Coeds for Pat Buchanan!

A youth movement gets him on the Texas ballot without ever having to say his name.

Published May 9, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

It's a warm, overcast morning at San Antonio's University of the Incarnate Word, and all of a sudden Pat Buchanan's petition drive to get his name on the Texas ballot has started to resemble a high-school dance.

On this tranquil campus north of downtown, the staid red brick buildings are offset by blooming oleander and cute girls in cute outfits, and as three of them start up a path near the student union, three young men carrying clipboards eye them wistfully.

"That blond won't sign," says one of the guys, Hasan Seif, referring to a button-nosed undergrad in a pink sweatshirt and very short shorts.

"I remember her, she was kind of snooty," says Clay Campbell.

"I'll get them. Groups are my specialty," says Trey Johnson. The other two shake their heads. "Hey, don't I do groups good?" he asks, starting toward the female trio. But just then the snooty blond lifts her cell phone to her ear, and Johnson loses his nerve.

He turns around, but the other two don't waste time making fun of him: There are plenty more fish in the sea, and the goal is to get as many as possible to sign up to support getting Pat Buchanan on the presidential ballot in Texas. It's Thursday, and Seif, Campbell and Johnson, along with Johnson's older sister, Tisha, and a fifth petitioner, Terry Crowley, have worked this campus for the past two days, gathering 500 signatures each day in their effort. Now, they are headed into the home stretch.

The Texas ballot access drive began in March and got serious around the second week of April; the deadline was Monday. And Buchanan victoriously flew to Austin to deliver all 129,000 signatures (well over the required 56,116 signatures) to the Texas secretary of state's office, thanking the two dozen paid workers and more than 100 volunteers who pounded the pavement to get him on the ballot.

The clipboard corps worked every sizable city in Texas, from El Paso to Wichita Falls to Corpus Christi. Most of the petitioners ranged in age from 18 to early 30s, and most of the petition-signers were college students. Buchanan, it can be said, rode the wave of a veritable youth movement in Texas.

Or at least, sort of. But you might want to call this ballot access drive the anti-Seattle: a mass of young people, most of them politically disengaged, inadvertently enabling Buchanan's candidacy.

The mechanics of Buchanan's un-movement were visible on the University of the Incarnate Word campus. Shortly after the incident with the snooty blond, Seif, the leader of the five-person San Antonio team, approached a male student. In a polo shirt and shorts and sneakers, Seif, 28, could almost pass for an undergraduate, if the slivers of gray in his hair and his considerable poise didn't give him away.

More of a career-politics guy than a Buchananite, he studied political science at James Madison University, graduated in 1994, and moved to Dallas to live near his siblings. "I was looking for a political job in Dallas, and so I applied to work for Perot," he says.

After the founding of the Reform Party in 1995, Seif began working on ballot-access projects, and because of his experience as a petitioner, the Buchanan campaign sought him out last year. Now a Buchanan field representative, he and his clipboard have been at it practically nonstop since January. There was the day he got a classroom of 40 dental assistants-in-training to sign on at a community college, and the evening he worked the parking lot of a Bob Dylan concert in South Dakota (after which he bought a ticket and saw the show, the eighth time he's seen Dylan play), and the nights he has pulled out a petition in a bar at 1 a.m.

"Can I get a signature from you real quick?" he asks the student.

"What for?" the student asked.

"We're trying to get an independent candidate on the ballot in Texas."

The student shrugs, signs, and walks off -- a best-case scenario for Seif. "The best is if they sign and move on," Seif says. "If you're talking to someone for a long time about the issues, then you're not getting signatures."

And, unless asked, he and his colleagues don't mention that it's Buchanan they're working for, and the majority of people who sign don't ask. Nor do most people seem to notice Buchanan's name printed on the top of the signature forms.

Though the ballot-access petition process might seem to test popular support for a candidate, in the end it becomes what former Reform Party chairman Russell Verney calls "a time-motion study" -- in which an organization must collect tens of thousands of signatures within a fixed time period. (For the independent nomination Buchanan sought in Texas, the valid signatures had to be collected in 60 days.)

"You have to be in a high-density foot traffic area, so that you can approach people and request that they sign it," Verney says. "Out of every 10 people you ask, one will sign it, and you need to have people who can collect on an average six signatures an hour."

So the mandate boils down to money, since volunteers alone are unlikely to accomplish this. The Buchanan campaign is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ballot access, having designated more than a dozen members of its campaign staff and 10 or so more contract workers -- who are paid $500 a week plus expenses -- to petition to get the candidate on the ballot in Texas and other states. Rules for getting on the ballot vary by state. As the presumptive Reform Party nominee, Buchanan's name will automatically appear on the ballot in 21 states; in the others, including Texas, Buchanan will petition to get on the ballot as either a Reform Party candidate or an independent candidate.

In Texas, each petitioner had to collect 100 signatures per day. "One day it was pouring down rain, and we only got like 50 signatures total," Seif says. "We got yelled at. We need to get the hundred." The petition teams targeted college campuses during the week, fairs and festivals on the weekends. The Dallas Art Festival, the Fort Worth Art Festival, the Fry Street Fair in Denton. But the festivals aren't as productive as the campuses.

"Students are more prone to signing," said Seif. "They're more open-minded when it comes to new parties."

The line between open-minded and apathetic is a fine one: On the day I spend with the San Antonio team, a lot of the students who signed seem predictably indifferent, or bemused, or willing to sign because a friend had. Then again, that willingness probably was also greased by the spin the teams put on their petitions -- "more choices on the ballot," which sounds good to most people, particularly when there's no mention of the actual candidate.

