Reform party acid test

I knew it would be weird. After all, Ross Perot was going to be involved. There are some who would argue that the Texas billionaire is crazy like a fox. I’ve always thought he’s crazy like the nephew in Arsenic and Old Lace, the one who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, tootin’ his horn and charging up the stairs in the deluded belief that they were San Juan Hill.

Megalomania, paranoia, and the faint scent of a benevolent fascism hang on the guy like a parka on a panhandler in the dead of summer.

So, yeah, you’d expect a convention for the party he founded is going to get strange.

Then you add the Reform Party’s newest, shiniest light, The Mind that used to be The Body. Big, bad Jesse Ventura, the man who captured Minnesota’s governorship and, in the process, gave RP-ers nationwide hope that they were more relevant than Perot’s last disastrous bid for the presidency.

The advance press billing had The Mind ready to throw a flyin’ drop kick on Ross the Boss to determine their fledgling party’s future.

Could it get any weirder? You bet your best can of whupass it could.

Forget that a guy who walked around wearing a "Head Geezer" T-shirt was elected the party’s chair and that a woman with a leftist history that would make Che Guevara proud came close to being elected vice chair.

No, the really crazy thing about all the collected disaffected who gathered in Dearborn this past weekend is that no matter how wacky they might be, they made a whole lot of sense.

Think of attending the three-day convention as a prolonged political acid trip, a good strong hit of yellow windowpane that sends the senses into a chaotic, psychedelic swirl before lifting you to a peak of clarity.

Anyone can catch the high. Just drop out of the two-party system and tune into the third way.

Granny walks the walk

Granny D walked into the ballroom of the Dearborn Hyatt and laid it all on the line. Standing all of 5 feet tall, wearing a floppy straw hat, running shoes and an orange vest with yellow reflector stripes, she ripped a page from the progressives’ handbook and offered it up to a cheering throng of the faithful.

At 89, Granny D, otherwise known as Doris Haddock, is walking across the United States, chewing up 10 miles a day to draw attention to campaign finance reform.

She started in January, heading east from California, crossing mountains and deserts, making it to east Texas so far and still going strong.

The Reform Party flew her to Michigan, and she delivered big time, offering up what they used to call a real stem winder back when she was still a kid.

"Who I am is an old reformer, and I feel at home in this room," said Granny D. "I have been involved in reform fights most of my life, but I’ve saved the most important one – this one – for my last hurrah."

She told rapt conventioneers of walking through a land where "the middle class stands in desolation," a land where "underpaid clerks and collection agents … struggle in mazes of corporate design and inhuman intent," a land were the "middle class is being purposely destroyed."

Her voice lilting and then pausing for effect, using oratorical tricks she could well have learned by listening to William Jennings Bryan, Granny D described a political process where the voices of average working people are "shouted down by the bullhorns of big money."

"It is money that has no manners," chided Granny, "and it must be escorted from the room."

The crowd of more than 300 rose to their feet and cheered.

And then Granny D identified the twin villains laying waste to our political process: "The ideas that money is speech and corporations are people."

Granny D said, "If money is speech, then those with more money have more speech, and that is antithetical to democracy."

Damn if Granny D didn’t nail it all down right there. You tell me what’s crazier: An 89-year-old woman walking across America or an America where a governor from Texas who’s never done much more than get born into the right family is his party’s presidential front-runner simply because the rich and powerful have showered him with $36 million?

And who is his leading opponent? An incumbent vice president who got caught using Buddhist monks to launder money being funneled into his campaign by foreign interests.

Body slam

The Body is here in spirit and in voice, but not in the flesh. A hellacious thunderstorm grounded Gov. Jesse Ventura on the tarmac back in Minnesota, so the conventioneers have to make do with a phoner from the man who single-handedly pulled their party back from the brink of irrelevance.

OK, maybe that’s overstating Ventura’s victory last November just a bit, but CNN and Time magazine and the Washington Post and dozens of other big-time media wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the muscle Jesse is flexing inside this particular appendage of the body politic.

The sentiment running through this convention is that the time has come to put some distance between Perot and the perception that the Reform Party is his personal tool. His hand-picked guy is stepping down as party chairman. The race to fill the top spot is between two Perot loyalists and a third candidate who openly opposes a third presidential bid by the billionaire.

Ventura, never subtle, has issued an unequivocal endorsement for the lone candidate running against the status quo. He’s a 69-year-old former financial consultant from Florida named Jack "Mad as Hell" Gargan. On the first day of the convention he was walking around in his "Head Geezer" T-shirt, looking like a guy who somehow got lost trying to find a Denny’s in time for the early bird dinner special.

During his speech prior to the vote, he told the crowd: "I drive a motorcycle, shoot a pretty fair game of pool, have been known to stay up all night playing poker, and I do have an eye for the ladies. And those are my good qualities."

After two ballots, Gargan won the party chair on a 213-135 vote.

Do not, however, read into that some Machiavellian move by Ventura to become the party’s presidential candidate next year.

Any speculation that The Body will attempt to be The Prez in 2000 is just another media lie, Ventura told conventioneers. He’s committed to serving out his full four-year term as guv.

So, who is going to be the nominee in 2000?

Ventura himself is floating the possibility of Connecticut’s Lowell Weicker. A former Republican senator who left the GOP and then got elected governor as an independent, Weicker may be Ventura’s idea of a great Reform Party candidate, but the rank and file from his home state don’t have much good to say about this heir to a pharmaceutical fortune.

