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Perot faithful testify at Howard High


They could have been playing golf, or planting flowers or buying Mother's Day gifts yesterday. Instead, they trooped into Howard High School through parallel rows of American flags for a status report on their leader, Ross Perot, and the political movement he started last year.

"I've sat on my democracy for the last 15 years," said Gerald B. Hartman, explaining why he chose to be indoors on such a gorgeous day. He was there to describe his volunteer efforts and to raise money by selling T-shirts with the name Perot printed in red capital letters across the body of the Texas billionaire's trademark bald eagle.

More than 100 of the Perot faithful assembled yesterday at the school that sits between Ellicott City and Columbia to restate their frustrations and to hear reports on organizational activities from Joan Vinson, the Maryland state director, and from Ed Campbell, a regional coordinator and emissary from the Perot headquarters in Dallas.

All of the organizing is being done by United We Stand America, which draws its name from a line in one of Mr. Perot's flinty, patriotic speeches. Mr. Campbell said the group, established firmly now in 20 states, is seeking tax-exempt status and cannot act like a political party.

But it has adopted a structure that looks like one, starting at the precinct level, building through councilmanic districts to the congressional level.

The Maryland chapter hopes to enroll 20,000 members. Mr. Perot won 14 percent of the state's popular presidential vote in November's election.

The chapter will open a state headquarters in Annapolis, and Ms. Vinson said she expects Mr. Perot to visit soon. He is traveling extensively, making a half-dozen speeches every weekend, she said.

"We're scaring the pants off everybody," Mr. Campbell said, referring to elected officials and leaders of the Republican and Democratic Parties. "Once we get organized, we're going to be the most powerful organization in the country. They're going to have to work with us."

On a table in the hallway outside the auditorium, the group provided copies of a Doonesbury cartoon in which Mr. Perot's recent referendum on voter attitudes was the target of what Ms. Vinson called good-natured ribbing.

Cartoonist Garry Trudeau had posed this question: "Do you think anyone should listen to an egomaniacal, bigoted conspiracy-theoretician capable of investigating not only his enemies but his own supporters and family?"

Check-off boxes were supplied for "No," "Yes," and "Not Sure."

Ms. Vinson urged the audience to send their replies to Mr. Trudeau,who plans to print the results of his poll.

A wide range of age groups was represented in the audience of mostly white men and women yesterday. E. R. Stewart, 72, was visiting from Bluffton, S.C. He had written a poem for his grandchildren, Tim, 15, a sophomore at Howard High, and Andrea, 10. Tim has organized a student group called POOH -- Protect Our Own Heritage.

Andrea read the poem, which included this verse:

"They used our money to buy more votes

"They leave us kids to be scapegoats

"Should we accept the debt you owe

"We have been taught to just say no."

Ms. Vinson said Mr. Perot had broken through the current political structure to commit what she called "a great act of civic inclusion." Now, she said, volunteers are needed in each of the state's 1,600 or so voting precincts.

"That's where we have to bring our issues forward," said Frank Adorney, director of organization in Maryland and a classmate of Mr. Perot's at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Mr. Hartman, the T-shirt selling activist, is a member of the Howard County Perot SWAT team, available at short notice for chores directed from Dallas. Recently, he and six other team members distributed copies of the Perot referendum's results to congressional offices on Capitol Hill.

One of his colleagues, Fred Klonin, agreed that the structure of United We Stand America -- though officially apolitical -- could convert itself into a political organization should Mr. Perot become a candidate for president again.

"Personally, I don't think Ross will run again," he said. Mr. Perot and his organization are focusing on issues and working to revivify the two party system, he said -- tasks that must be completed with or without Mr. Perot as a candidate.

State Director Vinson said that Mr. Perot has asked his followers to "treat our leaders with respect and measured forebearance." Yesterday, no one rebuked President Clinton.

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