After Caroline Tafoya, a 19-year-old student wearing an Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt, signed her name to the Buchanan petition, I ask her why. "They just asked me. If it's a good cause, I'll sign it." And she thought this was a good cause? She shrugged. "I'm not really into politics," she said. She didn't know that Buchanan was the candidate, nor did she care.

The five petition-collectors in San Antonio are all in their 20s, except for the 32-year-old Crowley; Seif and Crowley were longer-term campaign employees, while the other three signed on for the petition drive. They all hope to continue in other states and then work in some capacity for the campaign until November. They'd been assigned to different Texas cities, but had been working San Antonio together for the past week.

"Originally we were a little afraid," of coming to San Antonio, says Crowley, who worked on the Buchanan Web page until the campaign sent him to Texas. "We thought the diversity would be a challenge. We found that to be incorrect -- even though the demographics are thought to tend to favor Democrats. It turns out a lot of young people are not in favor of either party."

Anti-major-party sentiment runs strong among the petitioners, Crowley in particular. An Orange County, Calif., native, Crowley has worked for Republican candidates in the past but faults the party for failing to expand its base. "When I worked for a state senator," says Crowley, "the district was divided into two separate Assembly districts. One was almost all Hispanic, and the campaign decided to ignore that Assembly district and get all its votes from the white district."

This, says Crowley, was a poor marketing strategy on the part of the GOP. "If you're Coke, are you going to try to sell Coke to the people who are drinking Pepsi now, or not? [The Republicans] didn't even bother."

When I asked whether Buchanan would appeal to that Hispanic constituency, given his criticisms of immigration policy, Crowley replied that "if you talk to the second and third generations, they have as much disdain for people who come into this country and don't bother to learn English as anyone. It's a big problem, and it's an image problem for them."

Each member of the San Antonio team had a slightly different take on the candidate. For Campbell, 25, a Perot supporter from Dallas, Buchanan is "not for sale at any price. I like the idea of saving Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, promoting the flat tax and lobbying reform." Campbell, who tended to drop his chin to his neck and pace when not collecting signatures, says he signed on with the ballot-access drive after he and co-workers were "put out to pasture" by, his former employer.

Tisha Johnson, 27, quit her job working for two Oklahoma City talk radio stations to collect signatures because she agrees with Buchanan's anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage positions, as well as his foreign policy. Her brother Trey, an electrician who works for their father, says he admires Buchanan for "saying what he thinks." The five petitioners' reasons for supporting Buchanan might provide fodder enough for those who would dismiss the Reform Party as a "strange reunion of lost causes" -- as Sean Wilentz wrote in the New Republic last fall -- or at least, as a grab-bag of marginalized issues.

But candidate issues don't really matter: the strategy is to stay vague and stay on a campus. And it was actually the latter necessity that presented the petitioners with their greatest challenge. Campuses tended to kick them off. The reason they were spending a third day at the University of the Incarnate Word is that they had already been shooed away from other campuses in the city.

By that time, more than half the students they approached had already been canvassed. By noon, the team knew they needed to move on. After a brief stop at the University of Texas at San Antonio's downtown campus (empty due to a pre-exams break) the petitioners pressed on to Palo Alto College, a junior college in Poteet, a town south of the city.
They last about 20 minutes at Palo Alto before encountering the mortal enemy of the ballot access petitioner: the campus security officer. "Welcome to the sad state of the First Amendment situation on campus," Crowley mutters after an officer ID'd as J. Knowles, a big man wearing safety-goggle sunglasses, advises them to report to the student-activities office. "You need to call your people out," Knowles says. "No more signatures or you'll be escorted out."

Soon enough they are on their way, driving north to another community college, this one also on break. None of the petitioners have come close to reaching their quotas yet; so they are forced to resort to their least-favorite method of gathering signatures. They split into two teams and hit the strip malls.

I follow Seif and Campbell to a shopping center on Loop 410, where the two stand outside of a Marshall's hitting up shoppers for signatures as they go in and out. It is clear why the petitioners prefer college campuses, though it has less to do with political open-mindedness and more with basic courtesy. There aren't many people less friendly than the average midafternoon shopper.

"No, no, no, no," says one older man, who walks 10 feet toward his car before turning around and again adding an emphatic: "No." For every person who signed the petitions, there is an adamant decliner. Women held up hands in front of their faces and cried, "No time!" Mothers tightened their grips on their kids.

Also, the adults seem more likely to ask Seif and Campbell who the candidate is. Although some like Buchanan, others are hostile. "Uh-uh," says one man who emerges with his wife from the nearby Best Buy. "No. Honey, don't sign that. If it were Ventura, then yeah, we'd sign."

Eventually the Marshall's manager asks Seif and Campbell to leave. So we move on to the last stop, just outside a Sam's Club. They both do well enough here to relax a little, and after six hours of straight petitioning, they head inside for a slice of pizza. We marvel together at the booty being wheeled out of the store: 3-foot-high bags of potato chips, cardboard flats of Gatorade bottles, hay bale-like packages of Pampers.

Then Seif -- who after months of this same thing over and over again, 100 signatures a day, every day, shows no sign of fatigue -- starts talking about why he likes petitioning.

"You see the country," he says, "and, pretty much, you are your own boss on the roads; as far as hours, nightlife, attire, it's all up to you. You have to have responsibility and get your signatures, but other than that, it's up to you." He doesn't mention Pat Buchanan.

When the campaign is over, he says, he'd like to go to Europe for a couple of weeks before getting another political job in Washington.

But for now, he's off. By the time Buchanan arrives in Austin for his victorious press conference, Seif has already moved on to Oklahoma.

By Karen Olsson

Karen Olsson is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.

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