Ross on the ropes
Jack Gargan sought to raise a ruckus, if not spawn a revolution. The retired financial consultant from Florida started a campaign in 1990 against corrupt politicians who he believed had wrested the government away from its rightful owner, the people. Gargan founded THRO -- Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out! -- to scare the smugness out of members of Congress who had forgotten who put them there in the first place.
Gargan preyed upon the discontent of disaffected Americans who believed what he did about politicians -- that there was hardly a good one in the whole lousy bunch. Before the November 1990 election, he placed full-page ads in major newspapers across the country saying that he was mad as hell and was not going to take it anymore. The ads listed the sins of Congress: a multitrillion-dollar debt, runaway spending, devotion to special interests, abuse of power, and on and on. He dedicated those broadsides to his three grandchildren, framing his effort as an undertaking to preserve their future.
His movement had steam, but no standard-bearer. Then, a couple of days before the balloting, Gargan's secretary said she had a caller named H. Ross Perot on the line. She had never heard of him, but Gargan recognized Perot as a successful Dallas businessman and patriot. This was the Perot who supported prisoners of war and had pulled off a daring rescue of two of his employees from an Iranian prison in 1979.
Perot had been excited enough by the THRO ads to offer his support, Gargan says. With the election just days away, Gargan declined Perot's offer, but reserved the right to take him up on it later.
Very few of the hypocritical rascals were thrown out in the 1990 congressional elections, but Gargan was not deterred. THRO would still be a go.
"And then I got to thinking," Gargan says, "if we were going to throw all of Congress out, wouldn't it be even better to have a great leader in the White House?"
Gargan obsessed over the idea of Ross Perot as president. In June 1991, at a meeting of term-limits advocates in Kansas City, he publicly called for a Perot candidacy. His declaration got a brief mention in the city's daily newspaper.
A few months later, at a THRO conference in Tampa, Perot delivered the keynote address. Supporters packed the biggest hotel ballroom in town, and 3,000 more people watched the speech on TV in a high school gymnasium across the street. Gargan spread the word to have the audience chant, "Run Ross Run," and he printed placards that said, "Ross for Boss" and "Perot for Prez." After Perot's speech, Gargan took the stage and said he thought Perot should be the next president of the United States. Just as Gargan had engineered it, C-SPAN and network news crews captured a wild scene of these Americans chanting for Perot and waving signs high in the air.
"It's ironic, isn't it?" Gargan says from his home in Cedar Key, Florida, a privileged island off the western coast. "I started the 'draft Perot' movement."
Irony doesn't even begin to describe it.
Gargan is the new chairman-elect of what Perot likes to call his "gift to America," the Reform Party of the United States of America, which grew out of Perot's 1992 and 1996 candidacies for president. Gargan's election signals a shift for the fledgling third party -- a purge of Perot and his devotees in favor of a new figurehead: Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
One huge ego is out; another huge ego is in.
As Ventura accepts this gift, he likely will find out what Perot has just discovered: When unwrapped, the package can contain a booby prize.
Gargan is a poker-playing, pool-shooting, motorcycle-riding 68-year-old with a self-professed eye for the ladies. He caught the attention of Ventura, the former professional wrestler who stunned the political world last November by becoming the first Reform Party candidate elected to a major office.
"In my humble opinion, there would not be a Reform Party today if Jesse Ventura had not won last November," Gargan says.
At the party's annual national convention late last month in Dearborn, Michigan, Ventura endorsed Gargan for chairman. But to capture the post, he had to defeat Patricia Benjamin, the party's vice chairwoman. She had the support of two key Perot operatives: departing chairman Russell Verney and Pat Choate, Perot's vice presidential running mate in 1996. Although Perot did not endorse anyone, his favorite was apparent.
When Gargan takes over the chairmanship in January, he will move the party headquarters -- little more than a post office box, telephone, and fax machine, really -- from North Dallas to Central Florida.
To add further insult, the leader of a splinter group that left the Reform Party USA in a snit in 1997 is asking his backers to put animosities aside and rejoin the party now that the "Perotbots" (the derisive term the group uses for Perot loyalists) have been shoved aside.
Although no one affiliated with the reform movement is so undiplomatic as to say it, Perot is being tossed out like yesterday's garbage. It's shoddy treatment for the founding father, someone who has invested untold hours and about $100 million of his own money in the cause.
