Many people have been asking me what’s going to happen at the Reform
Party National Convention next week. How will the weekend decision by

Executive Committee to disqualify
for fraud be handled? Will John Hagelin or Pat Buchanan be nominated? Will the party be taken over by the Buchanan machine or will it continue to exist as a force for political reform and independence? Will there actually be a convention, or will the meeting break down or break apart?

No one knows. But I do know what party activists need to be thinking about and working on in the handful of days before the convention opens. We need to be reunifying the party and getting back to its vision and its relationship to the American people. I am hopeful that we can get beyond the divisiveness of the last year without a return to the factionalism that made Reform such an easy target for Buchanan’s Anschluss.

There are varied points to identify as the start of that factionalism; certainly the party’s 1999 convention in Dearborn was one. Delegates to the Dearborn convention voted 2 to 1 to diversify the leadership in an arrangement that shared power among different forces, marking the first moment that the Ross Perot organization did not have control of the party. The delegates also took steps to protect rank-and-file democracy in its resolution of credentials disputes and in the passage of several new constitutional amendments. Some in the party were disturbed by the new arrangement and the delicate alignment was immediately embroiled in a destructive battle for control.

Buchanan’s entry into Reform coincided with this factional surge and he was quick to discern that he could manipulate it for his own benefit. Now many of the party’s factions are united in their effort to stop Buchanan’s takeover of the party — a takeover he opted to bolster by the fraudulent submission of 400,000 ineligible voters to the party’s national primary process. But the far more serious issue for Reform is whether and on what basis these party forces will remain unified.

High on the list of issues that the Reform Party’s democracy coalition must tackle is the composition of a new Executive Committee, to be elected at Long Beach, Calif., that distributes power — once again — among diverse factions and state parties, hopefully this time with a recognition that a refusal to do so will spell the end of a viable Reform Party, even if Buchanan is driven out. The Buchanan experience has hamstrung the party and cost it dozens of promising and popular independent leaders, not the least of whom is Jesse Ventura. Still some state parties have continued to grow in size and influence — like New York, California, Washington and Illinois, and whole new activist networks, like John Hagelin’s Natural Law followers, have come into the party. This has created a new picture inside Reform, and so any reunification has to be based on the actual “on the ground” situation. It will not work as a resurrection based on prior strength.

If the Executive Committee’s resolution is carried out, then John Hagelin will certainly become the party’s nominee. Hagelin, who has received the endorsements of many Reform leaders from coast to coast, will run a good campaign. He’s not Ross Perot, but if he is the Reform Party nominee, if the media is even handed, and if he’s included in the debates, he’ll get a lot of votes for the political reform agenda of the independent movement.

Pat Buchanan hopes to overturn the Executive Committee decision at a National Committee meeting on Aug. 8. Whether he succeeds depends largely on who is and isn’t credentialed to participate in that meeting. Ultimately, whether the Reform Party survives the Buchanan takeover attempt remains to be seen, but frankly that’s not my ultimate concern. My concern is the survival of the independent political movement, and its usefulness to reform-minded Americans.

The reform agenda is very popular. We saw that in the John McCain campaign. We see it in the Ralph Nader campaign. Reform politics is on the move. (Even the Shadow Conventions are focusing on the political reform agenda. A number of reporters have asked me why I’m not at the Shadow Convention. I wasn’t invited. I guess I cast too long a shadow for them.)

Will different political players continue to come into the independent movement as it grows and try to usurp it? Absolutely. That’s what Buchanan did. And he had every right to do so. He simply doesn’t have the right to cross the line from political hardball into illegality.

Overall, this is bound to be a very good year for independents. There’s going to be a big independent vote in November distributed among a number of candidates. That vote could affect the outcome of the Presidential race. But more importantly, this is a year in which the third party movement is growing, learning from its past mistakes and defining itself, rather than being defined by others.

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