Squabbling among Reform Party activists has reached the point that it threatens the organization, Lowell P. Weicker, a prospective candidate for the party's presidential nomination, warned yesterday, saying the group "verges dangerously on the edge of becoming a joke."
The former senator and Connecticut governor told members of a dissident faction called the American Reform Party meeting in Washington that he worries that the parent party may come to be seen as a collection of "wackos" and that seeking the Reform nomination could damage his legacy of 30 years of public service.
The year-long struggle for control of the third-party movement between forces loyal to founder Ross Perot and those backing Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, the party's highest-ranking elected official, has veered off into new--and some believe ridiculous--territory with the publication of Ventura's extraordinary Playboy interview.
Upon learning that Ventura said organized religion is "a sham," that the Navy Tailhook sexual harassment scandal was "much ado about nothing" and that fat people "can't push away from the table," Russ Verney, the outgoing Reform Party chairman and a Perot ally, called on Ventura to resign from the party.
"You have brought shame to yourself and disgrace to the members of the Reform Party," Verney wrote in a letter to Ventura. "For the good of the members, you should resign now from the Reform Party of the United States of America."
In remarks taped for NBC's "Meet the Press" today, Ventura dismissed Verney's request because the national party "did virtually nothing to help me to win the election here," the Associated Press reported.
The controversy highlights the growing tension within the party. It appears Perot will not run a third time and that contestants for the nomination will be hard-line conservative Patrick J. Buchanan and a challenger promoted by Ventura.
The stakes are high because the Reform Party nominee will get $12.6 million in federal money for the general election and may be eligible to participate in nationally televised debates.
Jack Gargan, who takes over as Reform chairman in January, asked members of the dissident American Reform Party to return to the fold. The American Reform group was organized to protest what its members perceived as Perot's dictatorial control over the Reform Party. Gargan ran for chairman as an anti-Perot candidate and promised to democratize party rules.
Weicker, who along with New York developer and gambling czar Donald Trump is among those Ventura is promoting, was the keynote speaker yesterday at the American Reform Party convention attended by about 70 people.
"The current flamboyance, zaniness and brouhahas reflect on all of us as independents," said Weicker, who was elected governor of Connecticut as an independent after serving in the Senate as a Republican.
Some of Weicker's policy positions, which he outlined in his speech and in interviews, conflict with the Reform Party's anti-immigration, anti-free trade and pro-term limits platform.
Weicker received strong applause after declaring his opposition to attempts to restrict abortion and restore school prayer before the libertarian-leaning audience, but his opposition to term limits met with dead silence.
"I've got a legacy of my own that I'm not going to throw out on the table," Weicker said in an interview. "I don't want that legacy looked on as a joke."
Trump spoke to the meeting by telephone Friday night. His remarks met with a mixed reception, according to American Reform Party members, with some saying Trump epitomizes the kind of corporate aggressiveness they are in politics to fight.