Perot disciples say the Patriot Party will continue in Howard with or without him Hard core of 30 to 40 members looking for others who share views

September 28, 1992|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

Whether or not there is a second coming of Ross Perot, many of his disciples in Howard County will continue to carry the torch.

Not for the man, but for the message.

Less than three months after Mr. Perot quit the presidential race, the core members of his petition drive in Howard County have opened a chapter of a new national political party. They call themselves the Patriot Party and are looking for candidates committed to their primary goals -- reducing the national debt, limiting terms of office, reforming government and rebuilding the industrial job base.

They welcomed the news last week that Mr. Perot might re-enter the presidential race, but they no longer rely on the Texas businessman as a political savior.

"I've got more important things to do with building this party than to worry about what he's going to do," said Ross Rottier, a Highland mathematician who works at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab.

So far, there are 30 to 40 hard-core members in the county and chapters in 22 other states, said T. R. Sundaram, who lives in Columbia and acts as communications director for the party's Maryland chapter.

The Howard Patriots are a mix of die-hard conservatives, liberals and independents who had, for the most part, never been politically active. They include an 81-year-old retired school teacher, a former Marine and a construction supervisor. In Mr. Perot, they found someone who addressed their basic concerns and articulated their frustration with the two-party system.

Mr. Sundaram, who is originally from India, was an independent and had cast ballots for Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and John Anderson. He had never paid much attention to the electoral process.

When he saw Mr. Perot first announce his campaign plans on "Larry King Live" Feb. 20, Mr. Sundaram had a political epiphany. Finally, someone was talking seriously about issues he cared about.

When Mr. Perot blamed the state of the nation on apathetic voters, Mr. Sundaram felt he was speaking directly to him. Mr. Sundaram ordered transcripts of every televised interview the businessman had given. Soon, he was hooked.

When Mr. Perot suddenly quit the race in July, Mr. Sundaram and other supporters in Howard were stunned. But by then, the cause -- solving the nation's fundamental problems -- had taken root. Within a few weeks, they regrouped to form the local party. They took the name, Patriot, from a similar group in California. Like many Howard Patriots, Mr. Sundaram says he would still vote for Mr. Perot, but no longer idealizes him. Mr. Sundaram, who runs an engineering research firm out of his home, compares the relationship to a marriage.

"After you've been married a few years, you may realize your wife is not the perfect woman you fell in love with, but you still love her," Mr. Sundaram said. "That is the way I feel about Ross Perot."

One of the first steps for the Patriots now is to gain state recognition so they can hold primaries. A couple of weeks ago they began gathering signatures at county library branches and at the Giant supermarket in the Hickory Ridge Shopping Center.

They need 220,000 by early 1994 to register as a party in Maryland. So far, 3,000 have signed, said Jack Benson, chairman of the state chapter. Members think Mr. Perot's re-entry would raise the party's profile and attract more signatures.

"I'm all for him," said Michael Gordon Jr., an Elkridge business man and local party treasurer. "It will definitely get the grass roots moving again."

The party expects to get signatures from angry voters on Election Day. Mr. Benson said that the Patriots plan to set up tables at every precinct in Maryland.

Members of the Howard chapter believe the time is ripe for a major third party. They cite a recent national poll in which 47 percent of registered voters said a new party is needed to reform American politics. The poll, conducted by a firm called the Gordon S. Black Corporation in Rochester, N.Y., was presented to the National Press Club in June.

The Patriots plan to field a slate of candidates for Howard County, state and national offices by 1994. Mr. Sundaram said that some members have already expressed interest in running, but that the party has no declared candidates just yet.

Party members plan to meet publicly with Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes at 7 p.m. Friday in the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia to see if he passes their litmus test.

The Patriots say that if they ever do gain power, they have safeguards to keep from losing their vision -- as they think the Democrats and Republicans have. And if the candidate reneges after taking office?

"We'd throw him out of the party," Mr. Sundaram said.

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