Perot allies are poised to reclaim Reform reins; Ventura associate ousted as party chairman in bitter showdown


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ross Perot's allies moved yesterday to reclaim control of the Reform Party in a rowdy and hostile showdown that at one point required police intervention.

Before the day's end, the party's national committee had removed Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's hand-picked party chairman and was on the verge of rejecting Ventura's efforts to hold the party's summer convention in St. Paul, Minn.

Ventura, the party's highest-ranking elected official, anticipated yesterday's votes and quit the party Friday, declaring it to be a "dysfunctional family."

Yesterday's events further isolated the faction aligned with Ventura and coalesced power in the hands of Perot's forces.

'This was a sham'

Party Chairman Jack Gargan tried to declare the session an "illegal meeting" but was voted and shouted down in a confrontation that brought six metropolitan police cars to the Marriott Hotel.

Gargan, clearly outnumbered, refused to leave the podium while the group debated his fate.

"This was a sham, and I really meant it when I said the votes didn't count," he said.

The rough-and-tumble session underscored the Reform Party's lack of cohesion.

It also perpetuated the image of an ad hoc party trying to find meaning in Perot's surprising third-place performance in the 1992 presidential race.

Originally a populist, anti-free trade, anti-special interest group of enthusiasts, the party has disintegrated into libertarian Ventura followers, Perot loyalists and other dissident groups unhappy with both factions.

Marginalized, the party has seen many of the independent voters it once counted on turn to the self-described mavericks in this year's presidential campaign, particularly Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

After the 109-31 vote to remove him, Gargan called the meeting a "kangaroo court."

He did not hide his contempt after the near melee.

"This is an exercise in futility," he said. "This means nothing."

'Democracy 101'

But Russ Verney, a close Perot associate and former party chairman, said the departure of Ventura, Gargan and another Gargan associate in the leadership means that the party can regroup.

"It's Democracy 101," he said. "Democracy is a messy process." Verney is widely viewed as speaking for Perot, who has remained distant from his party since his 1996 presidential run.

Ventura, who represented the rival power center to the Perot supporters, singled out Verney in his exit remarks Friday, referring to him as "vermin."

"That's my WWF name," said Verney with a laugh yesterday, referring to the World Wrestling Federation and Ventura's past as a professional wrestler. "He also called me 'varmint,' that's my WCFA name."

Pub Date: 2/13/00

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