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.

The Snowball in Hell

The 1999 Missouri Reform Party convention drew about two dozen people. The 2000 Missouri Reform Party convention, held April 29 in Columbia, drew more than 100 -- about 80 of whom party regulars had never seen before. "It took us a while to check everyone's party membership, and the delay added a lot of drama to the event," recalls party chair Lewin of Kansas City. "There was a brief effort to impeach me before they got into the building," he adds, "but then things settled down."

Lewin is one of the old-style Reformers, a handful of Missourians who've spent the past few years tugging and smoothing the clay of reform, modeling their ideal, socially liberal, economically conservative country. Now Buchanan has punched his fist into its dense center, thwacking a new shape entirely. "The people Buchanan brought with him were the most conservative fringe, the abortion-rescue crowd and the gun nuts," explains a former party member. "They were people to the right of Buchanan! And because Missouri's party was so small to begin with, it made them a supermajority."

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.

At the convention, Kline watched, with mounting fury, "some sort of leader within the Buchanan group telling people how to vote for delegates. Then they asked, before the vote, would we or would we not support Pat Buchanan? At the time I was noncommitted, but because he irritated me, I flat-out told him exactly how I was going to vote. Charles Collins (one of two other Reform Party contenders) would make an excellent president. He's a Christian, and he's been to five of our party functions, and Mr. Buchanan has not been to anything."

Still, Missouri is Buchanan country. It's the only state in which he entered a presidential primary, and it's the state where he launched his career. (As the youngest editorial writer the St. Louis Globe-Democrat had ever hired, he met Richard M. Nixon, the president he served right through Watergate.) By the time the lights went down, eight of Missouri's 12 delegates to the national convention were pledged to vote for Buchanan. (One supports Charles Collins; three haven't decided.)

Of course, there's a general election, too: On July 4, the Reform Party USA mailed presidential ballots to all party members, as well as any registered voter who requested one. But even if the popular vote elects Collins or the other Reform Party presidential candidate, John Hagelin, the convention delegates can override that choice with a two-thirds majority. (Already concerned about tantrums, fisticuffs and outright violence, convention organizers have increased the security budget by 15 percent.)

Missouri's delegates might back Buchanan, but the state's more moderate candidates can't even keep a straight face when somebody mentions his name. "Let's face it: The Republicans didn't want him to represent them," says Foley. "He went to the Reform Party because he could. But I don't think he's got the chance of a snowball in hell." Gimpelson, asked his opinion, bursts out laughing: "Well, I think he has some good ideas, and some funny ones. I'm not necessarily really endorsing a presidential candidate at this point." Terry Frank, the Reform candidate for Missouri treasurer, says he's "just trying to stay below that mess. Buchanan's getting us national attention, and if he gets into the debates (he's suing to do so), it will be a great thing for the party -- as long as he controls himself. What the party really needs, though, is a Reagan/Clinton type, somebody who can play the media a little better instead of always being an angry male."

Even Kline is wary. "I have yet to read or hear anything that Pat has said that I disagree with," he admits. "But he put his own people in and stripped out the old-timers." He chuckles at his own term. "Old-timers! What's it been, eight years? Still, I'm getting mental whiplash, between the Buchanan group and the Perot group. When Buchanan announced that he wanted to run with the Reform Party, everybody, including me, said, 'Attaboy! We'll support you.' But then there was this bullish takeover. My bottom line on Pat Buchanan: He's either a Republican mole and the Republican Party has decided to destroy the Reform Party -- and they're doing a good job -- or Pat Buchanan views this as a vehicle, a last straw to save the country. It's one or the other."

Under the Big Top

More than 20 candidates are running for office with the Missouri Reform Party this year, and part of the delight is their variety. There's Gimpelson, a respected gynecologist who lives in Ladue but speaks fluent populist, describing himself as "a solo practitioner, just a little guy working for a living. I face the federal government every day by myself." There's George "Boots" Weber -- a former corrections officer, licensed pilot and Missouri Flying Farmer who once transported an elk herd to Lone Elk Park -- running simultaneously for lieutenant governor of Missouri and president of the U.S. One of seven candidates for state representative is Rob Penningroth, a 27-year-old North County schoolteacher who lifeguarded at the YMCA for 12 years and believes that "all the issues that face our country are important ones that must be dealt with." Another is Anthony J. Windisch, a former Department of Agriculture computer specialist who filed a whistleblower's complaint about the government's "gross waste and mismanagement of federal computers" and then wrote a book about it. As one party insider put it, "He thinks he's grabbed onto the issue that will change the world -- and it's a yawner."

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