John Anderson Pins His Presidential Future to Lawyer Mitchell Rogovin's Skill

updated 06/16/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/16/1980 01:00AM

As general counsel to the John Anderson for President Committee, Mitchell Rogovin understands his candidate's strategy. "It is simple," says the 50-year-old Washington attorney. "We just get more votes than the other guys." But the tactics to implement that strategy are anything but simple—and Rogovin is presiding over a nationwide team of lawyers and volunteers whose job is to insure that the Illinois congressman is on every ballot in the nation on November 4. Since most state election laws are written to discourage maverick campaigns like Anderson's, the assignment seems impossible. Rogovin disagrees. "Most of the 50 states and the District of Columbia require petitions," he explains. "Nationwide we'll need about 700,000 signatures. If you have the general support John Anderson has, that's relatively easy."

Yet Rogovin admits that his client is trying something no one has ever dared. Unlike single-issue candidate Eugene McCarthy or third-party candidate George Wallace, Anderson has launched an independent presidential campaign by voter petition. The attempt will get its first real test when courts rule on Rogovin's lawsuits in five states (see box) where Anderson has missed the filing deadline. "There's no question that our biggest fights will be in those states," Rogovin says. A total of 52 electoral votes, out of 538 needed for election, are involved. Even if he wins those battles, Rogovin will face a complicated thicket of regulations elsewhere. In Washington State Anderson must stage a one-day nominating convention drawing at least 159 people. In Virginia he is obliged to name a running mate by September 5. "The one thing you can't generalize about is ballot access," Rogovin says. "Each state is peculiar."

Carter and Reagan loyalists will vie to keep Anderson off the ballot in some states. "We recognize that both major parties are not hospitable to our candidacy," Rogovin says, "especially in states with a large number of electoral votes." Anderson's organizers are trying to collect up to 50 percent more signatures than are required, and Rogovin's volunteer lawyers hope to fend off challenges to their validity. The first will probably come from Carter supporters in New York, where Anderson could draw heavy liberal support from the President. With all his legal troubles, Rogovin last month challenged the U.S. Postal Service in court for allowing the two major party candidates to mail campaign literature for 3.2 cents apiece—while charging Anderson 8.4 cents. The Democratic and Republican parties are granted bulk rates under a 1980 law.

As Rogovin sees it, his efforts on Anderson's behalf are part of making history, which he has often done since graduating from the University of Virginia Law School in 1954. He entered government service as a fledgling lawyer for the IRS and left it in 1968 as Assistant Attorney General. In 1971 he successfully defended New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan in the Pentagon Papers case, and during Watergate sued CREEP on behalf of Common Cause. Ex-Marine Rogovin also works for the Establishment. He has recently completed a report for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the Three Mile Island incident, and during William Colby's tenure as CIA director he was the agency's chief counsel. His most flamboyant client has been Ian Schrager, co-owner of Studio 54, who testified that he had heard White House aide Hamilton Jordan had used cocaine at the now-closed disco. "Just because the special prosecutor's report said there was insufficient evidence to indict Mr. Jordan does not mean that Mr. Schrager was lying," Rogovin says. "I believe my client." (Schrager is now serving three and a half years for federal tax evasion.)

Rogovin has known John Anderson for seven years, since their offspring began socializing in junior high school. Rogovin's wife and two of their three children changed their registration to Republican to vote for Anderson in the D.C. primary. Mitchell remained a Democrat, he says, "out of sloth." He found his old suspicions about the GOP died hard. "When Anderson became an independent," says Rogovin, "I felt more relaxed about his campaign." In the so-far-unlikely event of an Anderson administration, campaign insiders predict Rogovin would be named either chief of staff or Attorney General. He is working without fee and charging the Anderson organization only $95 an hour (instead of the regular $160) for his firm's contributions. Rogovin says the experience is invaluable. "As a lawyer, it's an excellent opportunity to blend constitutional law with the most significant issue of the day—who's going to be President in the next four years."

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