"If he’s serious about being a candidate, he would have come," said Donna Donovan, a freelance writer from Glastonbury, Conn. "I don’t think he embodies reform. His administration was very crony-filled."

If not Weicker, then who might be the party’s standard bearer in ’00? The answer is instructive.

It was not possible to walk through the convention without having a petition on a clipboard thrust into your hands.

The diversity of potential candidates tells much about the party: There were the draft Pat Buchanan types and the draft Gen. Colin Powell troops: a draft Donald Trump group from New Jersey ran a slick effort, complete with a free-booze party. And then there was Beverly Kidder from Princeton, N.J., who was mounting a campaign to entice consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

"He’s with us on every one of the issues," said Kidder.

Like the others circulating draft positions, Kidder says she has never met the candidate she supports. Of the four, only Trump has expressed any interest whatsoever.

"We have to show them there’s support," explained Kidder when told it seemed odd that a political party would have to go begging for a presidential candidate.

To date, only one person has ever run for president as a Reform Party candidate – Perot. In 1992, before the party was formed, he posed a serious threat before suddenly withdrawing from the race. He subsequently re-entered – offering a bizarre explanation that unnamed forces had planned to disrupt his daughter’s wedding– and still managed to capture a respectable 19 percent of the vote.

Four years later he failed to break into double digits. The sense of the convention seemed to be that, although Perot still commanded immense respect and gratitude, the time had come for someone new to vie for the top job.

Perot, who gave a speech Saturday night, praised his troops for their commitment to better government. He made sure to point out to the C-SPAN television audience that these citizen patriots paid their own way. He noted that this shindig may have none of the frills found at major party shindigs, but it was free of the corrupting flow of special interest cash.

Serious money

Whether he will run again remains a mystery.

Someone, however, is going to be selected the party’s presidential candidate at next year’s convention. And when that happens, that candidate is going to have enough money to mount a serious campaign.

Because of Perot’s showing in ’96, the federal government is automatically required to kick in $12.5 million for the next RP presidential candidate. So there will, no doubt, be people with a national profile stepping forward attempting to assume the mantle.

But the party should beware, warned Perot, saying that among those coming forward will be "yesterday’s politicians seeking tomorrow’s headlines."

He also warned of the saboteurs who will surely be sent by the Republicans and Democrats to "infiltrate" the RP to disrupt it from within.

Paranoia, indeed, strikes deep.

"As long as I’m helpful to this organization, I will help it out," Perot promised somewhat cryptically before whisking out of the convention without shaking a single hand.

Hitching a wagon

To the extent that Perot’s star is falling within the party, Ventura’s is ascending. The election of Gargan as party chair shows that. Gargan made his mark as a reformer starting back in 1990, when he took out a series of full-page newspaper ads nationwide attacking the political status quo.

"I’m my own man," he told delegates, dismissing scuttlebutt of some conspiracy with Ventura.

But he made no secret of his belief that the party needs to hitch its wagon to Ventura if it wants to grow.

And this, for all the wackiness, is where the reformers start making sense.

A look at voter turnout numbers shows how prevalent disaffection with the current political system is. Increasingly, people are either turning away from politics or looking for some viable alternative. And Ventura’s election – the first and, so far, only statewide victory for a Reform Party candidate – offers up at least the hope that this is the party that best stands a chance of shaking up the status quo.

As a result, it is attracting support across the spectrum of American politics.

As one convention delegate put it, "There are people in this party who think that Jesse Jackson is too conservative, and people who think Pat Buchanan is too liberal."

What unites them is a wide populist streak: They are against NAFTA and other New World Order free trade plans (an issue, by the way, near and dear to the hearts of organized labor). They are for fiscal responsibility, eliminating the national debt, protecting Social Security, implementing term limits and reforming campaign finance.

At the same time, the party has kept away from divisive social issues such as abortion, affirmative action and gun control.

It is a party willing to create a platform based on crucial core values, and then allow its candidates the latitude to stake out their own positions on a host of other issues.

And as a result, the Reform Party has the potential to open a truly big political umbrella.

"We’re a wide array from the left to the right, all of us disenchanted and disenfranchised from the major political parties, with all kinds of weirdoes and wackos thrown in," said Philip Goldstein, a former social studies teacher from New York who describes himself as coming from a leftist tradition.

He stands in stark contrast to a lunchtime quartet who shared sandwiches and talk of stopping the immigrants flooding into this country.

And then there are folks like Thomas Laughlin Jr. of Utica, N.Y., a former state office candidate who boasts of his endorsement from Guns & Ammo magazine and believes the Reform Party is what’s needed to slow America’s "slide toward socialism."

How can something this divergent ever hold together over the long haul?

That is a question no one’s really worrying about right now. The problem of first winning elections and gaining ground is too immediate.

Which means the party is a place for people like Lenora Fulani, an African-American as well as a committed leftist who twice ran for president under the banner of the cultlike New Alliance Party.

She made a strong run to be elected the RP’s national vice chair, starting out in a field of seven and surviving until the final ballot before losing on a floor vote of 180-140.

She considered the results heartening. And after the election, when supporters offered condolences, she remained upbeat. As a middle-aged white man from Kentucky wearing a cowboy hat sporting Buchanan buttons offered his hand in support and walked away, she noted: "Who would have ever think that a guy like him would have something in common with someone like me? But we do."

It is their mutual enemy: The status quo that’s left them both feeling like outcasts.

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