Waiting for campaign to take off

Reform Party candidate for governor Max Linn is doing all he can to get noticed, but that's not easy.

Published September 10, 2006

His campaign got a table way in the back of the civic center, next to the sushi. He was the only candidate to show up at the Winter Park Political Mingle, but his name wasn't even on the straw ballot. And when Max Linn tried to talk to an Orlando radio reporter, he was brushed aside.

"I can't do it today," Bud Hedinger told Linn. Hedinger then turned and asked someone "We've got Charlie Crist on the phone at 5:45, right?"

Linn, a 46-year-old retired financial planner from St. Petersburg, is a Reform Party candidate and one of almost two dozen little-known gubernatorial hopefuls struggling to penetrate the political bubble around Democrats and Republicans.

He has pumped $1-million of his own cash into his campaign and spent hundreds of thousands on statewide TV ads during shows like The Today Show, Good Morning America and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. He has the campaign managers of former presidential candidate Ross Perot and former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. And he has recruited as his lieutenant governor Tom Macklin, the Avon Park mayor who proposed to make English the city's official language and to issue fines against landlords and businesses that help illegal immigrants.

It's still not enough. "This is why third-party candidates have such a challenge," said a frustrated Linn. The parties "won't let me play on a level playing field."

But the rough-around-the-edges Linn is persistent, a self-made multimillionaire who lives on the beach and is best known as president of Florida Citizens for Term Limits.

So step back and watch as he tries to scratch his way into the inner circle.

At the Winter Park Political Mingle before the recent primary, Linn stood near the stage, where Crist had a table even though he wasn't there. Linn watched as candidates like U.S. Senate hopeful Katherine Harris tried to be heard over the crowd. Then Linn had an idea: When it was his turn, he coaxed a young man who had sung The Star-Spangled Banner earlier to sing the Pledge of Allegiance.

In the silence that followed, Linn began speaking. But soon the din returned, and organizers moved in to pull him off stage with a long red, white and blue pole with a hook.

"He's got a difficult mountain to climb with a third party," said Mel Sembler, a longtime Republican fundraiser.

Linn counts Sembler, President Bush's former ambassador to Italy, among his mentors and says the St. Petersburg developer persuaded him to open his own financial planning business.

At the same time, one of his oldest buddies is Michael Hayes, a water technician for the city of St. Petersburg who says Linn once paid for his hernia operation when he didn't have insurance.

Linn has always traveled in different worlds. Perhaps it hails back to his high school days - when he went to Boca Ciega High School and Shorecrest Preparatory School. He said he was kicked out of several schools, including Boca Ciega, for fighting. When he landed at Shorecrest, he befriended Greg Sembler, son of Mel. Linn, however, didn't graduate and eventually obtained his GED at St. Petersburg College.

At age 24, Linn was hired by A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. as a financial planner. While at A.G. Edwards, Linn's secretary accused him of sexual harassment. The allegation came out during Linn's first attempt to seek political office - a 1990 Republican bid for a state Senate seat. Linn denied the accusation and the matter was eventually dropped.

He receded from politics, becoming more of a behind-the-scenes Republican insider and fundraiser. He also left A.G. Edwards and opened his own business. In 2005, Linn faced another sexual harassment allegation from a former employee. The lawsuit was dismissed. His response: "Very often when people know you have a lot of money, they come after you."

Linn served on the first President George Bush's inauguration team, escorting Mel Sembler and Joe Zappala, former ambassador to Spain, to the event. He also donated to Crist's 1998 campaign for U.S. Senate and other to Republican candidates.

Linn has been "a political activist through the many years I've known him, a get-things-done guy," Mel Sembler said.

But somewhere along the line, Linn became disillusioned with the Republican Party. He rails against government spending under the party's watch.

The final blow came when he started a military foundation to help families and ran into problems with U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. The Indian Shores Republican, who could not be reached for comment, said Linn couldn't explain how the money would be disbursed and was using Young's name without his permission to promote the foundation.

Linn denied the allegation.

* * *

Florida is one of few states where the Reform Party is still active. The party Perot helped found split during Pat Buchanan's 2000 bid for the presidency and has lost its way ever since, third-party experts say. Only Kansas has a Reform Party candidate for governor and just three other states offer Reform Party candidates this year.

