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No Perot, no Jesse, no Pat, no funds

In 1992, the Reform Party’s presidential candidate won 19 percent of the national vote. In 1996, its presidential candidate snagged eight percent. In 1998, its candidate became governor of Minnesota. Then, in 2000, it all came tumbling down, as Pat Buchanan fought against a Ross Perot–backed faction for the party’s ballot access and federal funding, while Jesse Ventura disavowed the group entirely.

The remnants of the Reform Party — the official Reform Party, as there are now several different strains — gathered in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, last weekend. Nobody much paid attention; even the local Mississippi papers didn’t write about it.

"We’re back to that group, the ones who were there in 1992 through 1998," says New England regional representative David Richardson. What he means is that the Buchananites have left. He describes the mood at the convention as "positive."

"We had a fantastic, one-of-a-kind convention," says Shawn O’Hara, the newly named party chairman. He estimates that 100 people attended.

An evangelist who has run unsuccessfully for just about every available Mississippi office (including once for US Senate against his own father), O’Hara persuaded the party to hold this year’s convention in his home state. "It took 13 days to broker the deal to bring it here," he says, adding that the deciding factor was the $49 room rates at the Ramada Inn Diamondhead Hotel.

With the home-field advantage, O’Hara got himself elected chairman and gained party endorsement of the platform favored by himself and his fellow Mississippian, probable Reform Party presidential candidate Ted Weill.

That platform is unique if nothing else. It includes putting prisoners to work turning corn into ethanol; raising revenue to increase benefits for senior citizens, veterans, and firefighters; and providing free college Internet classes and free adoptions.

The non-Mississippian members of the party are not entirely sold on Weill, a multimillionaire businessman. "I think that he has the right ideas, but he’s not very well known," Richardson says. He’s heard rumors that others from outside the current party may run — including Ross Perot Jr., whom Richardson would love to see atop the ticket.

But O’Hara dismisses the notion of an intra-party challenge to Weill, whom he calls "my boy." With the nominating process established at the convention, "it’s going to be difficult to beat Ted," he says.

Could this lead to another party split, like the dueling conventions of 2000? That year, of course, there was $12.5 million at stake, which went to Buchanan over Perot’s choice of John Hagelin, the perennial candidate of the Natural Law Party. After Buchanan’s 0.4 percent national showing, no such windfall is available, although his party does maintain coveted ballot access in some states.

And where is the Buchanan wing of the Reform Party today? It will be in Chicago next Friday, as a matter of fact, under the name America First Party (AFP). "We have split off from the Reform Party," says Jonathan Hill of New Bedford. Buchanan is uninvolved, although "virtually all members of our party were supporters of Pat Buchanan," Hill says. (The Buchanan Brigade itself is now the Internet Brigade, with a Web site devoted primarily to promoting Buchanan and Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie The Passion.)

AFP is centered on an anti-abortion platform and has received verbal support from former Boston mayor Ray Flynn. It had planned its convention for July but had to reschedule after suffering its own schism, and briefly fell under the control of a man with known presidential aspirations of his own: James "Bo" Gritz. The leader of the Patriot Movement and founder of a "constitutional covenant community" in Idaho, Gritz ran for president with the Populist Party in 1992 and for vice-president as David Duke’s running mate with the same party in 1988.

Hill and other AFP members quit in protest, the Gritz putsch fizzled, and eventually the old guard — including several former (official) Reform Party officers — re-established control. For now.

Neither group should be confused with the American Reform Party, which split off in 1997, disillusioned with Perot. No word yet on its 2004 plans.

Issue Date: October 17 - 23, 2003
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