Ross Perot could excite and mobilize voters in Washington and Idaho.
Although he didn’t carry either state in his 1992 run for president, he did better than any independent candidate since Teddy Roosevelt some 80 years earlier. And he got stronger support from voters in Spokane and Kootenai counties than he did for those states as a whole.
Some people will remember Perot – who died Tuesday in Texas at age 89 – showing off charts of the deficit on television talk shows or warning of the “giant sucking sound” of jobs going to Mexico from the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Connie Smith, now a retiree living in Chattaroy, remembers him as a wonderful boss.
“He was just the nicest gentleman to work for,” said the director of his 1992 Washington campaign and an organizer who ran petition drives to get him on the ballot in 16 states. She was later selected to run United We Stand Washington and head up the state’s Reform Party, which selected Perot as its nominee for his second run in 1996.
Smith was a travel agent with strong organizational skills but no political experience in early 1992 when her husband Butch asked her to meet him at a Valley gathering for people organizing the beginnings of the local Perot campaign. The person at the microphone was asking for volunteers when someone behind Smith touched her shoulder, probably as they were leaving. Out of reflex, she stood up, and discovered she had volunteered herself.
Eventually she was selected to be the state director, traveling all 39 counties to get support for Perot.
“He treated everyone with respect,” Smith said. “He paid us all the same, the women the same as the men.”
To get their independent candidate on the 1992 ballot, the Perot campaign needed 200 signatures on petitions. By July 2 of that year, they collected about 55,000, including nearly 3,800 delivered in a caravan that left Spokane before dawn to join a rally with their candidate on the steps of the domed Legislative Building after he turned in the petitions at the Secretary of State office.
The caravan included supporters with a range of political pedigrees. Some had voted for George H.W. Bush four years earlier, others supported unsuccessful Democratic hopefuls during the spring primaries or never voted in an election.
Perot urged a crowd estimated at 5,000 to buckle down, hang together and put their shoulders to the wheel to tame the deficit and rebuild America.
“Think about the Pioneer’s Creed,” Perot told the crowd in his oft-imitated nasal twang. “The cowards never start. The weak die on the way. Only the strong survive.”
In Idaho, Perot supporters had experienced a similar surge of support in the spring, with organizers saying phones rang off the hook when they began gathering signatures to put him on that state’s ballot. He easily qualified as a candidate there, also.
Perot was near the height of his popularity at that point, leading both Bush and Bill Clinton in some polls and appearing regularly on “Larry King Live.” At the end of that month, however, Perot abruptly pulled out of the race, saying he didn’t want the vote to be so split the election would be thrown into the House of Representatives.
Supporters in the Northwest were disappointed, with the Idaho campaign saying it might field a slate of independent candidates to run if announced candidates didn’t support their issues.
Those supporters were buoyed when Perot re-entered the race about six weeks later. But he struggled to regain his momentum even though he and his vice presidential candidate James Stockdale appeared in the nationally televised debates. In October, Perot said his real reason for dropping out of the race was information that Republican operatives were scheming to smear his daughter and disrupt her wedding, and his polls took another hit.
Smith stuck with the campaign. “I can’t say I believed we’d get there, but I hoped we would. Towards the end I thought ‘He’s not going to win.’ ”
Perot didn’t win any states, so he didn’t collect any Electoral College votes and the election wasn’t thrown into the House of Representatives. But he did collect more than 19 million votes nationwide.
In Washington, he collected near 542,000 votes, or nearly 24% of those cast. He finished third in most counties, including Spokane County, where he collected 38,251 votes. In Idaho, he collected more than 130,000 votes, or about 27%, and did even better in Kootenai County where he picked up 31% of the vote.
Perot didn’t fade away after the election. Smith helped him form United We Stand America that would push for some of the same issues like deficit reduction and cleaner politics, and headed the Washington chapter. But the Idaho campaign organization struggled to make the transition as some original members clashed with the national headquarters in Dallas over rules and the rights to the name United We Stand Idaho.
During the 1994 congressional campaign, Perot endorsed Republican challenger George Nethercutt over Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley. The Nethercutt campaign reached out to Smith, to see if Perot would come to Spokane; he said yes.
Perot was a big believer that “to change Congress, you need to change representatives,” Smith recalled. He also liked that Nethercutt was then supporting term limits, which Foley opposed.
In an interview Tuesday, Nethercutt recalled meeting Perot at Spokane International Airport, where his private plane had landed. There were protesters waiting for Perot, too.
“ ‘Well, let’s go talk to them,’ he said,” Nethercutt recalled. “He wanted to face them head on.”
Later, they went to dinner at the Spokane Club, where Perot insisted on ordering the food and wine for both of them. “He really wanted to control things,” Nethercutt said.
It was less than a week before the election. They talked about the campaign, but Perot was very private about his personal life and wouldn’t engage in small talk about his family. Perot did say he couldn’t stand H.W. Bush or the rest of the Bush family. If he knew Nethercutt had been the former campaign chairman for the Bush presidential campaign, “he didn’t mention it.”
Foley had issued a challenge to debate Perot as well as Nethercutt, who had already gone head-to-head with the incumbent eight times. Perot wanted to debate, but Nethercutt said no: “I’m the candidate.”
The next day they shook hands with patrons at the Longhorn Barbecue on the West Plains and toured a nearby R.A. Pearson factory, then held a rally at the Ag Trade Center downtown.
Foley tried to goad Perot into staying for a debate, but he demurred: “I’d be glad to, but I’ve got to head east,” he told reporters. “I’ve got another one of these tomorrow in New York.”
Nethercutt said his takeaway from the visit was to be bold and take control. Although many Perot supporters were already supporting him, he believes Perot’s visit may have solidified that. A few days later, Nethercutt defeated Foley in a close election, the first challenger to beat a sitting speaker since the Civil War.
“I think he helped me,” Nethercutt said.
In 1996, Perot ran again for president, this time as head of the Reform Party. Smith said Perot had hoped someone else would run, but he agreed to be the nominee when no one else emerged. But this was a different campaign in many respects, and the Texas billionaire couldn’t catch fire a second time.
Nethercutt said Perot knew he was a Dole delegate to the Republican National Convention and didn’t ask him to return the favor of an endorsement for president.
“Because of what I had learned (since 1992), I figured he didn’t stand a great chance,” said Smith, who once again headed up the Washington campaign.
He didn’t. On his second try for the White House, Perot got just 8 million votes nationwide. His percentage slipped to 9% in Washington and just under 13% in Idaho.
Perot stepped away from national politics after the 1996 election, and so did Smith. The Reform Party had new leaders, and “I just retired from it all.” She returned to being a travel agent and later was hired by the National Association of Women’s Business Owners for the organizational skills she honed working for campaigns.
But she heard some echoes of the 1992 campaign when Donald Trump started up his presidential campaign, denouncing NAFTA and promising, like Perot, to keep jobs in America.
Staff writer Megan Rowe contributed to this report.
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.