Reform Party vies for visibility

by Tracy Ellingson

In 1992, Reform Party pioneer Ross Perot tested the theory that three can be company in America’s traditional two-party political system.
Now, five years later, as Perot makes a second attempt to unseat an incumbent president, he and fellow Reform Party members are feeling the growing pains of a developing political party.
Alan Shilepsky, Reform Party candidate in state House District 59B, said one of the biggest problems facing his party’s candidates is the unwillingness of many major party candidates to recognize their Reform Party opponents as worthy competitors.
“You think of the Democrats and Republicans in a circle holding hands,” Shilepsky said. “Obviously they’re contestants, but they’re the insiders and a third party has a real tough time breaking into that.”
Richard Gibbons, Reform Party candidate for U.S. House District 4, describes himself as “the fly buzzing over the pizza” of his opponents — incumbent Rep. Bruce Vento, DFL-St. Paul, and Republican candidate Dennis Newinski.
“Vento always talks about his principal opponent,’ who is Newinski,” Gibbons said, “and so I asked him the other day, Does that make me your unprincipled opponent?'”
Shilepsky said the major reason Reform Party candidates are struggling to break into the political circle is because the media often overlook them as viable opponents to their Republican and Democrat counterparts.
For example, the Presidential Debate Commission decided to keep Perot out of this year’s presidential debates because, members said, he did not have any chance of making a comparable showing in the polls. Perot participated with fellow third-party presidential candidates in a separate debate this October.
Personally, Shilepsky said, he has struggled to gain media attention in his race against incumbent Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and Republican candidate Tom Gromacki. In a recent letter to the editor of the Twin Cities Reader, Shilepsky criticized an article written about his opponents.
“The article was basically contrasting Tom with Phyllis,” Shilepsky said. “And if you hate Tom, you better vote for Phyllis. They didn’t say that, but she was the alternative that was presented.”
Gibbons agreed that Reform Party candidates are left to use open forums and cable access to get the most of their public exposure because they have far less money than their Republican and Democrat opponents.
“Newspapers don’t take you seriously unless you spend $250,000 on a candidacy,” Gibbons said, “and nobody has been elected to Congress by spending less than $215,000 since 1992.”
Gibbons, who is making his first and last attempt at office during this election, said one of the Reform Party’s major platforms is opposition to Political Action Committee contributions. As a result, he said the Reform Party’s candidates have “been hoisted by our own righteousness.”
Candidates rely on individual donations and their own money rather than taking money from organizations with political interests. In general, this leaves the candidates with very little spending money.
But despite Reform Party candidates’ difficulty in breaking the nation’s two-party tradition, the party’s supporters are encouraged that Reform candidates will soon find a comfortable and common niche in the political circle.
College students at Purdue University started a National College Reform Party this spring to encourage students at colleges nationwide to initiate their own Reform Party chapters, much like those the Republicans and Democrats have had for years.
Purdue University junior and co-founder of the National College Reform Party, Ron Magliola, said that the organization currently has 30 chapters and by the end of the year the list should be close to 100. Purdue currently has the largest chapter with 31 members.
Purdue, with a student body of about 59,000 undergraduates and graduates, is comparable in size to the University’s 60,000 graduate and undergraduates. University students have not yet established a Reform Party chapter on campus, but Magliola said after the election National College Reform Party coordinators will contact dozens of schools that have inquired about starting a chapter at their school, among which may be a request from the University or other schools in Minnesota.
Magliola said he views the challenges in starting the College Reform Party as a “positive kind of thing.”
“In essence, it’s a goal,” he said. “We’re building completely from scratch a completely new party, and it’s exciting.