The Reform Party, which appeared to be on the verge of establishing itself as a powerful, independent force in American politics, seemed dangerously close to implosion today as backers of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura tried to wrest control from loyalists of party founder Ross Perot.
As its national convention began here, the party's fragile state was reflected in the unexpected emergence of perennial third-party candidate and African American rights activist Lenore Fulani as a competitor for the vice chairmanship, a sign that her backers also hope to take control of the organization.
Until today, these adversaries had scrapped largely via e-mail, exchanging charges of fixed rules, power grabs and the death by bureaucratic abuse of a longtime party activist. The party leadership is up for election this weekend, and the outcome could affect the selection of the Reform Party's presidential nominee next summer.
The party has the potential to profoundly influence the 2000 presidential election. Its candidate will qualify for $12.6 million in federal money and, depending on the nominee, the party could siphon votes from the Democratic or Republican nominee.
Many Republicans blame Perot's 1992 presidential campaign, when he got 19 percent of the vote, for Bill Clinton's victory, although exit poll data suggest that 1992 Perot voters came from both parties in roughly equal numbers. By 1996, Perot voters, who were just 8 percent of the electorate, were overwhelmingly opposed to Clinton and would likely have supported Republican nominee Robert J. Dole had they had a choice only between the two major parties.
Republicans are most worried that Patrick J. Buchanan might abandon the GOP and seek the Reform nomination. That would mean the loss of a substantial number of conservative voters in the general election to Buchanan, increasing Democratic prospects.
The potential of the Reform Party to become a credible, important force in American politics stands amid an atmosphere of hostility and bickering over the chairmanship -- between Ventura-backed Jack Gargan and Perot-backed Patricia Benjamin. For example:
In e-mails before the convention, allies of Ventura and Gargan charged that the actions of Gerry Moan, a pro-Perot member running for vice chairman, were so disruptive to party member Jim Callis that Callis died of a heart condition. Furious, Perot backers declared by e-mail that their adversaries "seem to actually be accusing another candidate of MURDER!!! . . . Shame on Jack Gargan."
Mary Clare Wohlford, a Gargan supporter, is seeking an investigation into charges that, at the 1997 convention, delegates who had been bused to the event were warned that if they didn't vote the "right" way, they would have to walk home.
Benjamin, currently the national vice chairman, is in the midst of a court battle over control of the New Jersey Reform Party. The advance guard at the convention voted 53 to 40 today against a motion ordering the national party to stay out of the New Jersey court fight.
The entry of Fulani -- who has run for president under the left-wing banner of the New Alliance Party -- into the contest for Reform vice chairman has added an unanticipated ingredient to this generally conservative and, until recently, overwhelmingly white gathering of men and women, many of them adamantly anti-immigration and critical of Third World countries.
Fulani, who many here believe is beginning her own effort to take over the party and its access to federal dollars, contends that the appeal of the Reform Party is that it is primarily concerned with the political process and that it avoids taking strong stands on issues. Ideology, she says, has become the opiate of the masses, and the American people have "been duped by ideology."
The real test of strength between the Perot and Ventura forces will come on Sunday when a new chairman is to be elected. The current betting is that Benjamin has the edge.
With all the subtlety of a professional wrestler, Ventura has sharply criticized Perot, a hero to many here, charging that Perot's appointees have allowed the Reform Party to deteriorate, losing membership and ballot access in a number of states. In a claim that infuriated many in the party, Ventura threatened to abandon the national organization "if the convention delegates are not willing to elect and support the best person." More recently, Ventura has backed away from this threat, and in a speech to the convention tonight was pointedly conciliatory toward Perot, telling delegates, "we owe him a great debt" and that activists must "thank Mr. Perot for a job well done."
Ventura, who addressed the convention by phone after storms prevented his flight here, has said he would not run for president in 2000 and has signaled support for former Connecticut senator and governor Lowell Weicker. While Ventura told the Detroit Free Press in an interview that voters will be so tired of front-running Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush by next year that "I could win the presidency," there is speculation that he is biding his time. Many people here believe Ventura would like the party to nominate someone like Weicker to ensure that the party wins at least 5 percent of the vote in 2000 to be eligible for federal money in 2004.
By 2004, Ventura would have fulfilled his promise to serve a full term as governor and would be free to run himself. If he can successfully put Gargan into the chairmanship, Ventura would have direct access to the party machinery and the lists of past voters in nomination contests.