This Ain't No Party

Ross Perot launched the Reform Party as the voice of the American people. Eight years later, it's a shrill, staticky free-for-all, and the moderates can't get heard.

It was just after 8 a.m. on May 18, and the cubicled clerks in the St. Charles County Administration Building were still gulping that first necessary cup of coffee when they saw a genial stranger coming down the hall, his arms cradling a ream of paper. Richard Allen Kline, a little-known candidate for governor, had driven up from Gipsy, Mo., to shake hands and pass out fliers, and he figured he'd start with the employees. When County Assessor Gene Zimmerman asked him to repair to the lobby, Kline, a hefty 60-year-old with a history of heart trouble and a spirited disposition, refused. The building was paid for by taxpayers, he noted, and he'd stumped at 99 other courthouses and government buildings across the state. Drawing himself up, he continued through the work area, deliberately placing a flier on each desk he passed. An irritated Zimmerman followed right behind him, gathering up the fliers and throwing them away. Finally, Kline stepped into an elevator and challenged Zimmerman to follow him. Kline says Zimmerman came in and lunged -- so Kline slapped him.

That slap summed up the rage of the Reform Party.

A group of political outsiders, disenchanted Republicans and self-described "little guys," they're tired of being shooed away by bureaucrats, and they're furious with the entrenched two-party establishment -- its corruption, its taxes and bureaucratic waste, its disregard for The People. They want some old-fashioned grassroots access to the system, so they can reform it.

Pledging various allegiances at the Missouri Reform Party candidates' forum last Friday at the St. Louis County Library's Tesson Ferry branch. Senate candidate Hugh Foley stands at the far left, lieutenant-governor candidate George "Boots" Weber at the far right.
Jennifer Silverberg
Pledging various allegiances at the Missouri Reform Party candidates' forum last Friday at the St. Louis County Library's Tesson Ferry branch. Senate candidate Hugh Foley stands at the far left, lieutenant-governor candidate George "Boots" Weber at the far right.

Just how they intend to reform it depends on whom you ask. When Ross Perot founded the national Reform Party, its priorities included fiscal integrity (no more political gifts or junkets), campaign-finance reform, America-first trade policy, environmental cleanup and consumer safety. The Perot reformers refused to even debate hot-button social issues, preferring a stance of social liberalism and economic conservatism. Their platform looked wide and sturdy, a good place for a right-center-left coalition of Americans in search of independent politics.

Then, in 1996, Perot lost his second presidential bid -- but won enough votes to guarantee the party an automatic spot on the 2000 ballot in 21 states, including Missouri. Hungry for viable candidates, the national party swallowed first the heretical free-trade policies of Jesse Ventura and Donald Trump and then the social conservatism of Patrick Buchanan. Now it's split at the seams, with warring factions, spitfights and legal battles in nearly every state.

As some of the old Reformer rage turns inward, the rest spills over to the edges, drawing far-right extremists with a different agenda entirely. Several longtime Missouri members have quit in disgust since an influx of Buchananites drew candidates whose views even state party chair Bill Lewin calls "objectionable and repugnant." He refused to screen or censor them, though; Missouri Reformers were so eager for ballot presence in 2000 that they welcomed any local candidate who'd carry even a splinter from one of their four planks (fiscal responsibility, campaign-finance reform, fair trade and U.S. sovereignty).

The result, from the voter's viewpoint, is pure chaos. Senate candidate Hugh Foley wants to decriminalize marijuana; gubernatorial candidate Joseph C. Keller wants the death penalty for anyone bringing illegal drugs into Missouri. Congressional candidate Richard Gimpelson feels so strongly about campaign-finance reform that he's instructed anyone who wants to donate to his campaign to give the money to charity instead; Keller wants no campaign-finance reform at all and even blacked out that section before signing the Missouri Reform Party membership application. The party's state officers, elected pre-Buchanan, are all pro-choice; Kline wants to amend the Constitution to make every embryo a state citizen at conception. All the current Reformers share is their anger, their distrust of the existing power structure and their alienation from its corridors.

The $1 Trillion Blackout

After the St. Charles fracas, Kline was hauled off to jail. "They brought in something for lunch -- it was a beef-and-noodle -- and it was great," he recalls. "The people were really decent, too. I could've left at noon if I'd paid them $50, but all I had was my debit card and a check, so one of the fellows who was released, he paid my bail. I'll never forget him."

His voice throbs with gratitude -- but at any minute it's liable to heat up. "We are at war, make no mistake about it, we are at war with a MORALLY BANKRUPT LIBERAL FEDERAL GOVERNMENT," Kline insists at every opportunity. Retired from the Coast Guard, he came onto the political battlefield in 1995 after suffering heart trouble he says the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) refused to treat. "I tried to put the doctor under citizen's arrest," he recalls, "and I got cited for creating a disturbance. Had to pay $450. That's when I said, 'Something is wrong here -- I gotta do something.' So I decided to run for Congress."

He ran as a Republican in the 8th District, although he says the state chair tried to dissuade both him and "E. Earl Durnell, a nice gentleman from Cabool, very impassioned. Evidently he thought we were unacceptable because we were our own people, didn't have any big PACs in our hip pockets. I spent about $2,500 of my own money and won the '96 primary, went to each and every county seat, courthouse and square in the district. But I lost the general election."

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