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Retired Schoolteacher Is on Campaign Trail : Elections: Longtime Republican Tennie Rogers is running for president. She complains that her lack of media exposure isn't making it easy.

February 16, 1992|ROBERT MORAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIERRA MADRE — "Please deposit $2.65," the operator interrupts.

At the other end of the line, presidential candidate Tennie Rogers excused herself and plugged a handful of coins into the phone. She was somewhere outside of Montgomery, Ala., between cities after a week of hard campaigning in Mississippi.

A few more days on her Alabama swing and then she'll be back home in Sierra Madre. But not for long.

The New Hampshire primary is coming up.

The 64-year-old retired schoolteacher and longtime Republican spends most of her phone call complaining about her lack of media exposure. Then she has to go. There's no way to reach her on the road. She says she'll call back as soon as she has a minute.

After several such breathless calls, Rogers agreed to an interview on her next short stop home.

And so, finally, in her modest house on the lower slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains, Rogers relaxed one recent evening in her living room, dotted with numerous articles of the Christian faith, to recount the thankless lot of the fringe candidate in presidential politics.

Power and fame are not her goals.

She's out to spread her message: More jobs. Better education. Increased health care. She admires Pat Buchanan and believes George Bush means well, but there's a job to be done.

"President Bush got my vote last time, but he's sure not getting it next time," Rogers declared.

Recently certified as a registered nurse, Rogers sees herself ministering to a sick nation in need of immediate attention.

"You wouldn't treat a patient that way," she said. "If they've got problems, you treat them now, not sometime next year."

Spending her own retirement dollars, Rogers has gone on the road, engaging America's voters one mall, one grocery store at a time.

She grew wide-eyed in recalling her campaign in the South.

Dogged by a storm front that dumped both rain and snow, Rogers collected signatures to get her name on the ballot in Mississippi and Alabama. At the entrance of one market, barely sheltered from the icy rain, Rogers recalled, she won the respect of one curious local.

"He said, 'Anybody that would stand out here in this cold wind and pouring down rain to get signatures on a petition would get my vote any day. Hand me your pen,' " She laughed at the thought.

Rogers spoke in a methodical, Southern drawl. Once she had made a point, she usually laughed, and wouldn't listen to another question until she'd caught her breath and sighed.

"I think whether it was rain or snow or wind or cold, I got the signatures," she said.

In Mississippi, as in Alabama, she needed 500 signatures to qualify for the ballot. Already, Rogers has made it onto ballots in nine states, some with signatures, others with hefty filing fees. Texas required $5,000.

Contributions to the campaign aren't what they need to be, Rogers conceded, so she's been reaching into her personal funds to make political ends meet.

When asked how much her campaign has received in political contributions, Rogers was evasive, almost embarrassed.

"Let's just say I'm doing what I can," she said. She repeated her response like some wishful mantra. Contributions "have been low, but I'm hoping they'll pick up."

A simple calculation of filing fees, motel and car rentals, and airplane tickets suggests the campaign has cost Rogers at least $10,000, although she refused to give an exact accounting.

"I try to be very prudent in how I spend the money and just do as much as I can with the small amount that I have," she said. "I'm grateful for what I've accomplished so far, and I'm planning to do just as much as I possibly can."

During the interview, Rogers' husband Kenneth, 65, stayed in another room. But he supports the campaign, Rogers said.

"I'm going to vote for myself, and my husband's voting for me, so I'm assured of two votes."

On the campaign trail, Kenneth Rogers drives her from town to town, but basically keeps to himself.

"My husband was with me (in Mississippi and Alabama), but he didn't help collect the signatures," she said. "He just gave me moral support. He would walk around the mall and come back and say, 'How are you doing?' "

Again she laughed.

No formal count has been kept on how many people through the years have run for president, but according to Sheldon Kamieniecki, an associate professor of political science at USC, the list is "surprisingly long."

There are more than 60 candidates on New Hampshire's ballot this month.

Kamieniecki cited such past and present well-known "unknowns" as former Irvine Mayor Larry Agran and comedian Pat Paulsen as examples. For real unknowns who make a bid for the White House, Kamieniecki said, "the results are almost always negative. They have no impact."

In spite of such skepticism, candidate Rogers is never downbeat in her pursuit of the presidency, a long-held but dormant ambition.

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