Perot pitches unity amid infighting

Internal divisions mark Reform Party convention

July 25, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Texas billionaire Ross Perot greeted a room full of followers last night with his familiar rant against establishment politics and then offered some advice to his own Reform Party, now beset by brewing divisions.

"The thing I want you to understand I am certainly happy to participate in any constructive way -- the last thing I want is all of these things that I see in the paper day in and day out about cat fights and this and that and the other," Perot told the crowd that had cheered him wildly. "Just remember, united teams win, divided teams lose."

Hundreds gathered for the Reform Party's annual convention this weekend, with some proudly sporting "Ross Is Right" 2000 presidential campaign buttons. But even as the crowd delighted in Perot's twangy vows to root out government conspiracy and "pull that skunk up by the tail," an undercurrent of dissent buzzed here. Some feel it is time for Perot to exit the political stage and make way for someone new to lead the party in the next presidential election.

"The party can't go on as a one-man show," said Greg Brown, 44, a jeweler from Oklahoma City. "People from the outside look at the Reform Party as a cult -- Ross Perot's cult -- and somebody has to be allowed to rise in his place. He's got to step aside."

Reform Party leadership is a passionate subject at this three-day convention outside Detroit -- Brown had to sit down during an interview after experiencing momentary chest pains while arguing for new party leaders. Among these self-professed political revolutionaries, few topics provoke as much fervor as the future of the party.

Here, in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency decorated with a giant foam eagle of freedom, more than 300 delegates are gathered to elect new party leaders and chart their movement's course on the way to next year's presidential elections. As they conduct party business, this gathering of outsiders is suffering the sort of problems that have long vexed the well-established political parties: infighting and internal divisions.

Yesterday, party members spent hours squabbling over rules that govern how states elect delegates and that determine which candidates are allowed to run under the Reform Party banner. At one point, the New Jersey delegation was banned from the room and told that it could not return until it resolved a spat in which state party members had been suing each other. The delegation was later readmitted.

For the past few weeks, the party has been in the midst of a small internal war between Perot forces and backers of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. These two factions are expected to clash today over the election of the next Reform Party chairman -- an officer who will control more than $12 million and oversee the party into the 2000 election.

Ventura, who has a strong following here and is the Reform Party's only high-ranking elected official, could back away from the party if he does not like the choice of chairman -- or, for that matter, presidential candidate. In each of the past two presidential elections, Perot's support as the Reform Party candidate has dwindled, and many party members are eager for a fresh face.

But members are scattered across broad ideological lines when it comes to picking that presidential candidate. This weekend, conventioneers promoted potential candidates with little in common except a lack of government experience and plenty of national celebrity.

Signs on a Winnebago in the parking lot touted real estate developer Donald Trump for president, although Trump has not said he would run. Yesterday, Trump backer Tim Whitcomb, a Los Angeles filmmaker, was distributing a National Enquirer poll that had Trump ahead of Vice President Al Gore in a presidential race.

Across the convention floor, others latched onto more conventional dream candidates. Carol White, a beautician from Washington state, swore her allegiance to Perot, as did 70-year-old Florida resident Jeff Chambers, who said Perot once offered to pay for an operation for his wife. Some wore Pat Buchanan stickers, and one person waved a Ralph Nader poster. A group headed by Gaithersburg psychologist Pat Cummings led a drive for retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, although the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said he will not run.

Former Ventura campaign manager Douglas Friedline, who was promoting the former professional wrestler's action figures at the convention, backed the governor's choice for president -- former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., an independent. (Weicker, who did not attend, is a relative unknown to these conventioneers, one of whom repeatedly called him "Weichert," the name of a real estate firm.)

Several self-proclaimed presidential candidates held a meeting by the Hyatt Regency pool. Amid the splashing of other hotel guests, they promoted ideas on such subjects as immigration laws and international trade.

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