"There's no question that this movement would have never gotten under way and we would not be where we are today without Ross Perot's commitment to it and his generosity to support it," says Verney. His office is on the 17th floor of a North Dallas mirrored-glass tower that houses Perot's business suites and the Reform Party's telephone and fax.
The disrespect afforded Perot is not entirely surprising. Many of the activists involved in the reform movement have no respect for politics or politicians -- that's why they are involved in the first place. They are quick to judge, faster to repudiate. They are, after all, the people who want to throw the hypocritical rascals out -- every danged one of them.
And now they've thrown out Ross Perot himself.
Don't feel sorry for Perot. He created this monster. He roused these rabblers by stirring up their discontent and setting them off to run wild across the land.
They call for fewer taxes. They want the liberties and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution restored. They arm themselves with statistics on U.S. trade imbalances and the devaluation of the U.S. dollar. They denounce special interests and the politicians who are beholden to the lobbyists who finance their campaigns.
They keep talk radio in business.
They think ever-bizarre Ron Paul of Texas is the only member of Congress worth a damn. They want to keep "the Waco conspiracy thing" alive. And they believe much of what they read on the Internet.
Gargan, their new chairman, predicts anarchy will come to the United States when the current economic boom ends, according to an article in The Washington Post. He says he lives in Florida's Cedar Key because the island could easily be cut off during any uprising. "You could defend the bridge and only let in friends and relatives, or no one at all," he has said. A report in the Houston Chronicle said Gargan's official biography lists him as a "direct descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, high king of Ireland from 377 to 404 A.D."
Ross Perot may be a major control freak, but even he couldn't keep these restless eccentrics caged up. And now the monster has turned on its creator.
Breathing on its own. Unbridled.
Where were you on the night of February 20, 1992?
For activists in the reform movement, that night stands as a defining moment in their lives: It's the evening Ross Perot told Larry King on CNN that he would run for president if the American people put him on the ballot in all 50 states.
"God, it was so electrifying," recalls Jim Welch, who owns a home-improvement business and lives in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. "I found myself rising out of my chair. I said, 'Honey, I believe this man has a chance of doing it. Let's get involved!'"
He and Honey, better known as wife Sherran, drew up a series of signs relaying the message "The only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing." They placed them along the southbound lanes of the Southwest Freeway, routing drivers to a folding table in front of a now-defunct Italian restaurant in Sugar Land.
Sherran staffed the table from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jim helped too, arriving in the late afternoon and working the night shift. They did it for as many days as it took to get more than 4,000 people to sign petitions to help get Perot on the 1992 presidential ballot in Texas.
"I'm 57 years old," Jim Welch says. "I would like to see the days when the average family is not paying out 41.7 percent of their income in taxes to support the government. The serfs in medieval Europe only paid one-third, and they were not considered free men."
Welch has a habit of laughing after saying things like that to underscore the absurdity of the situation your government and his government is in right now.
He's a constitutionalist who pledges allegiance to the free-market principles espoused by Thomas Jefferson. He reads books and articles about the Revolutionary War. When asked what bugs him about the country, he responds with a tutorial about the government's heavy-handed control of society, starting with a lesson about the onset of fascism in Italy in 1919.
"You have to understand, I love America," he says. "I love this country. I love it! What I don't like is what the politicians have done to it. I don't like the rape of the ideals that founded this country. I would love to have this country back to what it used to be.
"I got involved in the Perot movement because everyone looks for the shining knight who is going to lead this ragtag army of grassroots people who really want to see the basic things restored in this country."
For Jim Welch, Perot as shining knight lasted, oh, about five months.
In another Texas suburb, this one beyond the northern fringe of Dallas, Paul and Donna Truax were lying in bed watching TV during that defining evening of February 20, 1992.
"I've told this story so many times that I'll admit up front that it's been embellished," says Paul Truax, a former Texas chairman of the Reform Party and its precursor, United We Stand America. "When Ross Perot made his covenant with the American people that night on Larry King Live, my wife would have never believed it possible that a man could jump three feet into the air, levitate for 30 seconds, and scream, 'Hallelujah,' all simultaneously."
