Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler who was elected governor of Minnesota last year on the Reform Party ticket, wrested control of the party apparatus Sunday from its founder, Ross Perot, at the group's national convention.
Jack Gargan, a retired chicken farmer and onetime tennis court caretaker backed by Ventura, won a three-way contest for the party chairmanship and immediately vowed to turn the independent organization into more than the party of Perot. Gargan won the chairmanship over Patricia Benjamin, a party member from Cherry Hill, N.J., who was backed by the Perot camp, and Thomas McLaughlin, chairman of the Pennsylvania Reform Party.
"We are saying it's time for a change," said Gargan, 68, a onetime Perot ally who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1998. His first change will be to move the party headquarters from Dallas, where it has operated out of Perot's corporate offices, to southern Florida, where Gargan lives.
The defeat of Perot's candidate could make it difficult for Perot himself to gain the party's presidential nomination next year, an option he has left open. Perot received almost 20% of the presidential vote in 1992, enough that he arguably helped put Bill Clinton in the White House by draining votes from George Bush, then the incumbent president. Perot's voter appeal declined considerably four years later.
Entitled to more than $12 million in federal money for the 2000 presidential election, the Reform Party is gearing up to play spoiler again--a role with which it is perfectly comfortable.
"We may look different. We may sound different. We may even act different," Benjamin said. "Conformity is not what this party is all about."
A quick look at some of the approximately 600 delegates to this year's convention made that clear. In addition to Gargan, they included a woman pushing 90 who is walking from coast to coast to promote campaign finance reform, a white-bearded construction worker who dresses as Uncle Sam and a mayoral candidate from San Francisco who plays in a disco band named SuperBooty.
Although these individualistic souls agree on the need for a new direction in government, they have struggled over how to regain the party's early momentum.
"Do we have factions and divisions within our party?" Gargan asked. "Do we have individuals whose real aim is self-promotion or power trips? Do we have provocateurs stirring up trouble? Sure we do. All of the above. But we're no different from any other party out there."
Underlying the chairmanship battle is division over who should be the party's nominee in the 2000 presidential race. The party is nowhere close to a consensus candidate.
A survey of convention attendees gave Perot strong support. But other party members were gung-ho for Ventura, who has ruled out a run. The names of New York developer Donald Trump, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell and former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. have also been floated.
In television interviews Sunday, Ventura added another name to the mix: Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has shown no signs of abandoning his run for the Republican presidential nomination.
"We need to be taken seriously," said Nikki Love, a delegate from Hawaii who is chairwoman of the party's college chapters. "For the wild types, we can say we have Jesse Ventura as a Reform Party governor. For others, we need to send the message through the presidential nominee that we're not crazy people."
But the man in the Uncle Sam outfit, Max Shaffer, is not the least bit worried about standing out. He calls Ventura "an American hero" who has proved his electability and ought to be persuaded to run for the White House.
Delegates counting on a face-to-face showdown between the former wrestler and the scrappy Texas billionaire were disappointed. Perot drew a spirited welcome Saturday night, telling delegates he will serve the party as they see fit. But Ventura, Friday's scheduled speaker, was a no-show.
First, he complained of back pain. Then he said the heavy storm that swept through the Midwest had grounded his flight. As a consolation, organizers piped in his voice and showed his smiling visage on a big screen.
"We are still a baby," Ventura said, urging party members to stick with the cause. "We haven't even been around 10 years. When you think about it, the other parties have been around 100 years."
Not everybody thought the Perot-Ventura schism, which led to some angry confrontations among party members, was productive.
The convention's opening speaker was Doris Haddock, 89, who has trekked halfway across the country to call attention to the influence of big money in politics. "Don't argue this weekend, friends," she told delegates. "Act in unity to save our dear democracy."
Her words drew just about everybody to their feet--and prompted one delegate to cry out: "Do you want to run for president?"