By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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That party fielded a U.S. Senate candidate in Minnesota in 1994 who received 5.4 percent of the vote. But like other third parties, Madsen's movement fell victim to infighting. Although his heart wasn't in it, Madsen kept ties with the Perot movement, retaining a membership with United We Stand by sending his annual $15 dues to Dallas.
"In Minnesota, it boiled down to people who were for Perot and people who felt we should proceed independently of Dallas," Madsen says. "We'd all get along fine with each other as an organization, but as soon as the name Ross Perot was injected in the mix, things started to split down the middle. That's when we'd have the most vicious fights. I think it has to do with the psychology of a typical Perot supporter. When you say something critical of Perot, a Perot loyalist will tend to take it personally, as if you are criticizing him or her. I think Perot's most strident loyalists have lost the distinction between the message and the man."
To Verney and Paul Truax, it's the name Madsen, not Perot, that creates the schisms.
"Nobody likes this guy," Truax says. "I hate him. I'll admit that freely. He's arrogant, obnoxious, and kind of slimy. The only reason I would go to his funeral is to make sure he's in the box."
When the fledgling Reform Party (which evolved out of United We Stand) met in 1996 to select its candidate for president, Madsen was there. But he was behind a splinter faction that sought to nominate former Colorado governor Richard Lamm instead of Perot. Alleging that the balloting process was unfair, Madsen staged a walkout.
"Dallas called us dissidents and plants from the Republican and Democratic parties who were trying to ruin the success of the Reform Party," Madsen says. "They called us self-promoters."
The so-called dissidents met the following year and voted to form their own party with a similar name, the American Reform Party. Jim Welch joined in the fun.
"The thing that's the wildest part about it is there is no unification -- even within this breakaway faction, there is division," he says. "They are about as organized as a bucket of minnows."
The so-called Perotbots slur the splinter group by calling them "Schaumies," a reference to Schaumburg, Illinois, where the group held its first convention. Verney slurs the party even worse, referring to its leaders as disruptive, self-centered control freaks.
"The American Reform Party consists of five people you wouldn't go out to lunch with," he says in an accent that reflects his Bostonian upbringing. "They've contributed nothing except confusion."
Madsen says the party has vitality, but he is calling for its dissolution. He has sent an 11-page letter to reformers of his ilk, laying out reasons for rejoining the Reform Party USA. The top reason he lists is Jesse Ventura.
Madsen also lists more subjective reasons, such as the $12.6 million in federal matching funds waiting for the Reform Party's 2000 presidential nominee. (Ironically, the money exists because of Perot's showing in 1996.) The Reform Party also has presidential-ballot access in 19 states and $2.5 million in federal money for its 2000 national convention. The American Reform Party has no automatic ballot access and no federal money coming its way.
The letter is careful not to vilify Perot, except to predict that the "top-down" approach of the Reform Party will be a thing of the past under the new Ventura-led regime. Verney, who says any perception of a Perot dictatorship is false, says he couldn't care less whether Madsen and his gang return.
"They possess nothing of value to bring to the Reform Party," he says. "They're welcome if they come with an attitude of party-building, but in the past it's been all about them personally."
Madsen, however, has friends in high places, which could portend a visible role for him in the revamped Reform Party. Chairman Gargan says he considers Madsen both an antagonist and protagonist who, despite his sarcastic wit, takes the high road in disputes.
Madsen also is treasurer and Internet operations director with Ventura's campaign committee, and he worked on the governor's transition team. Verney takes delight in characterizing Madsen's job with the campaign as "doll salesman," as the committee markets three Jesse Ventura "action figures" to raise money.
Regarding Madsen's connections with the party's new titular head, Verney says: "That's Governor Ventura's problem, not mine."
There are two stories going around as to why Russ Verney voluntarily stepped down as chairman of the Reform Party.
Gargan says Reform Party members, including those who are more mainstream than dissident, drafted him to run for chairman because they were dissatisfied with the party's direction under Verney and, by association, Perot. Ballot access had been lost in more states than it had been retained, and an increasing number of states had no representation at each successive national convention.
"There was considerable unrest in the ranks," says Gargan, who describes the party as having been on the verge of total collapse. "Without fingering certain people, the whole party seemed to be drifting without any focus."
Verney, however, says he felt no pressure to hang it up, and instead just felt it was time to allow new leadership to blossom.