Occasional Reports, Notes and Commentaries on the Road to the White House 
Reform Party Aims for a Few Surprises in November 
 by Eric M. Appleman
"Head Geezer" Runs for Congress in Florida 5th 
"The Most Dangerous Man in Minnesota" 
Many Other Candidates 
Building a Party 
Presidential Nomination Process 
Saturday Evening Speeches 

Photos | Interview 

The Reform Party held its second national convention September 25-27, 1998 at the Ravinia Crowne Plaza Hotel on Atlanta's Northern Perimeter. Some 390 delegates from 44 states gathered to address internal organizational and housekeeping matters, showcase the party's candidates, and determine the party's process for selecting its presidential nominee in the year 2000. In addition to the official business, the convention provided an opportunity to compare notes, renew acquaintances, and attend seminars on subjects such as party building and fundraising. 

The delegates, along with dozens of other Reform Party activists, traveled to Atlanta at their own expense, prompted by concerns about issues such as NAFTA, campaign finance and Social Security. Anne Merkl, state chair of the Georgia party, stated, "We're trying to build a political party that is going to give representation to the majority middle." 

In the ten months since its founding convention in Kansas City, the Reform Party has been quietly building at the state and local level. About 130 Reform Party candidates are running for offices in 31 states this November. Hurdles such as burdensome ballot access requirements, limited media coverage, and meager funds have made for slow progress.  

Although the Reform Party grew out of Ross Perot's 1996 campaign and is still seen by some as Perot's party, it is the committed members and candidates who are now setting the direction of the party and will determine whether it succeeds. To be sure Perot is still widely admired; many of the delegates sported "Ross was Right" stickers or buttons.  

The perception that the Reform Party is Perot's party is to some extent fostered by the media. Only a handful of news organizations showed up to report on the convention, and their reports tended to highlight Perot's speech on Saturday night. Of the three days of the convention, C-SPAN only covered Saturday night's speeches by the party's national chairman Russell Verney, Mr. Perot and Pat Choate, the 1996 vice presidential nominee. Viewers thus missed crowd-rousing speeches by Jack Gargan, a congressional candidate in the Florida 5th district, Bev Kidder, a congressional candidate in the New Jersey 12th district, and Jesse "The Candidate" Ventura, who is running for governor of Minnesota. 

"Head Geezer" Runs for Congress in Florida 5th 

Jack Gargan is the only candidate facing Karen Thurman, a three-term Democratic incumbent from the Gainesville area; there is no Republican challenger. Gargan is regarded as a founder of the term limits movement. In 1990 he took money out of his retirement savings to place six full page newspaper ads proclaiming "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." With contributions from supporters, Gargan's Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out (T.H.R.O.) ultimately ran 633 full page ads from 1990-92.  

This year Gargan became the first candidate ever to meet Florida's 3 percent ballot access requirement for third party candidates. From January 7 through July 13, Reform Party activists worked Walmart parking lots, flea markets and festivals to collect more than 16,000 signatures. Gargan brought some of his supporters, wearing "Gargan's Geezers" tee-shirts, to Atlanta; he bills himself as the"Head Geezer."  Thus far Gargan has raised about $20,000 for his bid compared to over $300,000 raised Thurman, yet polls show the race is close. 

"The Most Dangerous Man in Minnesota" 

Jesse Ventura, known to many from his 11-year pro wrestling career and his subsequent work in broadcasting, has also attracted considerable attention.  Ventura served as mayor of Brooklyn Park, a suburb of Minneapolis that is the state's sixth largest city, from 1991 to 1995. He points to successes fighting crime and halting a decline in property values.  

After one term as mayor, Ventura had no intention of going back into public service. However, when the state accumulated a $4 billion surplus and issued additional bonds, and when his property taxes rose steadily over a period of five years, he got angry. Ventura, a former Navy Seal, cuts an imposing figure. He faces Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey Jr., a Democrat, and Saint Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a former Democrat who became a Republican several years ago. Ventura is at double digits in polls and notes that his booth at the Minnesota State Fair was one of the busiest the fair has seen in several decades. 

Many Other Candidates 

Dozens of less-heralded candidates are running: 

  • In Rhode Island, which has among the highest state taxes, accountant Victor Moffitt of Coventry is running for general treasurer. Moffitt is one of eight Reform candidates on the ballot.  He would like to change the state income tax from a piggyback on the federal income tax to a flat 7 percent. He also proposes to consolidate the state's 34 school districts into four. Moffitt cites strong poll numbers and believes he can win. 
  • In Louisville, Kentucky, Scott Ritcher, a 29-year old computer graphic designer and guitarist, is running for mayor. Ritcher seeks to address the declining population of the city and is also advocating a monorail plan.  
  • Peggy McKerlie, a packing supervisor from Wenatchee, Washington is running for Congress in the state's 4th district. She told convention delegates in a speech on Friday that, "We must have campaign finance reform if we are going to change anything."  
Just about all the Reform Party candidates are running shoestring campaigns and are being outspent by wide margins; in many cases they are financing their bids largely out of their own pockets. Media attention is scarce. Most candidates will probably achieve scant results on election day.  

Reformers recognize they face a long tough haul, but they believe their efforts are making a difference. Tom Pecaroro, an activist from Williamsville, New York (near Buffalo) said, "Competition brings a better product." He compared current politics to a ping pong game, with the Democrats and Republicans going back and forth at each other. "You never quit," he said. Buford Johnson, a delegate from Pequot Lakes, Minnesota said the party will succeed at opening up the political process. "Whether we win or lose, the American people win," he said, adding, "It's hard to do; it's not easy." 
At stake in the 1998 cycle, beyond the results achieved by individual candidates, is the party's ballot access position in the states. In many states, ballot access is contingent on a minimal showing by a candidate running for statewide office. The Reform Party currently has ballot access in 31 states, but that number could drop to 20 or even as low as ten after the 1998 elections. 

