Perot Confronts Grumbling in the Ranks

Even as the Texan's influence on national politics has grown, his grass-roots group has been shaken by defections of some volunteers

WASHINGTON politicians today are wise to consider how their actions will play, not only in Peoria, but also in Perot-ia.

Ross Perot's vast and growing constituency, along with his financial resources, give the gadfly Texas billionaire a bigger sting than elected officials have ever felt other than from an opposition party, political analysts say. His watchdog organization, United We Stand America (UWSA), scores well in public-opinion polls. However, its first four months have been marred by growing pains that loyalists shrug off, but that a few dissidents insist will sink it.

President Clinton once hoped to win the confidence of the 19 percent of voters who supported Mr. Perot's independent presidential bid. But last week, Perot bought a half-hour of time on national television to denounce Mr. Clinton's economic package and to urge citizens to telephone their objections to the White House. This week, UWSA members began circulating petitions demanding that the government "cut spending before increasing taxes."

Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, who has known Perot since 1986 and sides with him on issues such as term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, and campaign reforms, wishes that the tycoon would support the president's package. Perot's growing influence "can be very constructive or destructive," Mr. DeConcini says. "He's going to do what he wants to do."

In terms of popularity, Clinton's is now plunging while Perot's soars.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas has pronounced Perot to be "the most favorably viewed politician in this country," following a survey he conducted last week with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. Perot was viewed favorably by 64 percent of the electorate and unfavorably by 29 percent. "He's a serious force in American politics, and he's a threat to both parties," Ms. Lake says.

Another Republican pollster, Vince Breglio, calls Perot's continued popularity "an incredible political phenomenon" that is "absolutely earthshaking" to Republicans and Democrats alike. "Traditional party structures have not produced the kind of leadership that America is ready to follow," Mr. Breglio says. "Perot's priorities are in order with the priorities that most people have set for themselves."

A Gordon Black poll financed by Perot and released last week found that 24 percent of Americans intend to join UWSA, up from 20 percent in March and 13 percent in February. Many analysts suspect that Perot will use the organization as a launching pad for a presidential bid in 1996. Perot has not ruled out the possibility.

Breglio notes that 2 out of 3 Americans approve of UWSA's mission. "That's substantial support for an organization like that," he says.

As UWSA chairman, Perot conducted a March 21 televised referendum on government reform. Pollsters criticized the questions as slanted to ensure that respondents would overwhelmingly favor the UWSA platform, which they did. The results have been broken down by congressional district and delivered to legislators.

USWA executive director Darcy Anderson says another Perot "infomercial" is planned for this summer.

Despite the kickoff of the petition drive, the UWSA national headquarters has emphasized to its state and local leaders that enlisting members remains of paramount concern. Mr. Anderson refuses to divulge current membership figures.

But Tom Wing, who resigned in disgust as the Illinois coordinator, claims that UWSA has "an embarrassingly small" 1.2 million members. "We have some sources in Dallas that [Perot] hasn't been able to shut down yet," he says.

Perot still pays all of UWSA's expenses. He has ordered that membership dues be held in escrow until he is sure UWSA will thrive. Perot is starting to get "comfortable" on that point, Anderson says, but "he hasn't flipped the switch yet."

One indication of membership size may be the response to the referendum. The ballot was printed in TV Guide (circulation 14 million). The show earned low ratings and generated 1.3 million responses, a volume that Anderson nonetheless says "pleased" UWSA.

Anderson says that each state has reached a "critical mass" of national members and will meet by congressional district to elect state organizations. Dallas will then charter them as UWSA state chapters. Maine had its first meeting last Sunday. California will elect leaders next month.

Before a state can hold elections, it must have a paid director hired by the Dallas office. So far, 21 are in place. By early fall, Anderson says, "We should be rockin' and rollin.' "

But disgruntled former volunteers have doubts. "Next January, when it comes time to renew membership, I think the silence is going to be deafening," Mr. Wing says.

What soured him and a score of other top volunteers who, like him, had given nearly a year of their lives to Perot's presidential campaign and watchdog group? Interviews with a dozen current and former state coordinators, local leaders, and UWSA national staff reveal a perhaps-inevitable conflict.

On one hand was a cautious headquarters staff groping to transform a campaign vehicle into a cost-efficient information and advocacy organization. The staff aimed to confirm UWSA's viability by recruiting enough members before committing much money to other activities. Communications and decisionmaking were initially chaotic.

On the other hand were ambitious state coordinators with a tight-knit horizontal network in place and, in some cases, no paying job. They itched to wield grass-roots authority by helping to define UWSA's agenda and by spending money immediately on projects in their states.

STATE coordinators were dismayed by the apparent confusion in Dallas. Cynthia Schultz, a noted Wisconsin political consultant who had helped elect Republicans like Sen. Bob Kasten, came to regard the national staff as incompetent neophytes. She quit in frustration in February, after Dallas canceled a forum she had planned for the candidates seeking the congressional seat vacated by Defense Secretary Les Aspin. Ms. Schultz complains that UWSA wielded no influence in this week's contest.

Anderson says UWSA conducted candidate forums in Wisconsin similar to ones that members organized for last Saturday's special election in Texas for Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's United States Senate seat. But Pat Owens, one of Schultz's successors in the Wisconsin organization, says that the candidates merely answered UWSA questionnaires. And the organization released the responses too late for Wisconsin newspapers to publish before the election.

The Dallas office and the state coordinators also clashed over state directorships - new, paid positions. "We were told repeatedly by the Dallas staff that we would be shoo-ins pretty much," Wing says. "Naive, stupid little us."

In February, state coordinators got a list of job criteria that would disqualify them and which they doubted headquarters staff could fulfill. Wally Howard, the former Indiana coordinator, called it an "excuse list" for dumping current state leaders.

They also learned that Dallas planned to advertise the posts in military and trade journals. That led Schultz to organize a mid-February conference call in which 22 state coordinators aired complaints. Schultz then sent a memo to Dallas criticizing headquarters for its "paranoia and suspicion," lack of ethics and competence, and failure to consult state coordinators. The ad was canned.

Wing, who resigned March 15 after learning that he would not get the paid job, now believes that Dallas all along intended to "milk us for all our volunteerism" and cut them loose. But Greg Owens, who willingly stepped down as Arkansas coordinator, denies that Dallas ever offered him or the others an inside track for the state-director post. He blames the misunderstanding on lost perspective. "After you put that kind of effort and time into it, you almost feel like it's your little baby," Mr. Owens says.

"You hate to give up anything."

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