with Reform Party Chairman Russell Verney
Going to Build This a Step at a Time
Russell Verney talked with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION on September 25, 1998 at the Reform Party's second national convention in Atlanta. Verney has led the effort to build the Reform Party since its earliest days. He honed his political skills as a Democrat in New Hampshire, running for Congress in the 2nd District in 1982, and serving as executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party in 1991-92, a period which included the presidential primary. By summer 1992 Verney was a consultant to the Perot Petition Committee. He continued with Perot '92 and United We Stand America and served as national coordinator of Citizens to Establish a Reform Party, the Perot Reform Committee and Perot '96. Verney then chaired Reform Party National Organizing Committee, which in November 1997 launched the Reform Party. Although he has lived in Dallas for over five years, Verney still has a strong New England accent.
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How do you see the Reform Party developing over the next few years?
VERNEY: My vision for the Reform Party is that within the next 15 to 20 years we make America a multi-political party country once again.
Up until the 1920s America was a multi-political party country. To prevent the growth of the communist party in this country and the socialist party the Republicans and Democrats started building barriers to access to the ballot in the 1920s and '30s. Then they found them to their comfort in 1948 with Henry Wallace's run, '68 with George Wallace--they wanted more protection against these races. 1980 with John Anderson was the first time you see them start to tear down barriers. John Anderson challenged some of the barriers to ballot access.
I think we have to re-establish America as a multi-party country so we have a vigorous debate, not a polarized debate, as we have today from two extremes, and the entire center of the American political spectrum [is] left unrepresented.
To get there--for the Reform Party to become a major party, when we're back to a multi-political party country--we're going to build this a step at a time. We're not going to dance to the tune of the Republicans and Democrats and chase ballot access, chase uncompetitive races for governor or U.S. Senate and try and get 3-percent or 5-percent of the votes every election...pour all your resources into that just so you remain alive in their minds.
we're going to do is field candidates for municipal, county and state legislative
offices who are people who personalize the Reform Party to their neighbors,
to their friends, to their communities, and bring in more activists. And
that's the broad foundation--those tens of thousands of municipal, county
and state legislative offices--are the broad foundation of a party--not
your president, not your governor candidate, not your ballot access. And
we know that we can get ballot access through the petition process as we
need it. We've done it twice nationwide in very short periods of
time. So our goal is to build this incrementally, as we go along
step by step from the bottom up, running local candidates.
Isn't there a way you can jump-start it though, by getting two or three big name people who can get into Congress and give you the visibility you need?
VERNEY: All of those things would be nice to have. But the function of the people that are gathered here this weekend are to be like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts: "Be prepared." Build the infrastructure of the party. Organize at the state level, congressional district, county level, municipal level and down to the precinct level. Build communications--internal and external. Do the fundraising, so that we have the resources. Recruit good candidates for local office, recruit good candidates for statewide office and train them how to run campaigns.
Now there are lots of things that can speed this process up. For instance, Blue Dog Democrats don't belong in the Democratic Party, but they're not comfortable in the Republican Party. Moderate Republicans don't belong in the Republican Party that's intolerant, but they'd be uncomfortable in the Democratic Party. Well there's a new home for them. So should some of them migrate over here it speeds up the building process.
Some of our great
candidates this year, like Jack Gargan of Florida, who are competitive
candidates, have a chance of winning. That gives a national or a
more national message of who the Reform Party is, and a role model for
people in the Reform Party that they can see, but it is not the building
block. The building block is the municipal, county and state legislative
offices, because they control the rules under which parties exist and how
elections are conducted and how campaigns are run. You can change
all the dynamics of the political process at the state level.
Can you talk about your job as chairman of the party? What does that require of you? You've got a varied background. Vietnam...
VERNEY: I'm a Vietnam vet.
...an air traffic controller...
VERNEY: I spent 11 years in air traffic control...
Have these experiences prepared you for what you're doing now?
