Nearly 200 people gathered at a midmorning rally alongside Tony's Liquor store in Sherman Oaks on Wednesday to hear a man who midway through his speech admitted he had not talked to H. Ross Perot in 40 years.
Nobody seemed to care.
The crowd cheered mere mention of the Texas billionaire whose nationwide grass-roots bid for President was compared by gushing San Fernando Valley supporters to the sentiment that carried Proposition 13.
"We need a change. And if this guy is elected, it might change the whole way candidates are selected, a kind of revolution," said Jon Glabman, 26, an insurance agent from Encino. "That idea is compelling."
Organizers of the event, the first street rally for Perot in California, said they have signed up more than 3,500 volunteers in the past five weeks to gather the 135,000 signatures of registered voters needed to include Perot's name on the California ballot for November's general election.
The featured speaker was Kenneth W. Martin, an aircraft sales manager who attended the U.S. Naval Academy with Perot in the early 1950s. "He doesn't need the money; he needs a country that is honest," Martin said of Perot.
Many at the rally said they have never been active in political campaigns. But they said fears about the economy and the apparent inability of elected officials to steer the nation have brought them together to support Perot.
"It seems like politics are controlled by special interests and politicians' own selfish interests," said Richard Heckman, 51, a writer from Calabasas.
Despite the collective gloom about the country's leadership, the Perot rally was upbeat, with music from a country-rock band and prizes such as pocket calculators and gift baskets for those who knew the answers to questions about Perot such as his wife's name (Margo) and how the couple met (a blind date).
Organizers received city permission to close a portion of Dixie Canyon Avenue and Ventura Boulevard for the rally, which was blocked off with orange traffic cones and decorated with homemade signs touting Perot supporters from Burbank, Reseda, Glendale and Panorama City.
"Five weeks ago there were 18 of us in Los Angeles and Orange counties meeting in a hotel near LAX," said Mike Norris, a Studio City retail consultant who is now coordinator of the Los Angeles County effort to put Perot on the state ballot. "At the time, I thought, if we could only get 400 volunteers to collect 200 signatures each. That would be 80,000, and along with San Diego and Northern California, that would be enough."
Now, Norris and others said they hope to collect 1 million signatures, enough to show voters that Perot has a chance of winning.
"People are getting the same intensity they had for Proposition 13," said Gene Waldman, 35, who worked for Howard Jarvis to pass the landmark property tax reform measure and is now helping organize efforts for Perot in the Valley. "We have Democrats, Republicans, independents, Libertarians; it's very broad-based."
Perot, a Dallas businessman whose personal fortune is estimated to be $3 billion, has said he would run for President as an independent if volunteers can qualify him for the November ballot in all 50 states.
The effort so far includes a national toll-free telephone number and 100 telephone lines manned by volunteers in Dallas. A local organizer also has a toll-free number based in Los Angeles with five telephone lines. A campaign office is Sherman Oaks is expected to open within two weeks, supporters said.
New Perot recruits signing up at Wednesday's rally said they were dissatisfied with both President Bush and leading Democratic Party contender Bill Clinton. They are backing the 61-year-old Perot with the expectation that he will have answers to the nation's troubles.
"I'm tired of being a complainer and not doing anything," said Gordon Swanson, 67, of Santa Clarita. "We need to get behind someone with a chance at straightening out our problems. Perot is our brightest hope."
Registered Democrat Susan Edwards, 37, of Tarzana said that she believes Bush "has made a mess of the economy," and that she does not trust Clinton because "anyone who said I took a hit but didn't inhale" is probably not telling the truth.
The hottest-selling item at the rally was the $12 "Go Perot. Be a part of American history" T-shirt.
The candidate--who made his fortune as an entrepreneur in the computer business--would be proud. One of the event's organizers, Jack McGrath of North Hollywood, said he expects to make a buck on the $3,000 that he has invested in the T-shirts.
"None of the profits are going to the campaign," McGrath said. "It's an independent candidacy, and I'm an independent marketing guy."