It’s Not Your Father’s Reform Party Anymore

Posted April 7, 2004 at 6:45pm

The 21st century has not been good to the Reform Party.

After bursting onto the national scene in the waning days of the past millennium as an alternative for those disillusioned with two-party politics — attracting millions of votes with Texas billionaire Ross Perot as its presidential candidate, electing a governor in Minnesota and securing recognition as a political party in 35 states — the party has foundered. It is racked by internal disputes and splinter groups and, in some cases, has seen even contested state chairmanships.

“There’s no more party to belong to,” said Russell Verney, the founding chairman of the Reform Party, who is now a self-described independent. “Essentially, it has evaporated, it has gone away.”

Today, the Reform Party boasts ballot access in only seven states, has just $2,000 in its coffers and is affiliated with roughly 20 state organizations, mainly “tiny little groups that aren’t doing anything,” said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, which tracks developments in third parties.

After seeing its presidential numbers decline from 8.4 percent of the vote in 1996 to just .5 percent (with two candidates running) in 2000, its 2003 convention attracted a mere 50 delegates.

What’s more, according to Chairman Shawn O’Hara, the Federal Election Commission has determined that the party owes about $334,000 in misspent convention funds, a judgment the party is contesting in federal court.

In the eyes of many past and current Reform members, one man is to blame for the current malaise: Pat Buchanan, the Reform presidential candidate in 2000. His nomination precipitated a split within the party at the convention that summer in Long Beach, Calif., with one faction selecting Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin as its nominee at a separate gathering.

“What Buchanan did was he went into states that already had parties formed and literally took over the states,” said Ohio Reform Party Chairwoman Virginia Brooks. He “strong-armed the other people out.”

The widespread confusion over who was the party’s true nominee led at least one state — Connecticut — to leave both men off the ballot.

In the wake of the split, several leaders of the Buchanan faction regrouped in 2002 under the mantle of the America First Party, which has championed a socially conservative, economically populist platform. Some states, however, such as Michigan, have seen dueling Reform parties briefly emerge; in others, such as West Virginia, pro-Buchanan forces separated from the Reform Party USA, claiming its leadership was “illegal” and vowing to form a new national Reform Party.

Perot first ran on the Reform Party ticket in 1996 — which grew out of his 1992 “United We Stand” political movement and independent presidential candidacy — though the party did not gain official national status until 1998, the year former wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota.

But from its earliest days, the Reform Party has had a conflicted history, with internal dissension often linked to Perot’s position in the party, though according to Perot associate Verney, the Texan mogul played no official role in the party post-1997.

After the 1996 election, an initial fissure occurred when a group — primarily comprising supporters of former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm (D), who had challenged Perot for the 1996 Reform presidential nomination — parted ways with the national party and formed the American Reform Party.

“It really turned out to be a cult of personality instead of a legitimate independent party,” said political consultant Thomas D’Amore Jr., who ran Lamm’s campaign and said Perot’s commandeering of the 1996 election process “was the most undemocratic form of politics I’ve ever been involved with.”

In early 2000, Ventura, the highest profile elected official, left the party over disputes with Perot allies and over the emergence of Buchanan as a major player in the party. After his departure, the Reform Party of Minnesota’s name was changed back to the Independence Party of Minnesota, its original appellation.

Perot “was controlling everything from behind the scenes,” charged former Sen. Dean Barkley (I-Minn.), a former Reform member and Ventura ally.

According to O’Hara, the party is in the process of reaffiliating several state organizations and believes its days of internal bickering are over.

“This is a Reform Party reaching people from all walks of life now,” said O’Hara. “This isn’t a Reform Party of the past.”

In 2002, the party — which says Perot signed an affidavit in September 2000 certifying it as the national Reform Party deserving of any matching funds — rewrote much of the Buchanan-inspired conservative platform, though it remains staunchly opposed to free trade and illegal immigration. Late last year, the party moved its headquarters from Dallas — Perot’s home turf — to Hattiesburg, Miss., where O’Hara lives.

A self-described “very happy millionaire,” O’Hara made his fortune in real estate and is something of a political and intellectual dabbler. Over the years, he has launched numerous bids, on a variety of tickets, for both the U.S. Senate and the Mississippi governor’s mansion — sometimes in races against his own father. He is running for the House this year in the district held by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.).

The 46-year-old polymath — who says he is two courses away from attaining his sixth degree, a master’s in business administration — has written and self-published no less than 1,112 books, with the aim of securing a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. He once filled a 14-foot U-Haul truck with the volumes and presented them to a local elementary school for inspection. In his spare time, he has also penned 120 movie screenplays, 33 musicals and 3,600 songs.

It is not surprising that under O’Hara’s leadership, the party, which will likely run only four nonpresidential federal candidates this cycle, has branched out into some less than conventional realms.

O’Hara used October’s national convention in Diamondhead, Miss., to showcase his self-produced film “Rebel Lady,” a romantic comedy about a stripper out for vengeance after being unjustly incarcerated in a mental institution. The film featured 10 Reform Party candidates, with O’Hara himself in a lead role. (O’Hara later married his co-star, Amanda Rios, 21, and says he plans to enter the picture in the Sundance film festival.)

But the style and focus of the national party has done little to endear it to some of its state organizations.

In November, the Michigan Reform Party — not to be confused with the Reform Party of Michigan, from which the group split over disagreements as to who was the legitimate chairman — registered with the FEC as the Independence Party of Michigan because of what it viewed as a widespread lack of focus in the national party. It is now working in a loose coalition with the Reform parties of Texas and Florida, as well as with the Independence Party of Delaware with the intent of eventually bringing the groups together on a national level as the Independence Party USA, said Matt Johnson, the party’s 21-year-old chairman.

“The Reform Party USA is in such a weakened state, we feel we probably have more members in our state party than in the entire Reform Party USA put together,” he said.

The Michigan party’s move comes on the heels of numerous other disaffiliations, which have occurred since the divisive 2000 convention, most notably the departure of the Independence parties of Minnesota and New York, once two of the Reform Party’s most active state organizations.

And as one-time candidates such as Smithereens lead singer Pat DiNizio discovered, some state Reform parties never rose to the level required of an effective political machine.

“There was no organization, no support,” said former Reform Party New Jersey Senatorial contender DiNizio, who lost to now-Sen. Jon Corzine (D) in 2000. “When I met some of the people who were in charge of the New Jersey faction of the Reform Party, they didn’t know who I was, and I was their candidate.”

Still, despite its detractors and weak national position, the party is pushing ahead. O’Hara met last week with former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader in Georgia to discuss the possibility of Nader running on the Reform ticket this year, with Nader’s decision expected as early as today, said O’Hara. The party’s convention will be held July 22-25 at the University Plaza Hotel and Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, with Hutton Gibson (Mel Gibson’s father) as a possible keynote speaker.

And for the relentlessly optimistic Reform faithful, the horizon still holds the possibility of a brighter electoral future.

“Ross Perot left us with one great legacy — the party itself,” said Brooks, the Ohio chairwoman. “I truly believe the third-party movement is going to take hold, and it’s going to go like wild fire.”