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Reform Party suffers from its squabbling

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© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000

This ought to be the best of times for the Reform Party.

Across the country, there is widespread indifference toward George W. Bush and Al Gore. The meteoric rise of John McCain during the Republican primaries underscored the appetite for someone different. And the Reform Party has more than $12-million in public money coming for its candidate.

In Florida, changes to the state Constitution approved by voters in 1998 make it easier than ever for minor party candidates to get on the ballot. The Reform Party has two candidates running for the U.S. House and another for the Senate. Other candidates are being recruited to run for the Legislature.

But the Reform Party in Florida is in no better shape than the national party. Its leadership turns out to be just as divided, and the family feud can only hurt its recruitment efforts and credibility.

David Goldman, a Sarasota lawyer, has been the state party chairman for about a year and was expected to serve a four-year term. He helped sign up candidates such as Jon Duffey of Odessa, the only person brave enough -- or foolish enough -- to challenge entrenched incumbent U.S. Rep. Michael Bilirakis of Palm Harbor. The Democrats couldn't even come up with a token opponent.

Suddenly last week, there was a Reform Party coup.

The other three members of the Reform Party's state executive committee decided they wanted a new chairman. In a telephone conference call last weekend, they voted to replace Goldman with Pauline Klein of Key Largo.

Naturally, Goldman insisted last week that he was still the state chairman. The others disagreed. By the end of the week, the party's Web site listed Goldman as vice chairman.

"There is a difference in philosophy as far as management style," said Carl Owenby, a computer consultant from Quincy who is a member of the party's executive committee.

At least the police weren't called, as they were in February when Jack Gargan of Cedar Key was thrown out as the national chairman at a chaotic meeting in Nashville.

Sorting out these kinds of internal squabbles in political parties is as fruitless as wading into somebody else's family fights. In this case, there are grumblings about a Web site, disagreements over party rules and quibbles about leadership styles.

The broader question is whether the Reform Party, such as it is, can evolve into something more than gadfly status in Florida politics.

The opportunities are here.

The portion of the state's 8.4-million registered voters who are Republicans or Democrats has not been rising significantly. While only 157,000 voters are registered as members of minor political parties, including the Reform Party, more than 1.2-million voters have no party affiliation at all. If the Reform Party could tap into that group, which has surged since it became easier to register to vote, it could become a player in deciding close races.

More important is the change to the state Constitution, which made it easier for candidates of minor parties or no party at all to get on the ballot. That's why the lineup of candidates for Congress this year includes three Natural Law Party candidates, three Reform Party candidates, a Libertarian Party candidate and a half-dozen candidates who have no party affiliation.

It's hard to take any of these candidates too seriously now. They have little money, less organization behind them and virtually no chance of winning. But that could change if the Reform Party quits fighting over loyalty oaths to Ross Perot. One lightning strike, one Jesse Ventura surprise, would bring instant credibility that would make minor party candidates harder for the media and voters to ignore.

Goldman, who briefly sought the national chairmanship earlier this year, blames the Reform Party's problems on some members' obsession with Perot and their unwillingness to broaden the organization to include more diverse points of view. Many of them would rather have no presidential candidate, he said, if Perot won't run.

The three Florida congressional candidates he helped recruit also are viewed as outsiders, Goldman said.

"The others on the state committee want to keep the party a closed little canasta party," he said.

Owenby acknowledged that he, like many other Reform Party members, is not comfortable with Pat Buchanan's advocacy on social issues. Those aren't Reform Party issues. But he said the flap in Florida has nothing to do with Buchanan or Perot or the national party.

Meanwhile, Jon Duffey is stuck.

After attending the Reform Party state convention in Tampa earlier this year and listening to Goldman's pitch, he signed up to run against Bilirakis. He said he liked the enthusiasm and found dedicated Reform Party members to be "a real scrappy bunch."

Now, though, the internal squabbles are leaving Duffey and the Reform Party's candidates fighting quixotic battles by themselves.

"We're out there with a sword charging into battle," Duffey said, "and we look behind us and say, "Hey, there's nobody there.' "

Until there is, it's hard to treat the Reform Party as anything more than a sideshow.

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