Jewish World Review Aug. 4, 1999 /22 Av 5759
But for the highest concentration of characters ever to congregate in Dearborn, consider the assemblage at the Hyatt Regency this late-July weekend. Here, men travel the halls wearing plastic cheese heads not because they are from Wisconsin, but because they want their kids to recognize them on C-Span. Here, people adorn their T-shirts from the hotel gift-shop with enough clanking badges to earn them dinner shifts at Ruby Tuesday's. Here, a sworn enemy of "the petro-chemical, pharmaceutical, military-industrial, transnational fascist assault on the American way of life," in the words of one attendee, can find a helpmate. Here, you've probably guessed, is the Reform Party National Convention.
It is a place for malcontents and disconnects, third-rate politicians and pamphleteers with bleeding ulcers. It is a big teepee, with no flap–where Patriot party members smoke the peace pipe with neo-Marxist New Alliance loyalists. The people gathered here are united not in ideology–they have none–but in their disdain for the two-party system. In their midst, the forces of billionaire Reform party founder Ross Perot are pitted against the forces of Jesse Ventura, pro-wrestler-turned-Minnesota-governor, and they are squaring off in [insert obligatory wrestling metaphor here].
But besides that, this is a place that Shar Johnson calls home. Shar would be welcome at a major-party convention–in the protest pit, where the hoi polloi in their sandwich boards are kept cordoned a safe distance from anything that matters. At the Reform Party National Convention, however, Shar stands a good chance of becoming the party's national secretary-one of four officers to be elected by the 351 delegates who have flown in at their own expense.
It isn't as though Shar doesn't deserve it. But she does seem afraid that I might think she's "one of those wackos," as she says in a sharp Michigan accent. Not because she races Corvettes–with only one car on the track at a time. Or because she wears a red-white-and-blue sequined vest ($35 from a fruit market in Lansing) and baked a cake for the entire convention ("Shar's Michigan Cake" is listed on the schedule). What Shar is worried about is the perceived intensity of her devotion, though "devotion" might not adequately convey the intensity.
Since cake decorating is her profession, and since she already had an autographed picture of Perot, Shar thought it would be appropriate to commemorate the encounter. So she framed the whole kit and caboodle, as they say in Lansing: the picture, the plate, the fork, the napkin, even, she says, "one little piece of cake left on the plate with icing. It was crusty as hell. For the last seven years, it's hung in my foyer."
Sure, Shar may do something quirky now and then: like the time congressman Jim Traficant made a late-night stop in Michigan to address the Reform party and ended up staying in Shar's guest bedroom. Later, when washing his bed linens, Shar plucked her dryer's lint trap for a keepsake. But that hasn't diminished her fitness to be Reform party secretary, as evidenced by the 15 or so endorsements from state-party-chair types advertised on her neon pink campaign flyers.
Shar has long been a volunteer, and Ross has always said the volunteers are what the party's all about (Perot would put money on that, and has several times, by hiring private investigators to keep tabs on them). Volunteer long enough in an anti-politics party, and it's only natural to want to assume a position of political prominence. In the Reform party, almost everyone does.
Take Tom McLaughlin. Tom is a volunteer from Pennsylvania who is running for party chair. He'll lose. Rebounding within an hour, he'll run for vice-chair. He'll lose again. But Tom's no loser. He's the chairman of the Rules Committee, and with "over twenty-two years experience in Quality Assurance verifying compliance with codes, specifications and regulatory requirements," as his candidate bio tantalizes, he's ideally suited for the job.
The Rules Committee isn't just stacked with Rules-Committee types like Tom, frustrated parliamentarians who, back home, wreak havoc on neighborhood-association charters and the bylaws of their church. ("We have people who read Robert's Rules of Order every night before they go to bed," says Donna Donovan, the Reform party's self-effacing press secretary.) But the term Rules Committee is itself a misnomer. For "committee" suggests a fixed number of decision-makers, be they elected or appointed, who conduct the tricky business of amending a party's constitution. Most political parties wouldn't entrust that responsibility to just anybody. But the Reformers trust everybody.
In an unmiked conference room, where delegates keep shouting down speakers with, "Louder!" almost anyone who enters the meeting can vote on the 40 proposed amendments to the party constitution. A non-delegate can vote, a non-uniformed janitor can vote, even a journalist can vote. Technically, you're not permitted to. But as an experiment in bottom-up democracy, I sit nonchalantly, my press pass out of sight, and vote my conscience.
