The announcement of Ross Perot’s death on Tuesday affected me more than I would have expected. I have paid little attention to the man since he disappeared from politics. As a leader in his Minnesota petition drive, I was deeply disappointed by his failed promises and apparent deception. (Yet, there is a box of Perot T-shirts in this disillusioned supporter’s garage.)
With the passing of this bright, energetic man, will the media recognize that Perot’s flash-in-the-pan presidential bid paved the way for a Trump presidency?
Most people don’t recall that the initial energy behind Perot’s drive for president was not about electing him, but about meeting a challenge he made on the “Larry King Live” show: If the people, on their own, placed his name on all 50 state ballots, Perot would run for president.
What followed was an unprecedented and incredibly successful petition drive that proved that the American people can change the face of politics without the backing of an entrenched political machine.
The media, at the time, suggested that Perot was using his vast wealth to fund the petition drive — that it was, in fact, not grassroots at all.
Let me tell you, from personal experience, what really happened.
On a Sunday morning, a few weeks after Perot issued his challenge, Minnesota Public Radio mentioned that there was no Perot petition committee in Minnesota. I had been trying without success to reach Perot since the announcement, so I called MPR, told them I had a committee (myself and two grudging siblings, recruited that morning) and was interviewed on the spot. On Monday morning my phone started ringing and didn’t stop for months.
Jeff Solem was organizing also; he reached out to me, and a Minnesota organization was born. We weren’t politicians. Most of us were men and women in business. Volunteers showed up, unsolicited. Perot did not fund us. We had no real fundraising mechanism; the money just trickled in. Along with grassroots organizations in all 50 states, we put Perot’s name on the ballot for the 1992 presidential election.
This wasn’t easy. States have different rules. Some give petitioners many months to gather signatures, others only a few weeks. Some require a small percentage of registered voters. Others require onerous numbers. State-by-state timing was strict and seemingly arbitrary.
Minnesota’s rules were neither onerous nor easy, but gathering signatures was a breeze. People were excited, not necessarily about the man, but about the idea of the man. People were — and still are — disgusted with the major political parties. They romanticized Perot, but deep down what they wanted was to bring the system back under the control of the people.
Perot’s presence on the ballot in all 50 states — without benefit of an organization, without benefit of big money — was a stunning grassroots achievement. There was no national structure. We didn’t even have a list of the other 49 state organizations.
We neglected our businesses, paid our own travel expenses, neglected our families and never hesitated.
Perot’s debate performance was weak, but people liked him and his populist message of fiscal responsibility. We didn’t know where he stood on other issues and weren’t particularly knowledgeable ourselves. But our motivation was powerful. We wanted people to take responsibility for their country, and we wanted a common-sense president.
The dominoes that began to fall in 1992 led indirectly to Donald Trump.
Perot’s presence on the 1992 ballot likely gave the election to Bill Clinton, whose failure to heed the people’s message spawned Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” America responded by handing Congress to the Republicans in 1994 — the first time in 40 years. Clinton was forced to compromise and pronounced “the era of big government” over.
Jesse Ventura capitalized on that spirit, defeating the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor of Minnesota. The spirit of Perot sparked the voters further, and a firestorm of grassroots energy ensued. The people’s desire for government of, by and for the people gave birth to the Tea Party.
Trump took the lessons of Perot and Ventura to a new level, recognizing voter hunger for a candidate outside the party establishment and winning the election despite the Republican Party’s fierce opposition to his candidacy.
The people now know that, for better or worse, any ideology, philosophy or set of values the voters truly embrace can prevail, regardless of party and money.
Ross Perot proved that we can control our country if we have the will. For all the things we liked and disliked about Perot and Ventura, for all the overwrought angst or blind adoration we may hold for Trump, those three men showed America that it is, in the end, up to us to make the changes we want to see in this country.
Dorothy (Dusty) Pence was a writer and business owner in Plymouth for more than 10 years. She served on the board of the Perot campaign and was its liaison to greater Minnesota. Pence and her husband moved to South Dakota in 2000.