw out the party treasurer, a loyal Gargan lieutenant; resolved to hold the party's convention in Long Beach, Calif., instead of Jesse Ventura's Minnesota; and seated several new state delegations tilted toward Patrick Buchanan, who is seeking the party's presidential nomination. Topping off the proceedings, they elected Pat Choate, Perot's 1996 running mate and the national co-chair of the Buchanan campaign, as the party's new chairman.

The delegates seemed to be willfully ignoring political reality. Just a day after Ventura announced his disaffiliation from the national Reform Party, not a word was spoken from the meeting floor about the party's loss of its most charismatic -- and only successful -- candidate for high elected office.

Nor did the assembled delegates devote any time to exploring the party's underlying problems -- its loss of ballot status in about a dozen states since 1996; the difficulties most state chapters have had in holding onto registered members, attracting strong candidates and building any kind of institutional base; and the negative image of party founder Perot. These issues, after all, were behind Gargan's upset election at the party's last national convention, in Dearborn, Mich., in July 1999, which signaled a clear break with the Verney-Perot regime.

Instead, the majority of national committee members who came to Nashville Saturday spent most of the day helping the old guard ram through its victory, though it was clear from the first hour which way things would go. After Gargan started the morning by refusing to gavel the meeting to order, insisting that it was improperly called, a well-orchestrated protest from the floor blew him away. Gargan had tried to keep his cool against the rising clamor of voices calling for his scalp, but finally his anguish broke through.

"This is the same group of people who, after six weeks of my being in office, haven't turned the records of the party over to me. Since the day I was elected chair, I have been the target of unceasing harassment. But I will keep taking it on behalf of the grass roots of the party." A few Gargan stalwarts stood to cheer as he shouted, "We will not have mob rule in this party."

But mob rule is what it was, complete with pushing, shouting and the threat of police action. While a number of delegates held out hope that some kind of compromise might be brokered, the old guard was committed to tossing Gargan out.

A telling moment came midday, when the body got bogged down in a confusing debate over precisely how to define the two-thirds vote needed to recall a party officer. Wanting to keep the threshold as low as possible, Verney held the floor mike and, like a good machine boss, whipped his troops into line. "If I want to overturn the chair's ruling and keep the vote to two-thirds of the delegates present, then I should vote 'no,' is that correct?" he repeatedly asked the parliamentarian running the meeting. Everyone knew exactly what he was doing.

When the time came for the final vote on Gargan's fate, the crowd grew uncharacteristically still. But the outcome was anticlimactic: a whopping 109-31 for Gargan's removal, with one abstention. And the mood of the moment was cold-blooded and harsh. David Goldman, chairman of the Florida Reform Party, had tried to put forward a compromise resolution that would have made Gargan the honorary chair of the party, while stripping him of real power, and called for balancing roles for each faction of the party in the distribution of the other top offices. But as the anti-Gargan juggernaut rolled on, he barely got a hearing. "I feel like a peacenik at a Veterans of Foreign Wars event," he told this reporter.

Afterwards, Verney serenely prowled the meeting-room floor, looking like the cat that ate the canary. "It's a very healthy day for the party," he said, denying that Reform had just given itself another black eye. Verney -- who these days draws a paycheck as Ross Perot's public-policy advisor -- turned down a nomination to stand for election to replace Gargan.

Lenora Fulani, whose strange-bedfellow alliance with Patrick Buchanan still makes heads spin, was less sanguine. "In my opinion, the entire leadership we elected last year in Dearborn has failed in their mandate to share power," she said, arguing that they all should be replaced. "Right now, Americans everywhere are demonstrating that they want political reform, and the fastest-rising group are the independents. Instead of focusing on capturing that, we've been involved in a top-down struggle over control of the party."

In retrospect, it's clear that Gargan's election last summer was never really the deep-cleansing action that he and others portrayed it as. Real day-to-day control of the party remained with an 11-member executive committee, and the old guard held a reliable majority of votes on most important issues. At the same time, Gargan probably overplayed a weak hand by speaking with unusual candor to the media about the party's problems; this may have given some voters hope that Reform was reforming itself, but likely inflamed the potent and ultimately lethal backlash against him among the party regulars.

As the day wound down, some delegates made clear that they had had enough, and were going back to their state parties to urge that they disaffiliate from Reform and link up with Ventura's fledgling Independence drive. Many pinned their hopes on Donald Trump, who, they excitedly told each other, was supposedly spending the weekend deciding whether to join Ventura and run for president under a new Independence banner. "There are Reform groups in 22 states that could announce their support for Trump if he runs," said Mary Clare Wohlford, a leader of the Gargan outcast forces. She listed state parties or factions in Iowa, Mississippi, New Jersey, Virginia and Wisconsin as likely to join up if that happened, and pointed to possible followers in California, Indiana, Maryland and New Hampshire.

To those in the press who have built up many frequent flyer miles following the Donald around as he milks this crazy moment for all it's worth, this just seemed like more pie-in-the-sky. Said one reporter who's been tracking him closely: "This is just him stretching it out some more. He's selling his hotels and casinos."

The election of Choate as new chair was a fitting end to a day when all the cards seemed to fall Perot's way. After all, we've seen this story before.

It happened in 1992, when Perot's "brown shirts" took over the grass-roots petition drives for his first candidacy (pushing people like Jack Gargan aside in the process). It happened from 1993-95, when Perot's hired hands oversaw his United We Stand America movement, which started with nearly 2 million dues-paying members but was quickly driven into the ground. It happened with the Reform Party's first presidential primary in 1996, in which Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm was stomped on by the Verney-Perot campaign team. It happened in Nashville in 1997, when one large clump of Reform organizers splintered off in protest over the new party's lack of internal democracy. And it happened again this weekend.

In every case, political activists struggling to build a new, independent political force have collided with the interests of the man in Dallas. "It's hard to argue with $2 billion," said one of the party's newly minted outcasts.

Choate, who immediately upon his election announced his resignation from the Buchanan campaign, finished the day with a rousing speech, promising the assembled group that "Because of us, this year there will be a real debate over trade, over globalism, over illegal immigration, over our foreign entanglements and over real political reform." (Maybe his resignation from the Buchanan campaign doesn't take effect until the post office can deliver the letter next week.) Of course, the crowd gave him a series of rousing ovations. The fact that Buchanan's latest foray into the news mix involved his outspoken support for Austria's far-right leader Joerg Haider didn't seem to faze them.

For a brief, imperfect period in late 1998 through perhaps the fall of 1999, it seemed possible that the Reform Party movement was poised for rejuvenation. That moment is over. The Reformers under Choate and their inevitable nominee, Pat Buchanan, will not be able to bottle the lightning that struck first for Perot in 1992 and again for Ventura in 1998. When it strikes again -- and it will -- it will light someone else's fire.

By Micah L. Sifry

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