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Election 2004

Presidential aspirations

Published June 21, 2004

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Ryan Adam Lipner, 20, shown in his office near Fort Lauderdale, wants to be president. "I just want my chance," he said. "I need to show America I'm serious." He plans to challenge the Constitution, which states a president must be at least 35.

FORT LAUDERDALE - The man who would be president is rolling south down Interstate 95 in a tired 1991 Mercedes, the odometer clicking past 135,589 miles.

The air conditioning doesn't work, so he has the windows down. It's not even 9 a.m., but the South Florida sun already has melted his hair gel. It trickles down his face, mixing with sweat.

He is 20, lives in an apartment with his father and works out of a closet-sized office in a rundown strip mall. He has a well-documented obsession with opening Hallmark gift card stores without the company's permission.

He runs red lights, curses like a sailor and wrestles a cocktail of mental problems, for which he takes medication. And he has filed so many lawsuits (158 in one month) that a federal judge has limited his right to sue.

And yet, he is smart, articulate and unfailingly honest about himself and his flaws. He dresses nicely - khaki pants, blue button-down shirt, silver wrist watch.

His name is Ryan Adam Lipner, and he wants to be president of the United States.

"I just want my chance," he said. "I need to show America I'm serious."

Lipner plans to challenge the Constitution, which states among other requirements that a president must be at least 35 years old.

"It'd be the biggest disappointment in America if the people voted someone in and he couldn't take office," he said. "If I win fair and square, regardless of my age, I should be allowed to be (president)."

In almost the next breath, he confesses that running also helps get him dates - "Girls love this," he said - an admission that shows the founders might have been wise to want a little maturity in their president.

Lipner is a cocky high school dropout barely out of his teens. He's also one of seven Floridians who have applied to run for president this year, according to the state Division of Elections.

Behind the names are candidates of all stripes, united by an impossible dream.

* * *

Of the seven Floridians who filed paperwork to run for president, five have arrest records. Their various arrests include charges of shoplifting, carrying a concealed weapon, assault on a law enforcement officer, battery and fraud.

The candidates span the state, from tiny Cantonment in the northwest corner to massive Fort Lauderdale in South Florida.

One or two don't appear to have phone numbers, at least none they care to make public.

They are as young as Lipner and as old as 82-year-old Ray "Buttercup" Rollinson of Port St. Joe, fresh off his unsuccessful run for governor in 2002, when his platform included proposals to double the state homestead exemption, send every Florida voter an annual $800 check and place a Bible in every school classroom.

"You want to know the truth?" Rollinson told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 2002. "The only reason I'm running for governor is to get some coverage to run for president."

Big aspirations, that man.

Several candidates have served in the military. Several are unemployed. A few have histories of mental illness. One man, Tom Wells in Cantonment, runs a synagogue out of his house.

He calls himself the "janitor" and says God told him to run for president so he could make abortion illegal. He also founded his own party, the Family Values Party.

One of Florida's presidential candidates is running as a Republican. One is running as a Democrat. The rest, besides Wells, aren't affiliated with any party.

Several candidates, like Lipner, actively campaign and seem serious about trying to win votes. Others, like St. Petersburg's Melanie Pridgen, take a more lighthearted approach.

"I was laid off from my last job, and I figured I need a job, so why not?" said the unemployed 45-year-old woman, who wants to legalize marijuana and improve the unemployment rate.

Her campaign slogan: "I'm the Proof Your Vote Doesn't Count."

And then there is Reality, who used to be known as Randy Stewart Samuels before he changed his name and filed to run for president. Unlike most presidential candidates, he seems shy about publicity.

He did not return calls to his home but always sounded chipper on the answering machine - "Hi, this is Reality. Please leave a message after the beep. Thank you."

A visit to his beige trailer with green shutters in Boynton Beach proved equally unfruitful. The sign out front read: "Do not enter or be subject to arrest."

No one answered a knock at the door.

Reality wasn't home.

* * *

To say they face an uphill battle to win the White House is like saying the man on the moon has a long flight home.

For now, their names are on the list of candidates beside George W. Bush and John Kerry. Chances are that will change July 15, when candidates must meet certain qualifications in order to get on the state ballot.

Until then, it's easy for anyone to throw his name in the hat. It takes nothing more than filling out some paperwork and signing oaths. But there's no faking it after July.

The two major parties and any minor party that operates on a national level and holds a nominating convention will submit nominations for president and vice president, which are then placed on the ballot.

"(But) if you're an independent candidate or a minor party that doesn't operate on a national level, then you have to go through the petition method," said Jenny Nash, press secretary for Florida's Department of State. "That's 93,024 petitions that have to get signed to get on state ballot, equal to 1 percent of registered voters in Florida."

Not impossible, but certainly unlikely. Most of Florida's presidential hopefuls this year appear to have little or no support outside their own front doors.

And still they come, these fringe candidates. Year after year. Race after race. And not just in Florida.

If seven fringe candidates seems like a lot, consider last year's gubernatorial recall election in California. The contest drew 135 candidates, including a female adult-film star, former child actor Gary Coleman, watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher and a sumo wrestler.

The right to run for office, no matter how little the chance of winning, is an inalienable American one, as well as an abiding source of amusement on the country's political scene.

* * * >/b>

Ryan Lipner, when not fighting his own legal battles, charges a fee to help others fill out and file court papers properly.

He starts a recent morning by meeting a "client" in the parking lot of a Target store at 7:30 a.m. His day will end with a similar appointment at a nearby KFC.

In between, he makes his usual stops at the Broward County Courthouse and the nearby federal courthouse. He revels in the fact that most courthouse workers know him, even if they cast a look of weary recognition when he walks through the doors.

"When I see him coming, I just think, "Oh, God,' " said Vernice Thomas, an intake clerk at the federal courthouse.

Lipner flashes her a smug smile. "Make sure you vote for me," he tells her. "I'll lower your taxes. I'll raise your salary."

She rolls her eyes.

Back in the car, Lipner talks of buying television commercials, making campaign stops, giving speeches and naming his white husky dog, Jewels, as his running mate. He flashes the $1,139 in his wallet.

He doesn't seem to realize - or maybe he refuses to concede - that he's nothing more than a tiny footnote in this election season.

"I really think I'm going to give Bush a run for his money," he said. "I really believe America is going to get Ryan Lipner fever."

And with that, he guns the weathered Mercedes through another red light.

[Last modified June 21, 2004, 01:00:30]

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