"A campaign like (Linn's) might bring some life to it," said J. David Gillespie, author of Politics at the Periphery: Third Parties in Two-Party America.

Linn's positions are typical Reform Party. On social issues, he's liberal: prochoice, supporter of stem cell research, antidevelopment (he proposes a three-year moratorium on condo development). As far as taxes and spending: Less is better, he says.

"We're going to split the Democrats and the Republicans right down the middle," he said.

But this is Max Linn. One minute he says things that are not particularly governor-like, such as "you people" to a group of Hispanics. The next, Linn commands the stage with a wagging finger and a booming voice, evoking terms like "we, the people."

Linn's campaign managers are Russ Verney, 59, who was Perot's campaign manager, and Doug Friedline, 49, who ran Ventura's campaign.

They say they were attracted to Linn's dynamic personality. That and Linn is paying them thousands of dollars and provided both with waterfront condos during the election.

Friedline admits Linn, like Ventura, is not a typical candidate.

"In Max's case, you're taking a very dynamic person but he hasn't run for political office before," Friedline said. "It's a honing, a smoothing, a sanding. This guy is going to be a pretty solid candidate as time develops. Never underestimate Max Linn."

Friedline said one of his top priorities will be to get Linn into the debates. So far, no luck.

* * *

Linn, a pilot who said he sold his financial consulting business three years ago for $4-million, has his own plane, which he uses to fly to political events. Besides an oceanfront home at Sunset Beach, he has homes in Bar Harbor, Maine, and on the Rainbow River in Dunnellon. He is single and has no kids because, he says, he hasn't met the right person.

A few weeks ago, Linn tried to crash a governor's forum in Orlando only to be told that the other candidates didn't want him there.

He persisted and organizers of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce governor's forum finally let him in. Linn, who had flown to a Lake Butler Rotary Club meeting to talk about term limits earlier that day, wore khaki linen pants and a periwinkle striped shirt with an American flag tie. The other candidates wore dark suits and conservative ties.

"He was a breath of fresh air," said Josiane Goslinga, 60, a retired doctor from Ocala and a campaign aide for a Republican congressional candidate.

Event organizer Emilio Perez said Linn was unprepared and at times unprofessional. And he also was overly humble and thankful.

"That's the rough edge on him," Perez said. "He needs to portray himself as a leader and not as just another John Doe."

* * *

Verney and Friedline are trying to put their unique spin on Linn's campaign. An idea wall in Friedline's office focuses on trying to get singers like Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett and comedians like Joe Piscopo to headline shows. They have created a Web-based cartoon character that Friedline hopes will be passed around.

Linn flew to Minnesota a few weeks ago and met with Ventura, hoping to draw the former wrestler to stump with him. Ventura, 55, agreed to lend his support but said he might be more of a detriment.

"I have a different look right now, and unfortunately people judge us on our looks," said Ventura, who's no longer a Reform Party member. "I look like Capt. Jack Sparrow with a braided beard and dreadlocks to my shoulders, surfer-style. ... They want me to cut the beard and hair to do it, and I don't want to do that. ... It's sad because I'm still the same person who was governor of Minnesota."

About 50 hard-core volunteers are helping Linn statewide. As of last month, he had raised $1,214 in campaign contributions. His campaign has spent $827,295.

At each of the events Linn manages to find his way into, he has a small but loyal group of supporters. They pick him up at airports and set up tables at events with his neon green and black T-shirts, caps, buttons and pamphlets.

Many in his inner circle are close friends or die-hard Reform Party activists like Mabel Pattison.

"We've been looking for a candidate like this for a long time," said Pattison, 70, of St. Cloud. "He's in synch with my platform. I've been thinking why can't we find a candidate who's a selfless leader, and we found him."

Some supporters are like Linn, former Democrats or Republicans who no longer believe in their parties.

"He's clear and he's direct -- there's no political sloth," said Cleo Robertson, 68, a St. Pete Beach retiree from a software development company. She was once a Democrat.

Linn's headquarters on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg is manned, for the most part, by folks with little political experience.

"There are too many freaking people yelling in here," said one woman who answered the phones.

Outside, a massive neon green strip of paint around the 2,200-square-foot building is emblazoned with "Max for Governor" in black letters.

Inside, someone has set up a press conference platform behind the speaker's lectern and more than two dozen chairs in front of it.

It has never been used.