A meeting of Reform Party leaders in Long Beach erupted in chaos Tuesday, with screaming, shoving matches, a walkout by loyalists to party founder Ross Perot and a declaration that social conservative Pat Buchanan is now guaranteed the fractured party's presidential nomination.
The turmoil began boiling up even before the start of a meeting by the party's national committee to decide who would control the seating of delegates at the national convention, which kicks off Thursday at the Long Beach Convention Center. The 164-member panel also planned to discuss the makeup of the executive committee, the controlling body of the party.
The meeting pitted two factions against one another: Buchanan's backers and anyone-but-Buchanan supporters of John Hagelin, a physicist and former professor at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. The two sides could agree on nothing, and the meeting at the Westin Hotel quickly dissolved into disorder amid shouts and shoves and hurled insults.
"Take your brownshirt tactics somewhere else!" screamed one man at a Buchanan supporter.
The walkout of the anti-Buchanan forces--who are now promising to run a parallel convention and nominate their own candidate--was heralded as a "win" by Buchanan's sister and campaign manager, Bay Buchanan.
"It's over now," said Bay Buchanan, who said she was in constant contact with her brother at his home in Virginia throughout the morning. "It is Pat Buchanan's nomination."
How the national convention--or conventions, as events now seem to dictate--will play out remains unclear, with both sides claiming they have the legal right to seat the delegates and control the party's finances--$12.5 million in federal matching campaign funds.
Those opposed to Buchanan, who is a well-known pundit and former Nixon speech writer who defected from the Republican Party last fall, say they will never stop fighting him.
They charge that Buchanan does not embody the original intent of the party--to provide an alternative to Republicans and Democrats that is fiscally conservative but silent on many divisive social issues.
Reform members also delighted in the freewheeling style of their founder, and many attendees Tuesday seemed to relish the day's wild action, pointing out that it was the antithesis of the scripted events of the Republicans and Democrats--the "pablum" of the political mainstream, as one woman put it.
But for others, particularly some original Perot backers who remember the heady 1992 United We Stand days when the billionaire businessman captured the nation's imagination, Tuesday's goings-on were hard to take.
Events were so chaotic that some Buchanan opponents were trying to storm their way into the closed-door national committee meeting even as other Buchanan opponents were trying to get out.
As the meeting continued, members from both factions slipped out from time to time to give a blow-by-blow of the action inside, and even those mini-news conferences provoked reactions.
Anti-Buchanan forces shouted, "Let the media in" and "Let them see the travesty inside!" and other things that are not printable.
Buchanan's self-described "Brigaders" screamed back: "No way!" And worse.
As the tension built to a climax, Russ Verney, a founding member of the Reform Party who now holds no party office, tried to push his way past security guards and into the hall, telling everyone they'd have to arrest him to keep him out.
"Go home! You're nobody now!" screamed a man wearing a Buchanan button.
Verney's efforts to push his way in ended when the doors to the room crashed open and dozens of national committee members opposed to Buchanan's nomination spilled out.
"Illegal tactics!" shouted party secretary Jim Mangia, who led the group out. As Mangia instructed his people to regroup at a nearby hotel, Buchanan backers screamed: "Shut up!"
After the pro-Hagelin group left, the meeting resumed and Bay Buchanan declared victory to reporters outside the hall. But Hagelin's supporters challenged her assertion.
"[Party Chairman] Gerry Moan was like Hitler, running the meeting in a dictatorial manner. It was ridiculous, a farce," said Paul Truax, a co-founder of the Reform Party who, depending on whom you ask, either is or isn't on the party's executive committee.
Those backing Hagelin say their fight is just getting started. While Moan, who controls the party's finances, remained at the Westin to seat the remaining national committee members, the splinter group held their own meeting to do the same.
The tumultuous split had been building for weeks, with an increasingly nasty series of exchanges between the Buchanan campaign and Perot loyalists, including allegations of ballot fraud, the firing of the party's longtime volunteer spokeswoman and threats of lawsuits to block distribution of the $12.5 million in federal campaign funds.
Some party stalwarts found the whole situation discouraging and sad.
"We're the ones that worked so hard from 1992. I think it's terrible that Pat Buchanan is taking over like a dictator," said Beverly Miller, a member from Wisconsin. "I don't know if they're going to seat me or not, but we felt we had to be there and do what we can to stop this."
In a recent interview, Buchanan rebuked charges that he was staging a hostile takeover of the Reform Party.
"Look, when we came into the party I would say in two dozen states it was virtually nonexistent--it was defunct--and in 30 states it wasn't even on the ballot," he said. "Now when we bring our folks into the Reform Party and build it and create it where it doesn't exist and get on the ballot . . . clearly they tend to reflect the beliefs and values of Pat Buchanan. What else would they expect?"
Later Tuesday, Bay Buchanan said those who walked out were sore losers who refused to play by the rules. Asked if the discord was embarrassing, she said: "No, absolutely not."
Times staff writers Dan Weikel and Massie Ritsch contributed to this story.
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