Building a Party 

The challenge of establishing a competitive third party in a political environment dominated by the Democratic and Republican parties is a daunting one, marked by external and internal hurdles. Russell Verney, a Vietnam veteran, one-time air traffic controller (he was among those fired by President Reagan during the PATCO strike), and former executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, is leading the effort. Verney is racking up frequent flyer miles and keeping the phone lines hot. He told the delegates the party must "start at the bottom and work up." Verney said his primary goal is to build strong state party organizations. He argues that greatest dividends will be achieved by focusing on municipal, county and state legislative candidates. 

Although state parties have made slow progress building at the state and county level in the past ten months, they have yet to approach the precinct level organization that characterizes the Democrats and Republicans. In New York, the Reform Party affiliate, known as the Independence Party, has 32 county organizations. Tom Pecaroro, the activist from Williamsville, notes that between April 1997 and April 1998, the party was the fastest growing party in Erie County. In New Hampshire, there are about 90 Reform Party members. The party structure was established in September 1997, in the lead-up to the founding convention. In June 1998, the state party held its first convention. One current project, still in the planning stages, is to develop a weekly cable show "I The Eagle."  

Fundraising is a major challenge. The New Hampshire party has been conducting a "get the $10,000" raffle for a computer system, selling tickets at state fairs ($5 for one ticket or $20 for five tickets). At the convention, the party had a table outside the convention hall and was selling Reform Party hats, T-shirts and mugs, in addition to the raffle tickets. Similarly, the Reform Party of Kentucky had table just outside the convention hall, where a couple were selling Reform Party watches ($30) and generic chocolate bars. 

The national party, which has scant resources itself, is not in a position to provide financial assistance to state parties. Mike Morris, the party's treasurer, says it has raised approximately $200,000 since its inception, from sustaining contributors, unsolicited contributions off the web, a modest telemarketing campaign and two mailings of a few thousand pieces. After accounting for the convention (about $41,550), the telemarketing (about $30,738) and other costs the party will be left with a net of about $90,000. Verney has emphasized repeatedly that the party should hold onto what money it has and churn it back in to more fundraising until it builds up a substantial reserve.  

Nonetheless, there are always demands for spending projects. For example, some Reform Party members have argued for a national newsletter. The leadership has concluded such a project is not a priority; the party can communicate via Pat Choate's "News of Our Times" radio show, the Reform Party website, and its e-mail reflectors. 

Presidential Nomination Process 

One of the most important tasks the convention faced was to approve a process for choosing the party's presidential nominee. The Reform Party's plan, adopted by a wide margin, has two main steps. First a candidate must qualify for the primary. To do this the candidate, and his or her supporters, will have to obtain ballot access--as an independent--in a number of qualifying states where the Reform Party does not have ballot access. Candidates who meet this threshold will then appear on the primary ballot, which will be distributed on July 4, 2000 to Reform Party members as well as to interested citizens who contact state parties. The results will be announced at the Reform Party convention in August 2000.  

Michael Farris, chairman of the presidential nomination committee, said he sought to balance two factors in developing the plan: the realities imposed by the varying ballot access requirements in individual states, and the view that the Democratic and Republican processes do not serve the best interests of the people.  

Farris said the committee had considered an internal party process of collecting signatures; a candidate would need at least 10 percent of the total signatures to appear on the ballot. "It hit us like a rock," Farris said, "We can do that and the candidate will not be on the ballot in November." Maggy Simony, a delegate from Meredith, New Hampshire expressed skepticism about the plan, saying it was too complex and the party should simply nominate a candidate at their convention in 1999 and spend the rest of the time getting him on the ballot. 

But Farris said it was important to think "outside the box." He said that it would be empowering for Reformers to form committees and work to qualify their preferred candidates. Further, Farris said the Democratic and Republican processes end too early. In March 2000, when everyone is all geared up for the presidential campaign, the Democratic and Republican nominations will be settled. Meanwhile, Farris said, there will be real competition going on in the Reform Party, and the nominee will not be announced until the August convention. 

Among those mentioned as possible Reform Party presidential candidates are Congressman James Traficant (D-Ohio) and University of Oklahoma president David Boren. Ross Perot could run again, but many in the party believe it is time for another candidate. Pat Choate, the party's 1996 vice presidential nominee, and Lowell Weicker, the former governor of Connecticut are other possibilities. Based on Mr. Perot's showing in 1996, the Reform Party candidate will receive about $12.5 million from the U.S. Treasury to wage a general election campaign, compared to more than $60 million each for the Democratic and Republican nominees. 

Saturday Evening Speeches 

The highlights of the convention were speeches by Ross Perot and Pat Choate on Saturday night. Choate decried "unthinking financial globalism" that "encourages speculation over investment." Choate also condemned the exclusion of the Perot ticket from the presidential debates in 1996. Addressing his remarks to Commission on Presidential Debates co-chairs Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, Choate warned, "Don't censor us again." Perot, greeted with loud cheers of "Ross was Right!," pulled no punches in declaring that President Clinton is "unfit to be president of this great nation." "The president is mentally and emotionally unstable," he said. 

In comparison to the approximately 130 Reform Party candidates in 31 states, the Libertarian Party will have at least 836 candidates on the ballot in 44 states (166 candidates for U.S. House, 24 for U.S. Senate, 21 for governor, 45 for other statewide offices, about 338 state legislative candidates and many candidates running for local office). For federal and state offices alone, the U.S. Taxpayers Party is fielding candidates about 106 candidates in 22 states. At least 100 Green candidates are running for federal, state and local offices in 18 states and the District of Columbia.   
Copyright 1998 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action.  All rights reserved.