What can one person do?
I wish Jack Gargan were here to answer that question — I can almost hear his characteristic chuckle, see the glint in his Irish eyes, in preparation for his answer. But sadly, Jack passed away last week in Thailand, where he had retired. He was 88 years of age.
The loss of this man, coming on the cusp of last week’s election, transported me back 28 years ago — to the 1990 election, when the anti-incumbency, pro-term limits movement was only in its infancy.
I had worked all that year in Illinois on my first-ever ballot initiative campaign, the Tax Accountability Amendment. Though polls showed our issue with 75 percent public support, the Illinois supreme court unceremoniously tossed it off the ballot. I was pretty bummed.
Sipping strong coffee, bitterly scouring the news, my eye caught a full-page newspaper advertisement with a small picture of a regular-looking fellow next to a big, bold headline (borrowed from the 1976 movie, Network): “I’M MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE.”
Citizen Gargan had pulled $50,000 out of his retirement funds to purchase those first six full-page advertisements in six different major daily newspapers. He dedicated them to his grandkids: Evan, Eric and Lindsey.
And to our grandchildren, too.
The ad did not mince words, taking politicians in Congress to task for “arrogantly [voting] themselves the biggest pay raise in history,” having “abetted” the “S&L ripoff,” and “screwed senior citizens” by raiding the Social Security Trust Fund, and, perhaps most of all, for turning the United States into “the world’s biggest debtor nation.”
In a whole newspaper page crammed with gray text, Jack Gargan declared what everyone already knew but hadn’t quite articulated: Congress had become “gutless” . . . in no small part because politicians “sell their soul for another term in office.”
My nerve wasn’t the only one touched. Hundreds of thousands of Americans contributed to allow his all-volunteer organization — Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out (THRO) — to run, as Wikipedia records it, “633 full-page newspaper advertisements in nearly every major newspaper in the nation.”
“Here’s one citizen who on his own — and mind you, he had no help from any advertising agency,” Lionel Kunst, national co-chair of the Coalition to End the Permanent Congress, said of Gargan, “he wrote one of the most effective ads I’ve ever seen in this country.”
That newspaper ad served as the opening salvo for the term limits movement, and shows why Jack was often dubbed “the father of the term limits movement.”
THRO had two central goals: (1) Throw every incumbent member of the U.S. Congress out of office, and (2) Impose term limits on future U.S. Representatives and Senators.
Jack was nothing if not straightforward.
In 1990, three states also passed term limits ballot initiatives, with Colorado becoming the first to limit its congressional delegation as well as state lawmakers. Two years later, voters in 14 states — including Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio — enacted state term limits measures, each imposing a limit on their federal representatives in Washington, D.C. Jack was quite active in the effort in his home state of Florida.
The number of states with congressional term limits would grow to 23 by 1995, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not impose such restrictions in the case U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton.
Gargan’s impact wasn’t limited to Congress. In 1991, as Richard Winger’s Ballot Access News notes, Jack started the “Draft Perot for President” effort, ultimately convincing billionaire businessman Ross Perot to enter the race for president in 1992. Perot went on to win 19 percent, nearly one of every five votes nationwide — the highest percentage for an independent or third-party candidate since 1912, when then-former President Teddy Roosevelt won 28 percent of the vote as the Progressive Party nominee.
Years later, Gargan would become the second chairman of the Reform Party and run for Congress under that party label, in the process setting the record for the highest percentage vote (33.7%) for a third-party candidate federal office.
He had a long and productive career as a financial planner. Though, there too, he found some need for reform.
“In 1984, angry over the ease with which charlatans were able to register as authorized financial planners Gargan submitted his dog, Beauregard, for membership in the International Association for Financial Planning,” reports Wikipedia. “The half-Schnauser, half-poodle received a membership card in the name Boris ‘Bo’ Regaard, CFP, CLU Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Life Underwriter. This was publicized in over 3,000 media outlets. It led to the demise of that once-powerful organization.”
Jack was a rascal to rascals. That’s true enough. And one heckuva nice guy to everyone else.
His conscientious actions in 1990, demanding political accountability, a restoration of citizen control of government, were a much-needed spark. That’s what one person can do.
Thank you, Jack Gargan.