Such openness might lead one to expect an engaging debate. One would be wrong. Instead, many speak, in a sort of mind-numbing babble of passionate pronouncements and non-sequiturs. Take John from Nebraska, whose heaving torso taxes his shirt buttons as he barks, apropos of nothing, "How many people here ate breakfast this morning? Do you know where your breakfast came from–it came from a farmer! Farmers are the ones we should be representing." The gentleman from Farm Aid takes his seat to confused applause, but few get off so easy. There is bickering. Lots of it. In fact, there are whole rooms set up expressly for that purpose.
Despite all the quarrels, Jeanne Doogs, the Texas state party chair, sits stoically outside the credentials battlefield, putting a sunny face on all the strife. "People are fighting to get into our party," she says, though five states didn't bother sending delegates. Jeanne looks as a Texas delegate should look-silver hair, shiny pumps, Betsy Ross color-coordination. But as she tries to explain how two New Jersey delegations' rival claims were settled in court, an eavesdropping Illinois delegate nearly lunges over the table at her: "Don't tell the press the case has been settled! How can you say that? That's an outright lie!!!"
His outburst is a hit-and-run, and he disappears into the bowels of the hotel. Jeanne regains her composure, paging through her binder as if she's just shooed a fly. "We have those kind of people here," she says. "And we have some that are worse. I think he's being polite–he hasn't smacked me yet."
It's understandable that tensions permeate this convocation. There are so many factions in the Reform party that, in keeping with its founder's paranoia, the entire convention seems fueled by mutual suspicion. The Perotistas don't trust the Venturans, as Jesse got elected governor of Minnesota without any help from Perot and has taken to saying publicly that it's time somebody else was Reform's candidate for president. Ventura is the party's only elected star, unless one counts the city council member from Greer, South Carolina, or the school board member from Huntington County, Pennsylvania. But Ventura has vowed to serve out his term as governor and not run for president in 2000. Instead, he's endorsed everyone from Colin Powell (who has declined) to John McCain (who has declined) to former governor Lowell Weicker (who has not declined, but who seems so disliked within the party that even party spokeswoman Donna Donovan, who once worked for Weicker before he flip-flopped on a no-new-taxes pledge, says if Weicker won, "I'd have to think about leaving").
Still, if Ventura could further wrest the party from Perot by playing kingmaker with Weicker, he'd neutralize one of the stock criticisms of Reform. Weicker could transform what has been a cult of personality under Perot to a cult with no personality. Weicker is fairly weak tea by the Reformers' standards; when he left the Republicans to start his own party in Connecticut, he unimaginatively called it "A Connecticut Party."
But without a personality (or Perot's deep-pockets), it is hard to see what the Reform party is, besides a homely cousin to the Republicans and Democrats. Its $12.5 million in matching funds in the next election cycle boosts its attractiveness to second-tier candidates contemplating a third-party run. Ventura has nixed Pat Buchanan as a presidential candidate for his emphasis on social issues; ideology doesn't motivate the Reformer masses. "We're building a non-ideological party," says Lenora Fulani, perennial black-radical candidate for president and a fierce party-builder for Reform. Fulani loses in a squeaker for vice chair at the convention, perhaps because some consider her a Communist, though she finds labels "deadening."
Besides campaign finance reform and term limits–which address how candidates achieve office and when they leave, but not what they do while there–it's hard to find any issues that animate Reformers. So intent are they on having it both ways–on calling Republicans and Democrats identical twins, while also claiming their ideological extremes control the parties' agendas–that issues for Reformers seem almost an afterthought. Process is a much higher priority, and at this convention, the delegates argue so long about credentials and intra-party squabbles that they never quite get around to debating and voting on their platform (or even electing two of their four officers-sorry, Shar).
There are official contenders for the presidential nomination, too, though you haven't heard of them–yet. Harvey Powell, a 34-year-old Kentucky real-estate broker has declared for president. He's still not of age, but that doesn't mean he's shy of experience. Harvey says he's done consulting work for Clinton, helped maintain a multinational coalition against Saddam Hussein, and, through a covert fax system he worked out with a Secret Service agent, controlled nearly everything George Bush said during his presidency. "I had him saying silly stuff during the Gulf War," Harvey confides, "just to ensure that I was still pulling the strings."
But the biggest mystery of the convention is the candidacy of Donald Trump. After a cryptic statement from Trump seeming to deny that he was running, the New York Times reported that Trump had pulled the plug on his potential candidacy. But somebody in Dearborn isn't taking him at his word. Everywhere you look in the hotel, you see The Donald's albino-caterpillar eyebrows and the hair that looks like an abandoned nest. Trump is not here in person, but slick Trump 2000 posters were apparently put up by two different sets of Reformers who say they are acting of their own accord, though they both throw parties in posh hospitality suites featuring open bars.