The couple had been active within the Republican Party but had grown disillusioned and disenchanted with the George Bush presidency. They felt disaffected. Perot offered hope to end their discontent with the government.
To the Truaxes, Perot delivered. They remain loyal to him, yet vow to stay active within the reform movement under the new regime, distasteful to them though it may be.
"I'm unabashed -- I love Perot. I would walk on hot coals for him," says Paul Truax, who was re-elected the Reform Party's southwest regional representative during the national convention in Michigan last month.
The couple lives in a modest apartment in Addison, tastefully decorated with dark-stained wood furniture and mall-friendly art that suggest they shop regularly at The Bombay Co. Paul Truax, with white hair and large tortoiseshell eyeglasses, is a manufacturer's representative in the carpet industry. Donna Truax, a tad more blunt than her outspoken husband (it's close), is a substitute schoolteacher.
Neither will go so far as to say the party is dissing Perot, but they will say those who want the party to distance itself from its founder are naive and perhaps vengeful.
"Some people think that now that they have a political party, they can do anything they want," Paul Truax says. "So when Dallas [the party leadership loyal to Perot] tells local people that they can't do something because, say, it's against federal election law, that's viewed as dictatorial. But it's not."
A listing in the Dallas phone book for the Reform Party of Texas rings inside the Truaxes' Addison apartment. The couple routinely field calls from people suffering from a questionable touch with reality, asking to talk to Ross, please.
Paul Truax tries to have fun with it. "It's gotten to the point now where I'll say, 'Oh, you just missed him. He was here five minutes ago having coffee. He'll be so sorry he missed you.' You moron."
The last time the Truaxes spoke with Perot was in 1996, when he shook hands with them at a convention called to help establish the Reform Party. And the only time Perot ever called them was to thank them for the work they did on the petition drive to put him on Texas' presidential ballot in 1996.
"He'll know the name Truax," Donna Truax supposes, "but socially we're not in the same echelon as he is."
If people in the reform movement are upset with Perot, it's because they had unrealistic expectations of him, the couple say. "Everyone wants Perot to solve all of their problems," Donna Truax says before allowing her husband to finish her thought.
"They want him to write checks and shut up," he says.
Perot hasn't written a check to the Reform Party since 1996. But he spent perhaps as much as $100 million of his personal stash (estimated at $4 billion) to help fund his two presidential races and to get United We Stand America off the ground. He pays a salary to Verney, the outgoing Reform Party chairman, but it is a fee for being his consultant. The chairman position is voluntary. The Truaxes say that they never have seen a dime from Perot and that they have no problem with that.
Others, however, do have a problem with not cashing in on Perot's wealth. Near the top of that list is Gargan, the incoming chairman who ran for Congress in Florida in 1998 under the party banner.
"The Reform Party had 154 candidates that were running for office in 1998 at all levels of government," he says. "To my knowledge, neither the national Reform Party nor Mr. Perot gave a single one of them any help or any direction or any money at all. I found that puzzling."
Gargan tallied one-third of the vote against the incumbent Democrat in his congressional race (the Republican candidate dropped out). "It certainly was a disappointment for me" is all he will say about the personal snub.
Another Reform Party candidate who did not receive Perot's cash in 1998 was Jesse Ventura, the Minnesota governor. The Truaxes figure that chapped Ventura loyalists in Minnesota and thus fueled the shift of the party away from Perot.
Ventura declined a request for an interview for this story. Paul Moore, his spokesman, says he believes Perot and Ventura met only once. That was during the 1998 Reform Party convention in Atlanta, when Ventura asked Perot for financial support for his campaign. "Nothing ever came of it," Moore says.
Ventura has stated publicly that he appreciates all Perot has done for the movement, "but he cites the fact that Perot got half as many votes in 1996 as he did in 1992 [8 percent vs. 19 percent] as a downward trend he'd like to reverse, and that it was time for him to step aside for another presidential candidate," Moore says. Ventura is encouraging Lowell Weicker, a former senator and governor from Connecticut, to be the party's presidential candidate in 2000.
The Washington Post reported that Ventura's endorsement of Gargan as party chairman, as opposed to the candidate backed by Perot loyalists, came with a threat. The newspaper said Ventura posted an Internet notice: "If the convention delegates are not willing to elect and support the best person for the job, I'll remain reluctant to fully embrace the National Reform Party. I'll keep my national party options open."
