Reform Party delegates elected Jack Gargan, a renegade party activist backed by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, as their new chairman today in a rebuke to party founder and two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot.
"Mr. Perot has already run twice, he's done a fantastic job, better than anyone else has. But I do believe we are ready to have new people give it a whirl. And that is putting it lightly," Gargan declared after the vote. "We seem to have turned the corner and are going in a whole new direction today."
Gargan, a wealthy, retired financial consultant and entrepreneur from Florida who had been endorsed by Ventura, decisively beat Patricia Benjamin, the party's vice chairman, who had the strong, public backing of Perot's allies, including outgoing chairman Russell Verney and Pat Choate, who was Perot's running mate in 1996.
The Reform Party nominee in 2000 will start off in a position to influence the outcome of the presidential election with $12.6 million guaranteed from the federal government. Ventura has ruled out running himself in 2000, but he has been pushing for the selection of a well-known figure, including the possibility of former Connecticut senator and governor Lowell P. Weicker, to ensure that the party gets at least 5 percent of the vote. The party nominee must break 5 percent in 2000 to qualify for additional federal money in 2004, when Ventura would be free to run.
Some of Patrick J. Buchanan's supporters are pushing him to abandon the GOP and go for the Reform Party nomination, a development that could damage Republican prospects of winning the general election because Buchanan would attract conservative voters. But Ventura is opposed to nominating Buchanan because his focus is on social issues. "We look more at straight government issues: finance reform, taxation, things of that nature," Ventura said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "So I'm not sure if Pat would make a good fit for the Reform Party."
Gargan and Ventura have argued that the Reform Party has deteriorated in recent years, and the vulnerability of the organization to possible takeovers was reflected today in the strong showing of perennial third-party candidate Lenora Fulani in her bid for vice chairman.
Fulani led the field in the first two run-off ballots but ultimately lost, 180 to 145, to Gerald Moan, who heads the party's Issues Committee. Fulani, whose politics are to the left, won majorities of the delegations from such states as Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Washington.
Gargan's victory signals a significant shift in the direction of the Reform Party, changing it from a Perot operation to a vehicle to promote Ventura.
"If you don't realize that Governor Ventura's victory is our ticket to party survival and build on that victory, then don't vote for me," Gargan told the delegates just before his 213 to 135 victory over Benjamin. "In one tremendous showcase victory, [Ventura] has blown away that Republican and Democratic lie that says your votes don't count [when you cast a ballot] for a third party."
Gargan's victory signals another, more subtle shift, from the national debt obsession and moral tenor that dominated the party of Perot to a more freewheeling, defiant and rebellious quality that has characterized Ventura's style and fits Gargan to a T.
"Some of the stuff you've heard about me is true," Gargan told the convention. "I ride a motorcycle. I shoot a pretty fair game of pool. I've been known to stay up all night playing poker. And I have an eye for the ladies. And those are my good qualities." In response, the delighted delegates chanted, "Go, Jack, Go!"
Gargan, who was active in the term-limits movement, believes that the economic boom is a "temporary bubble." When the bubble breaks, Gargan predicts economic depression accompanied by anarchy that will threaten American civilization.
During a 1998 Reform Party bid for a Florida House seat, Gargan told reporters that when the depression comes, "You are going to see a bunch of angry people. . . . I can foresee people storming the Capitol and hanging their congressmen from the nearest lampposts." Gargan said he lives on Florida's Cedar Key because it will be relatively safe during the depression-induced anarchy: "This town is isolated. You've got to come 24 miles down that road to get here. You could defend the Number 4 bridge and only let in friends and relatives, or no one at all."
In an interview, Gargan stood by his remarks, adding that he thought Y2K computer problems in foreign countries that have not adjusted their electronic equipment could prompt a worldwide economic collapse that could swamp the United States.
Perot addressed the delegates Saturday night, but many of them, including those supporting Benjamin for chairman, said they thought his talk was desultory and mostly recycled from his 1996 campaign. Perot made no reference to more recent developments, including the election of Ventura.