Reform Party rejects Perot

Ventura-backed candidate is elected as national chairman

Three-day convention closes

July 26, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DEARBORN, Mich. -- As the Reform Party seeks to revive its waning influence in presidential politics, members voted yesterday to ditch its old leadership and embrace a candidate endorsed by former wrestler turned populist sensation Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Delegates at the third annual Reform Party convention elected former financier Jack Gargan as party chairman. Gargan, who grew up on a chicken farm and talks about government reform with a country drawl, was seen by some as a repudiation of another twangy Reform Party personality, founder Ross Perot.

Perot had blown into the convention the evening before, holding out the possibility that he could run for president a third time -- "I am certainly happy to help and participate in any constructive way," the Texas billionaire cryptically told a crowd of more than 300 gathered for his speech.

But many conventioneers said yesterday's vote shows that Perot's time has come and gone.

"This has not been Ross Perot's party for a couple of years now," said Gargan, 68, of Cedar Key, Fla. "I do believe we're ready for new people to give it a whirl [as the party's presidential candidate] -- and that's putting it lightly."

Gargan tried some tricks from Perot's book -- whipping up raucous applause with his homespun storytelling and lack of professional political polish.

"I ride a motorcycle, I shoot a fair game of pool and I do have an eye for the ladies -- and those are my good qualities," Gargan said to laughter as he delivered his campaign speech amid a sea of red, white and blue "Gargan" posters. Later, the audience roared at an apparent gaffe, when he asked the delegates whether they "drink" instead of "think." He closed by joking that if he lost, he would travel with a temperance activist who would use him as an example of the bad drunk.

"You gotta love this guy!" a delegate screamed from the audience as Gargan's speech ended.

Later, Russell Verney, a Perot employee whose term as national chairman ends early next year, made a pitch for his candidate, Pat Benjamin, the current national vice chairman. "We want a workhorse, not a show horse," Verney said sternly.

`Points of order'

Candidates talked throughout the day of a new dawn for the Reform Party. But the gathering was beset by squabbling that harked back to the party's divisions. Delegates repeatedly interrupted floor action with "points of order" and argued minor issues such as when they should vacate their hotel rooms.

"We could `point of order' all day, but what's going to happen is you're not going to have an election," said an exasperated floor manager, David Goldman, after a delegate raised a point of order to have reporters move farther to the back of the room.

But delegates also spent this three-day convention, which began Friday, boogieing on the dance floor to "Born in the U.S.A.," and bonding over the party's new populist hero, Ventura. Followers could purchase "We Rocked the World," a CD promoted by Ventura's campaign, featuring singles such as "Let's Party" and "Right to Run."

"I like that Jesse Ventura style," said Baltimore resident Tom Snyder, 25, who works at a fiber-optics company in Columbia. "He says what he thinks, and that's a great image for our party now."

The presidential election is very much the party's backdrop now. Ventura said in a taped television interview yesterday that he would like to see a Reform Party presidential run by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. Earlier, Ventura had said he would support former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., an independent.

Yesterday, more self-styled Reform Party presidential candidates roamed the convention floor. A flier from one, Merle E. Tiffany, intones, "Do It!! For God and America!!" The pamphlet instructs supporters to contact Erhard Furniture and Carpet in Tennessee for more information about the candidate.

Possible move ahead

Before the convention closed last night, Gargan said he was considering a move of the party's headquarters from Perot's hometown of Dallas to Tampa, Fla. Gargan said he wants Ventura to get more involved in national party activities, in the hopes of landing on ballots in 31 states where access is now denied.

"We are missing the boat if we do not ride his coattails as far as we can," Gargan told a cheering crowd.

Gargan won election to the two-year post, which controls more than $12 million and will oversee the party into the 2000 election, in a 213-127 vote.

The Maryland delegation voted 6-0 in favor of Benjamin, who was seen as the Perot establishment's first choice for the party's top post.

After her defeat, Benjamin questioned whether Gargan could handle the job. "What I don't know is what direction he's going to go in. You'd have to ask him, and I hope he has an answer," she said.

A snub

Allies of Ventura felt snubbed Saturday night by Perot's failure to mention the governor -- the party's only high-ranking elected official -- in his convention speech. Ventura aide Phil Madsen also complained that Perot did not help Ventura finance a $300,000 loan for his 1998 gubernatorial campaign and did not grant Ventura television time at the last convention, when he was a candidate.

But yesterday, Ventura's forces were jubilant.

"This sends a completely different message to voters around the country," said Douglas Friedline, who runs Ventura for Minnesota Inc., which markets Ventura merchandise. "It's no longer just Ross Perot's party."

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