Gargan and other Reform Party members bash the media for casting the power-shift as the result of a battle royal between Ventura and Perot. But at the convention, Gargan himself anointed Ventura as the new star of the party when, according to the Post, he told delegates, "If you don't realize that Governor Ventura's victory is our ticket to party survival...then don't vote for me."
Many of the same people who once held Perot up as an example of the perfect leader are now doing the same to Ventura. To them, Perot once was an airtight anti-Washington politician. But over time, they saw he could be just as sanctimonious and self-serving as the other guy.
The reformers say they want someone as their leader who is beyond reproach. But no human, let alone politician, can ever be perfect in the eyes of these malcontents.
Perot had seven years to disappoint his blind followers. Ventura has had only six months. Yet doubts about Ventura already are starting to percolate. Newspaper reports of the convention included some grumblings from delegates accusing Ventura of being heavy-handed and forgetting that, yes, the Reform Party is not about him, it's about the people. It's the same accusation leveled constantly at Perot.
Welch of Sugar Land says: "Jesse Ventura is a great wrassler, a good [Navy] SEAL, and a great patriot, but this is the same guy who thinks we should support Lowell Weicker, a socialist, for president. When you listen to Weicker, it's like Looney Tunes."
How Perot feels about this shift of power is anyone's guess. He's not giving political interviews. Not even to Larry King.
Phil Madsen remembers vividly how the Perot Minnesota campaign chairman suddenly motioned at him from across a large room and mouthed the word for him to come "now." It was July 16, 1992, and Madsen and other volunteers were busy preparing for Perot's presidential campaign stop there the next day.
"He had a very concerned look on his face," recalls Madsen, 45, of Lino Lakes, Minnesota. "He told me he had received a call from Dallas indicating that Perot was dropping out of the race."
Only four months before, Madsen had experienced his own Perot epiphany while eating a macaroni-and-cheese lunch in front of the TV. While channel-surfing, he stopped on a C-SPAN telecast of a Perot speech to the National Press Club. Madsen was a financial planner who helped clients exploit tax loopholes, but hated himself for doing it. He was only an occasional voter and had never been politically active.
That changed when he heard Perot's no-nonsense message. Madsen ended up playing a leading role in gathering the signatures to put the candidate on Minnesota's 1992 presidential ballot. Perot had taken over his life until the devastating truth came out: Perot was a tease.
Perot, saying that he couldn't win and that he did not want to disrupt the political process, abruptly pulled out of the race. Madsen was at a loss. He thought Perot's purpose was to do exactly what he now said he wanted to avoid: shake up establishment politics. And although Perot had fallen in the polls since leading one month before, Madsen believed his man ultimately could win.
Perot would reveal later, after he had re-entered the race, that part of his reason for dropping out was his belief that Republican dirty-tricksters were planning to smear his daughter with a doctored photo and ruin her wedding. Perot's wild allegations were unsubstantiated, leading some political wags to coin the term "Perotnoid."
Today Verney says Perot had two additional reasons for suspending his campaign at the time. Perot felt he needed to get his campaign's finances in order as volunteer groups all over the country were raising money on his behalf, possibly in violation of federal election law. Perot also wanted to clean his house of Washington insiders he had brought on board, specifically GOP spinmeister Edward J. Rollins and Hamilton Jordan, the ex-chief of staff of the Carter White House. The pair wanted to steer Perot's campaign in a direction the candidate found offensive. They had recommended direct-mail and other traditional campaign advertising that Perot viewed as contrary to his ideals of running an unconventional political campaign. Rollins since has gone on record calling Perot a "kook."
Whatever Perot's reasons, kooky or not, his announcement on July 16, 1992, cost him then and still costs him today.
"The majority of Perot supporters decided on that day they would have nothing to do with him ever again," Madsen says. "They were heartbroken. It's no fun to be heartbroken."
When Madsen got home that night, a pile of envelopes sat on top of a table. They were engraved invitations to a special evening party for Perot's top 100 Minnesota volunteers that he had planned to pass out the next morning. He held the invitations in his hand and read the names on the envelopes. Madsen says he broke down and cried.
