The life of the party

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HEAD GEEZER said the T-shirt worn by Jack Gargan at the Reform Party's national convention two weeks ago, and before the delegates left Detroit the saying rang true: Backed by Jesse Ventura, this geezer from Florida beat two Ross Perot loyalists to become the party's new chairman, signaling a shift away from the wound-too-tight, nearly loco Texas billionaire and toward the shoot-from-the-hip, somewhat less loco ex-wrestler from Minnesota.

"I was just a ticked-off granddaddy," says Gargan, 68, reached at his home in Cedar Key. Being ticked-off is why he started a term-limits movement called Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out (THRO) in the early '90s. THRO, says Gargan, was "the catalyst that started the whole Reform movement."

That may be an overstatement. Still, it's true that while the spotlight fell on the quirky, cranky Perot, the Reform Party's groundwork was built by everyday people disillusioned by the two major parties. Perot ran for the presidency in 1992 as an Independent candidate and received 19 percent of the vote. In 1995 Perot founded the Reform Party, and petition drives across the nation got him on the presidential ballot for 1996, although that year he received only 9 percent of the vote.

As captain of this upstart group, what are Gargan's goals? "Party unity," he says immediately, "because we have had some rifts develop. ... We are a diverse group of people from all walks of life -- mostly from middle America. That diversity is more of an advantage than a problem, but it does require better communication."

While most talk about diversity in political parties is talk about race, the Reform Party's "diversity" comes in the form of conflicting -- and even contradictory -- political views among its members. Often simply reacting against the slow-footed lethargy of the two major parties, Reformers encompass everything from liberal-leaning social democrats to conservative-swaying libertarians. Tom McLaughlin, one of Gargan's unsuccessful rivals for the party's chairmanship, told reporters at the convention, "We have everyone, from people who think Jesse Jackson is too conservative to people who think Pat Buchanan is too liberal."

The mishmash is apparent when the members talk about a presidential nominee. Who will run in 2000? Who knows? Save some weird political rebirth, it won't be Perot again -- Gargan and Ventura have said they won't support him. The names floated as possibilities at the convention proclaim the party's "diversity" loud and clear: Buchanan, Colin Powell, Donald Trump, consumer advocate Ralph Nader. It's hard to imagine that these four, if locked together in a room, could even find something to agree upon. But there's another hitch: None has actually been asked if he wants to be a Reform Party candidate.

"We need to concentrate on what we agree on," insists Gargan. "My God, we all disagree on something."

Reform Party members do tend to agree on a few basic things. Term limits: "The system is what's killing us," says Gargan of entrenched politicians. A balanced budget: "My generation has screwed you `young` people with incredible, incredible debt." They also are for campaign-finance reform and against NAFTA-like free-trade agreements.

A retired financial consultant who's lived in Florida for more than 40 years, Gargan was active in the early stages of the "draft Perot for president" campaign, but these days he's completely in the Ventura camp. More than once during our conversation he calls the Minnesota governor "a role model." If nothing else, Ventura has gotten people talking about politics once again. Gargan tells a story about a guy in Kansas who owns a club ("I called it a juke joint in my day" ), and how the guy recently overheard a group of young people in a heated discussion: "The whole talk was pro and con Jesse Ventura," relates Gargan. "So the guy asks them, 'What about `Kansas` Gov. Graves?' And they say, 'Who the hell is Gov. Graves?' That tells you something."

One of Gargan's goals as chairman will be to increase the party's membership. In Florida's 1998 elections, the Reform Party had 2,695 registered voters, out of a total of more than 8 million in the state. To boost those numbers, young people like those in that Kansas bar are Gargan's main focus. "If you want a voice in government, you're not going to get it anywhere else," he says. What about the younger generation's feeling that nothing they do will change much of anything? "We are going to empower the young people," he insists. "Get off the apathy, get involved. With Jesse Ventura, we have blown away the old Democratic and Republican lie that you have wasted a vote" if you don't cast your lot with one of the two major parties.

Gargan is perfectly adept at tossing out the sound-bite-friendly quip; for example, he offers, "We are the government of common sense, not political expedience," and "We're not politicians, we're citizens." But, as you'd guess from the "Head Geezer" T-shirt, he's not exactly spit-shined to a Clintonian polish. During his speech at the convention he told the crowd: "I drive a motorcycle, shoot a pretty fair game of pool, have been known to stay up all night playing poker, and I do have an eye for the ladies. And those are my good qualities." When I mention that I heard he's a good pool player, he chuckles and asks, "Did you hear the rest of the quote?" He's pleased that I have. "We can have fun as we go through life," he explains. "We don't have to be a bunch of prudes, but you can still maintain your dignity."

While the party is sorting out its new, Jesse-heavy identity, Gargan will establish headquarters here in Florida (probably in Tampa) for his term as chairman, which officially starts in January. "We're pretty much a volunteer organization," he explains when asked about the plans for a headquarters. "It's not going to be exactly a plum operation. It's me and a full-time secretary." Committee members and party executives are spread out around the country, so the Florida headquarters is a nod at logistics, for Gargan's sake: "It doesn't make any sense to me to be running to Dallas to pick up my mail."

And, true to his goal of growing the party, he doesn't miss an opportunity. "You sound like a young person," he says. "Can I invite you to become a member?"

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