Perot's tight control angers his volunteers

September 25, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Just as Ross Perot's bid for the presidency collapsed amid internal power struggles last summer, so it appears to be rising again with some of the same static.

Before the Texas billionaire called it quits in July, there were conflicts between the vast army of volunteers and the paid staffers from Perot headquarters, the "Dallas white shirts" as they were called.

Now there is a new crackle of tension between the remaining volunteers and the hand-picked officers of Mr. Perot's movement: United We Stand, America.

Much of the conflict stems from the feeling among some volunteers that the effort is smaller than the initial grass-roots movement.

It is also a much more Dallas-based and -directed operation, with Mr. Perot calling the shots and doling out dollars -- millions of them -- even as he declares it a campaign "from the people."

For instance, Mr. Perot now awaits word about the wishes of "the people" from a group of state coordinators who, in many cases, have been hand-picked by him and his Dallas associates.

Not surprisingly, these state leaders, many of them longtime Perot acquaintances, are telling him he must run.

"The volunteers feel, in having Mr. Perot continue to speak about this as a 'bottom-up' type movement -- well, there are some problems in that area," says Kurt Meyer, former state volunteer coordinator in New York. "It's primarily a Dallas operation."

Mr. Perot, indeed, leaves the impression that he's had little to do with the fervor for his candidacy.

"As I've said repeatedly, this is an organization that's run from the bottom up," he said Tuesday on "CBS This Morning." The volunteers "are looking at the situation now, evaluating it, deciding what they think the next step should be . . . . And it comes from the bottom up, which is, as my grandson would say, 'bootiful,' because this is from the people."

But Mr. Perot has certainly helped those people along.

Since bowing out of the race in mid-July, he has spent about $7 million to get his name on remaining ballots, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Much of his effort and money was focused on New York, where the petition drive had lost steam -- 70 percent to 80 percent of its volunteers -- after his withdrawal.

"We notified Dallas we were having a little bit of a problem," says Mr. Meyer, the former coordinator for New York. "Perot said, 'What is it you need to fix it?' "

Along with hiring several hundred temporary workers at about $7 an hour, Mr. Perot financed full-page ads that ran in newspapers throughout the state and made it clear he would supply whatever it took to get him on the ballot there.

Mr. Meyer says he acted as a sort of liaison between the Dallas staffers and the local volunteers: "Mr. Perot was very careful not to try to show a lot of direction coming from Dallas."

These days, some of the rough edges of the tycoon's on-again, off-again campaign surround the United We Stand organization, headed by an advisory board and state coordinators who were selected by field representatives of the Perot Petition Committee in Dallas and who are now standing by for an expected invitation to Texas early next week.

Yesterday, in a fax sent to newspapers, Perot volunteer Sara Dirkson griped: "The board of United We Stand, America is generally held in contempt by the Perot volunteers across America."

Cliff Arnebeck, former volunteer coordinator for Columbus, Ohio, became so disenchanted with the movement that he recently defected. This was because the Dallas staff "disregarded the whole grass-roots structure we had in place" and selected as Ohio coordinators "people they knew would do whatever they told them to do," he said.

The Columbus lawyer says he came to doubt Mr. Perot's "integrity, sincerity, truthfulness and commitment to a grass-roots, democraticstructure."

Barbara Gradisher, an Ohio district coordinator since the early days of the petition drive, denies that there's been any disruption to the internal state structure, although she admits she hadn't heard of the woman selected as state coordinator at the time she was named.

Similarly, Mr. Meyer, a retired businessman who got an ulcer from all the work he did on the Perot campaign last winter and spring, says he and other active volunteers were surprised when Mitch Headstrom, a person they'd not heard of but who was a friend of Mr. Perot's, was selected as New York state coordinator for United We Stand.

"Of course there was resentment and concern as to how this came about," said Mr. Meyer.

Now unsure whether Mr. Perot has the temperment to be president and exhausted by the petition drive experience, Mr. Meyer says he's still in touch but not actively involved with the Perot "campaign."

Ed Doyne, one of two Washington state coordinators, says he's noticed no such friction or resentment within the volunteer ranks.

Present when the United We Stand officers were chosen, the longtime Perot volunteer says it was logical for the Dallas staff to make the selections since they knew the coordinators best of all.

But a letter written to campaign workers across the country from Orson Swindle, national director of United We Stand, and obtained this week by the New York Times, refers to choppy waters on the Perot seas.

"Please folks, let's cut out the internal positioning and get on with the really important issues at hand -- insuring the election of Ross Perot as the next President," the Aug. 6 letter says. "ACCEPT THE APPOINTED LEADERSHIP! We have work to do."

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