November 2, 1997 in Nation/World

Cutting Perot’s Purse Strings Reform Party Convenes To Mold An Identity Beyond Enigmatic Billionaire Founder

Dan Freedman Hearst Newspapers
 

Some 500 delegates to the “founding convention” here of the Reform Party, originally started by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, held aloft signs Saturday with the upstart group’s essential message: “Break the two-party monopoly.”

The delegates revere their founder, and some were asking whether he might try to run again for president, as he did in 1992 and 1996. But most insisted that it’s time for the party to move beyond him.

Representing all 435 congressional districts nationwide, the delegates have gathered for the daunting task of building a credible third party in American politics. By today, when the meeting ends, they will have drafted the party’s bylaws and platform and elected national officers and committee heads.

“This is about government coming from us, not at us,” Russell Verney, chairman of the Reform Party’s national organizing committee, said in an interview.

But the delegates’ underlying goal was - while paying tribute to the enigmatic Perot, to figure out how to get out of his control and purse strings.

“We’re establishing the Reform Party as a democratic, independent entity. It’s no longer something that Ross Perot dangles out of his office,” said John Coleman, a San Diego weathercaster and vice chairman of the California Reform Party.

Convention organizers stressed that Perot is not a delegate and did not contribute to the estimated $70,000 cost of the meeting.

In early October, former Reform Party activists from 23 states met in Schaumburg, Ill., to establish the American Reform Party. Its leader, Linda Witherspoon, a Memphis, Tenn., physician, said: “If the thought was that Perot will build the (new) party, it’s losing ground.”

The Reform Party’s platform is expected to be an amalgam of familiar Perot themes: term limits for state and local officials, a balanced budget amendment, a ban on political action committees (PACs), simplification of the income tax system, a cut in the national debt and the trade deficit, and an end to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The delegates here include many blacks and Hispanics, a change from the old image of Perot followers as white, middle-aged men whose main venue for political expression was talk radio.

“This is the first time that African Americans have a realistic opportunity to shape the body politic, to bring up issues that have an impact on our community,” said the Rev. Anthony Williams of Chicago, who is black and who serves as an alternate delegate in the Illinois delegation.

Speaking Saturday night after the group unanimously passed a resolution honoring him as its founder, Perot said, “If you’d like me to go away, I will. If you want me to stay, I will.” Taking the applause and cheers as encouragement, he asked supporters to stand. Nearly everyone did.

Perot launched into a familiar speech, criticizing federal workers, campaign financing, the media and the tactics of his political opponents, which he characterized as “lies, tricks and infiltrations.”

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