One week later Madsen called together other devastated Perot volunteers and announced he wanted to turn a negative into a positive by starting a third party in Minnesota. "Some people were concerned that I didn't ask Ross for permission," he says. "I told them that Ross didn't ask me for permission if he could quit."
Perot returned as a candidate in October 1992, but without the help of Madsen. He voted for Bill Clinton that year.
"I got angry with Ross Perot when he got back in the race," he says. "I started to see him in a different light, as someone self-serving and unreliable."
Madsen says he felt as though Perot had abandoned him. Jim Welch, who heard the news in Sugar Land, says Perot simply caved.
"If he would fold over something so small, how could you ever support someone like that?" Welch asks. "How could anyone support a quitter?"
Welch actually cast his ballot for Perot, hoping against hope that Perot's action in July was a blip instead of a pattern. Welch stayed active with United We Stand America, Perot's attempt between his two presidential campaigns to force politicians to pay attention to issues of concern to the reform movement.
While Welch kept the faith that United We Stand could persuade politicians into acting more responsibly, he was fast losing faith in Perot. Welch, the same guy who sat in the late-afternoon Texas sun gathering signatures to get Perot on the 1992 ballot, ultimately concluded that the man was a fraud.
He watched Vice President Al Gore make mincemeat of Perot during a debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement. But the final straw for Welch was hearing Perot suggest that an effective way to fight crime in Dallas would be to cordon off high-crime sections of town and have authorities do door-to-door sweeps in search of guns and drugs.
"We have a Bill of Rights, so that worried me," Welch says. "I never heard Perot really offer any concrete solution to any problem. You know, he'd say, 'Let's lift the hood and look under it, get a committee together to try to fix it, test it, and then implement it.' And that was his solution for everything. It was always that canned answer, and it got so tiring."
The thrill and agony of Perot's 1992 presidential race a memory, Jim Welch and Phil Madsen concentrated on building a new third party in America. Both worked on that task within the organizational confines of Perot's reform movement. Frustrated with what they viewed as Perot's autocracy, they ultimately sparked uprisings within it.
United We Stand America, financed by Perot, was designed to pressure Republicans and Democrats to confront issues important to the people, such as campaign-finance reform, the national debt, and trade. Some United We Stand members, having little faith that Republicans and Democrats could be salvaged, and craving to support candidates of their own, pushed to turn the issues-advocacy group into a full-fledged political party.
The question of whether to form a party was to be discussed at the United We Stand national conference in Dallas in August 1995. Welch became chairman of a committee to draft bylaws and a platform for the prospective new party. He says it met weekly for about five months.
Then he got word from Perot operatives in Dallas that the decision already had been made not to push for a third party. Instead of debating the merits, the conference would feature prominent Republicans and Democrats addressing issues important to the group.
"Since Perot said United We Stand America belonged to the people, I came to the conclusion right then that Perot had sold us out yet again by bringing in the Democrats and Republicans," Welch recalls.
His committee continued until it finished drafting a proposed platform. He was ready to take the conference by storm by demanding the immediate creation of a political party.
"We thought we could take over," Welch says. "But Dallas got word of this uprising, and Perot's folks came down to Houston to meet with us. They said, 'Please don't do that; you'll embarrass Ross.' My attitude was, 'I don't really care. He's embarrassed us enough already.'"
Welch says United We Stand leaders agreed to let him introduce his proposal on the last day of the conference -- then gaveled it to a close without fulfilling that promise.
Welch says that on that same day, his wife marched into a room of 150 people, including Verney, who was United We Stand's executive director. "She went up to Verney, took off her membership badge, threw it at him, and told him to stick it up his ass, I think is what she said. We both resigned and walked away from it at that point."
Verney says those who sought to transform the organization into a third party had unrealistic expectations. The event was a conference, not a convention. There were no delegates or opportunities for floor votes and no false promises, Verney says. "What they had was a hope or aspiration that is being viewed four years later as a promise."
As Welch was trying to convert United We Stand America into a third party, Madsen was trying to get a new party off the ground in Minnesota. Two months after Perot's July 1992 withdrawal from the race, a committee met in Chicago that included Jack Gargan, Lowell Weicker, 1980 independent presidential candidate John Anderson, and Madsen. They discussed forming what became the Independence Party, an appeal to the fiscally responsible centrist.
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.
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.
"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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.