Ross Perot gets all the attention. But around the country, folks like Tom Humbert are joining the undeclared independent candidate for President in the most serious assault on America's two-party politics in decades. The conservative Humbert decided on an independent run for Congress after learning that the south-central Pennsylvania district's Republican incumbent, Bill Goodling, bounced 439 checks at the House Bank. "This district is full of tightfisted German farmers, merchants, and businesspeople," says Humbert. "If they did the same thing, they'd go to jail."
Without organized backing or access to funds, independents are usually dismissed as hopeless amateurs. But inspired by Perot, serious independent challengers are cropping up like fireworks stands before the Fourth of July. Political experts think some will win and more will be spoilers in close races. The likely result: a further erosion of parties and of party discipline on Capitol Hill.
`HOLLOW CITADELS.' Anger at both Democrats and Republicans is about the only thing uniting the new crop of political free agents. "They should all be held accountable for this mess," says independent House candidate Jim King, a Naples (Fla.) accountant and talk-radio host who is hoping to topple veteran Republican Porter J. Goss. Humbert is a former aide to Housing Secretary
Jack F. Kemp. Linda Reidelbach, an anti-abortion activist from Columbus, Ohio, entered the race after the gop nominee waffled on choice. Lu Anne DiMatteo, a nurse from Rochester, Minn., is a liberal taking on both a conservative Democratic incumbent, Timothy J. Penny, and a moderate Republican.
Dismay with politics as usual creates an opening. "I'm a staunch Republican, but the two major parties are spending too much time feuding with each other," says Humbert backer Sue Morris, a Gettysburg (Pa.) area planning commissioner. Adds Democratic consultant Ann F. Lewis: "The political parties in this country are like hollow citadels. They are 19th century structures that are clearly inadequate for the 21st century."
Can independents win? "The environment is certainly ripe for independent candidacies everywhere, if they are credible and have a message," says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. Governors Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut and Walter J. Hickel of Alaska won in 1990 after bolting the gop, and one independent, Bernard Sanders of Vermont, is now in the House. Lionel Kunst, a Kansas City businessman and co-founder of the Coalition to End the Permanent Congress, predicts up to 20 independents in the House. "There's a mini-revolution going on," says Kunst, who ran for the House as a Democrat in 1988. "People are unhappy with the Republicrat Establishment."
`DONNA QUIXOTE.' Kunst is probably too optimistic. But even in losing efforts, independents can reshape races. In New Hampshire, the Senate candidacy of disaffected Republican businessman Larry Brady could allow a Democrat to beat the anointed Republican, Governor Judd Gregg. A possible write-in campaign by Oregon Democratic primary loser Harry Lonsdale could draw enough votes from nominee Les AuCoin to save gop Senator Bob Packwood. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, the possible candidacy of former Representative Eugene Atkinson, an anti-abortion conservative, could help Democrat Lynn Yeakel unseat pro-choice Republican Arlen Specter.
Even with the parties at a low ebb, the mavericks face a tough road. They're motivated, but unlike Perot, all are underfunded and will find it tough just to get their names recognized by voters. "I refer to myself as Donna Quixote," jokes DiMatteo. But this year, no one should be surprised if these knights knock over a windmill or two.