Russ Verney, who is stepping down as chairman of the Reform party after choosing not to run for reelection, smells a rat, or, more precisely, a short-fingered Vulgarian, as Spy magazine used to call The Donald. In fact, rumors persist all weekend that covert forces are pushing the candidacy even though Trump himself says he's not running.
It's easy to dismiss Verney as paranoid since he works for Perot, a man convinced that Vietnamese-backed assassins showed up on his front lawn in Dallas. But sources close to one of the Trump 2000 draft groups say that Roger Stone, the former political consultant who does consulting work for Trump on his business deals, is working behind the scenes with some associates to rally support for The Donald. According to several sources, William von Raab, U.S. customs commissioner under Ronald Reagan, and Dominic Del Papa, a consultant, are pushing a Trump candidacy.
Though von Raab does not return calls seeking comment, I bump into Del Papa at the convention. He tells me the suggestion is ridiculous. Neither he nor von Raab, with whom he works, is supporting Donald Trump. As evidence, he hands me a draft Buchanan for president press release with von Raab's name on it (von Raab was a co-chair in Buchanan's '92 campaign). I ask Del Papa where he can be reached, and he gives me a cellphone number with no company affiliation. "It's just myself," he says, though he says he's worked with Stone before. When I call the Icon public relations firm where Stone works, the receptionist tells me that both von Raab and Del Papa have numbers at the firm.
Trump, however, is a minor subplot at the convention. The real friction comes between the Ventura and Perot camps. Neither principal makes a strong showing in person. Perot breezes through to fire up the volunteers with his folksy anti-elitist boilerplate, but he flees the premises before Shar can even serve him a piece of cake. Ventura, who teleconferences with the delegates after his flight is canceled because of inclement weather, gains the advantage when his candidate to replace Russ Verney as party chair beats the Perotistas' favorite.
Jesse's man, the garrulous Jack Gargan, is a former chicken farmer who has publicly discussed his concern about a Y2K Armageddon. As befits one whose campaign literature boasts that he has given over five gallons of blood, Gargan has his share of enemies–namely Donna Donovan, the Reform party's (and the Perot camp's) spokeswoman. Donna says Gargan feels the same about her. As Gargan is declared the winner, standing on his chair to wave Tricky Dick victory signs, he turned to her, according to Donovan, and said, "You're through."
But there is somebody Donna dislikes more than Gargan. That would be Phil Madsen. Madsen has been called the "most despised man in the Reform party." He joined up with the Perotistas back in 1992, and has been agitating against them ever since-criticizing the leadership, pushing for a more open, democratic party, and ingratiating himself with Ventura, who has made Phil his Webmaster, one of his spokesmen, and a salesman of Jesse Ventura action figures (a $25 bargain).
If Ross and Jesse won't openly spar with each other, Phil and Donna have no such compunction. Donna tells me Phil's nickname is "Madman." He calls her "my nemesis on the Internet." I do what anyone interested in the future of the Reform party would do. I invite them to gouge each other's eyes out over lunch.
Ordering a plate of potato skins in a hotel restaurant booth, we sip Pepsi through bendy straws until Phil and Donna start going at it like two ferrets in a pillow case. Donna says that Jesse's action figures are made in China. Phil counters, saying Donna withheld the delegate lists to hamstring Gargan's campaign. Donna hits Phil below the belt, suggesting that wrestling is fake. Donna reminds Phil that he made her cry by calling her "stupid" at the '97 Nashville convention. Phil doesn't remember, but feigns a stabbing motion, as he is not happy she brought this up in front of a reporter. "Next time," he says, "leave the knife in the back."
"I do it right up front," says Donna, "don't worry about your back."
And so it goes, for about half an hour. We're not in a hurry to get back to the convention, which has turned into utter chaos. Three open mikes stand perpetually manned, by delegates still thrilled to be in Dearborn, directing our attention to the "the" in Paragraph 1, Section A, Subsection 2, Vivisection B. They alternately cheer and heckle each other, yelling out all manner of admonitions: "Buncha whores!" "Clinton sucks!" "Give us Barabbas!" And then there are the votes. In this, the most democratic of parties, they vote on everything. They vote on whether to move the media to the back of the room. They vote on whether to allow delegates to move their luggage to the lobby for checkout. They vote on how to count the votes. An actual quote from the actual committee chair: "How many people want to vote on taking the vote?"
Party-building is not a pretty thing. It's enough to make even
the party architects recoil. As Phil says, before sucking another
hit of Pepsi through his straw, "In business, you have to
demonstrate an ability to produce something that people agree
is valuable. In sports, you have to have athletic ability to
compete and win. In politics, there is no barrier to entry
whatsoever. So any idiot can get involved in politics, and most