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.

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Stuart Eskenazi

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