VERNEY: I think every one of my life experiences has prepared me for the challenges of this job. I've learned the skills necessary to establish a vision, set goals, maintain realistic expectations--because if you expect too much, if we expect to take over Congress in 1998, we're going to be disappointed and go away frustrated. Have realistic expectations as you go along, keep a clear focus, and provide genuine leadership. And I think I have those skills to bring to this task, and together with all of the representatives from around the country, we have the power to map out the right plans to succeed over the next few years.
What's given you greatest satisfaction in your job?
The greatest satisfaction I get is waking up in the morning and knowing
that I have the honor of representing the people who are gathered at this
convention. These are America's heroes.
If I went to a Republican party meeting, everybody at that meeting would
be there to get something--a chance to run for office, a campaign contribution,
appointment to a position, a contract--it's about them, what do they get
out of it? When I go to a Reform Party meeting, it's folks from the
center of the ethical playing field--people who work hard all day and just
expect a fair shake from government--who are saying what can I give to
make my country better for the next generation. It's about giving as opposed
to taking. It's just an honor for me every morning when I wake up,
and a thrill to realize that I represent these folks.
Do you have a framework for the challenges the Reform Party faces? How do you categorize...are there three or four main challenges?
VERNEY: We know that creating a new political party is very much like creating a new human--it's not born fully mature. It starts in an infancy and matures along the way. So we have challenges all day, every day, and we have huge opponents who would prefer never to have competition from us, who've set up barriers against our existence.
So we have the internal maturing process, the learning to build consensus and learning conflict resolution among ourselves, we have organizational and administrative challenges that are normal to any organization, and then we have these huge barriers to climb over that are placed there by Republicans and Democrats against competition.
Which is more difficult?
We have accepted all of them as a matter of the course we've taken.
We've found none that are disheartening; they're just a matter of prioritizing
at that moment where your resources are best placed for the maximum results.
Whether it's challenging through the courts the barriers they've put up
or recruiting more volunteers to jump over that barrier, whether it's holding
more meetings to gain consensus or to resolve conflict, it's just a matter
of the building process. It's all done in a very positive attitude
and a very can-do attitude and with just tens of thousands of ordinary
people doing extraordinary things. We've been very successful.
The money--"It's the money," as Jerry Brown used to say. A lot of candidates here are having trouble raising any amount of money.
VERNEY: Our folks have never in the past been involved with fundraising activities in a large scale to finance a multi-thousand dollar or hundred thousands of dollars campaigns. It's all brand new to them. And it's a learning process that we're going through now. Since we don't accept any special interest money or political action committee money, we raise our contributions from people who are willing to give $15 and $20 at a time, not $15,000 and $20,000 at a time. It's difficult to amass the equal resources of the Republicans and Democrats, but we substitute shoe leather and elbow grease from volunteers for the money that they have to have to pay for their advertising.
What seems to be working? There are people here from New Hampshire doing a raffle for a computer, little things like this, or are you going to try to do some kind of national fundraising effort as well?
VERNEY: The national
committee is doing fundraising constantly. But...two principles of
fundraising. First you're never going to get any money unless you
ask for it. So we're out asking for it. We're doing it through
telephone calls, we're doing it through direct mail solicitations to previous
supporters and people who have some more interest to us. So we're
out asking for money. [Ed.
note. According to Reform Party treasurer Mike Morris, at the time
of the convention the national party had raised about $200,000 since its
inception in late 1997. After accounting for the convention, telemarketing,
and other expenses, it had about $90,000 remaining]. And
the second thing is discipline--that when the money comes in don't spend
it. Reinvest it in more fundraising. So we keep churning our
money over. We don't have money to help finance our candidates this
year because if we took it out of that fundraising stream, we'd cripple
ourselves for many years to come. We're just churning over; any money
that we do raise we put right back into the fundraising activities again.
|Copyright 1998 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action|