To Perot, or Not to Perot?

It's the identity crisis that won't dry up. Though Dean Barkley's historic U.S. Senate candidacy earned Minnesota's Reform Party (then the Independence Party) major-player status in 1994, members still aren't sure what finally to call themselves. They remain uncertain what it takes to get regular folks to care.

Even as the stakes increase in Minnesota, even as star-powered gubernatorial candidate Jesse "The Body" Ventura crowds the political stage, the state's band of rebel moderates struggles with questions that have plagued the national third-party movement since Ross Perot opened the gulf.

Can the party overcome that cultish "Ross the Boss" image? Can it accommodate those pesky Perotistas and still appear serious? Behind which of the warring national Reform Party factions should it line up? "I think it's going to test our political maturity to see if we can get over our political differences for the larger good," says Barkley.

The larger good, in this case, isn't just getting Reformers elected; that hasn't come close to happening. Barkley says it lies in affecting the outcomes of tight elections and bringing issues to the table. Reform Party cross-endorsements could influence a number of key races this year. Ventura's candidacy could affect the governor's race, particularly if he manages to attract his targeted disenfranchised voter. In the attorney general's race, both GOP Rep. Charlie Weaver (Anoka) and DFL Sen. Ember Reichgott Junge (New Hope) are courting the third-party vote in what is likely to be a tight contest. Democrat David Minge's position in the conservative Second Congressional District is always on the line; again, Reformers could swing that election. Sixth District U.S. Rep. Bill Luther, another Democrat, has a large war chest and may not need third-party support as much as he did two years ago, but his district, too, tends to wind up a close call in elections.

The state's third-party movement has the chance to test its maturity on February 21, when the Minnesota Reform Party's Central Committee gathers in the Brooklyn Park Public Library. There they will have a lot more on their minds than just how to gear up for upcoming caucuses. They'll try to decide--and probably fight over--just who they finally want to be.

Committee members will vote whether to remain affiliates of the Perot-backed Reform Party of the United States of America (RPUSA) or the maverick American Reform Party (ARP), the faction once fronted by rival Dick Lamm. Or there's a third and new choice: aligning with neither and concentrating on local elections--leading by example, rather than with their chins. Currently, Minnesota Reformers are officially affiliated with both the Perot and Lamm factions, a state of affairs Barkley says can't last and could cost the party the critical backing of Perot's well-organized, well-funded forces.

"Can people who unquestionably follow Ross Perot get along with those who don't particularly care for Ross Perot, even though the message of Perot they do agree with?" Barkley asks. "People in the third-party movement across the country are looking to see how we wrestle with the issue." That's because, based largely on Barkley's relatively strong showings in '94 and '96, Minnesota remains a jewel in the Reformers' crown. Virginia is the only other state where Reform candidates have drawn enough votes to earn matching campaign funds for its candidates nationally.

The stage was set for a dogfight in late January when RPUSA Chairman Russ Verney, allegedly a Perot employee, was disinvited as a speaker at the Minnesota central-committee meeting. The move was spearheaded by Phil Madsen, then a controversial anti-Perot member of the party's executive committee. After leading that effort, Madsen promptly resigned all positions of authority within the party, citing compelling career opportunities.

Fifth Congressional District Chairman Alan Shilepsky, who has no deep love for Madsen, defended the move to exclude Verney out of fairness, saying no ARP members are scheduled to present their case to the central committee. But Perot supporters like Cedric Schoefield point out that central-committee member Doris Bates is also an ARP officer, already giving the Lamm faction equal time. Verney is expected to attend the meeting anyway, although he won't speak.

The irony of all this contention is that both factions extol the same political aims. Both promise an aggressive agenda of deficit reduction, campaign reform, and entitlement cuts. But lingering arguments over how to present those positions to J. Q. Public are steadily chipping away at the fringes of the fringe.

Shilepsky makes the case that the central-committee meeting in no way represents a critical juncture. These arguments, while distracting and even damaging, have raged since the beginning. Anyway, any affiliation decisions made by the central committee can be approved or overturned by delegates to the party's state convention in June. He predicts February 21 will be just another day at the office.

Barkley's not so sure. Though hardly a Perot supporter himself, he says Minnesota Reformers eventually must align themselves with the rich Texan. "If we don't dissociate from the ARP, we'll lose accreditation with the Perot camp," he says. "If we vote for no association, Perot's supporters may go out and create their own party. My conclusion is that unless the state convention in June votes to affiliate with [Perot], we will have a fourth party in Minnesota.

"I think that then dooms the whole movement."

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