By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I have worked day and night for seven years at the vanguard of this reform movement," says Verney, 52, who went to work for Perot in 1992 after quitting as executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "I have traveled the country from coast to coast and border to border in support of this. I personally know virtually everyone who is a convention delegate. Through my performance and my commitment and my dedication to this, I have no doubt that if I ran for re-election, I would have been overwhelmingly re-elected and would be for time immemorial."
The 1999 chairman race, however, came down to Gargan, the choice of the dissidents and Ventura, and Patricia Benjamin, the choice of Verney and Pat Choate, Perot's 1996 running mate. Nevertheless, several Reform Party activists are spinning the yarn that the media unfairly portrayed the contest as a grudge match between Ventura and Perot.
Gargan points to Ventura's convention speech, which contained several minutes of praise for Perot. The Truaxes say Perot received an enthusiastic ovation at the convention when he gave his speech -- an address, by the way, that never mentioned Ventura. Even Madsen will concede that Perot is owed a debt of gratitude for all he has done for the reform movement.
Yet when Gargan sought endorsements for his chairman candidacy, he went to Ventura and not Perot. "There used to be a day I could call Mr. Perot and they would patch me through, and now I can't get through to him on the phone or even get my letters answered," Gargan says. "I don't know what I did wrong to justify that. I didn't ask him for an endorsement because I knew he wouldn't give it to me."
In fact, Perot did not officially endorse anyone, although that was implied with Verney and Choate's backing of Benjamin. Verney maintains that Perot did not want to continue to be the figurehead of the party.
"On Election Night 1996, he said he was going to step back and allow us, the owners of the party, the people who created it, to take ownership of it and continue it on," he says. "He's been supportive of that ever since. He did not go into [the 1999 convention] looking at this as any contest between him and anyone else. He viewed it as the continued building of his gift to America, the Reform Party, by the people who own it."
Since 1996 Perot has made only three appearances at Reform Party functions -- each annual national convention. Verney says he apprises Perot daily of the party's progress. But reform-movement activists such as Gargan and Madsen suggest that Perot is guilty of neglect and that the torch needed to be passed to ensure survival.
"Jesse Ventura did something that Perot never did, and that's win," Madsen says bluntly.
In Sugar Land, Jim Welch is considering whether to become active in the reform movement again. He offers a pearl that could stand as a Perot epithet: "He was not the leader that he initially portrayed himself to be. This whole thing of 'Whatever the people want,' that was a crock."