Independent’s Day

Independent’s Day

Minnesota’s Dean Barkley represents a movement with a strong state foothold.

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Dean Barkley has been trying to get into the US Senate from Minnesota since 1994, when he ran for the office as a third-party candidate. While that campaign didn’t succeed, it did get major-party status for Barkley’s fledgling Independence Party by virtue of his getting a little more than 5 percent of the vote, and it laid the groundwork for Jesse Ventura’s election four years later as the state’s first third-party governor since 1938. Barkley, who was Ventura’s campaign chairman, was appointed to run the state department of planning, from which he kept a close hand on Ventura’s political moves and fought to reinvent state government. Four years later, he was getting ready to return to the private sector as Ventura’s term in office wound down. But the temperamental governor, in a final fit of political pique over being booed at the memorial rally for Senator Paul Wellstone, broke a promise to state Democrats and decided to appoint his friend Barkley to fill out Wellstone’s unfinished term, which runs into January.

So now Barkley is in the Senate for two months; a rare, true independent in this most political of capitals. He is a modest man who has no illusions about how he got there or the extent of his temporary mandate. “Paul and I had a very good relationship,” Barkley said in an interview the afternoon of the Senate’s final vote on the Homeland Security bill. “I refused to sit in his chair when I first got here. I made them take his chair out.” (He was given a new one.) Lacking the real clout he would have had if the Senate had been evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans after Election Day, Barkley did his best to maximize his leverage and balance his choices. He avoided caucusing with either party, while taking counsel from Vermont’s independent Senator James Jeffords and from Lowell Weicker, former independent governor of Connecticut.

The question is whether Barkley will be a mere asterisk, to be forgotten like those long-lost Senate ledgers recently unearthed in a back office, or whether the independent centrist politics he has fought for has a future in Minnesota or anywhere else. Election Day, after all, was not very kind to the Independence Party of Minnesota. Its top statewide candidate, Tim Penny, a former moderate Democratic Congressman from the southeastern part of the state, started his run to replace Ventura tied or even leading in some three-way polls. But Penny managed only 16 percent of the vote, less than half of Ventura’s showing in 1998. And despite fielding thirty-nine candidates for the state legislature, including several incumbents who switched their party affiliation, the IP ended up electing just one state senator, a former Republican incumbent.

Barkley argues, with some justification, that Penny would have done better if the Wellstone rally hadn’t reinforced the partisan leanings of many voters. But he also blames Penny’s own campaign. “I don’t think he really understood independent voters and what they’re looking for,” he told me. “He didn’t sell himself to the Ventura voter.” Bill Hillsman, the ad whiz who has worked for Wellstone, Ventura and Ralph Nader, added, “Penny doesn’t exactly inspire people and light them up, either. In fact, you always have the sense that Penny is lecturing you or hectoring you, and he just expects you to anoint him because he knows so much more than you do.”

Despite Penny’s poor showing, the IP has carved out a real foothold in state politics. Minnesotans seem quite comfortable with the multiparty system that has evolved in their state since its rise; by a margin of 57 to 34 percent, they say the state is “better off with more than two strong political parties,” according to a Star Tribune poll from late September. The fact that the IP’s slate of legislative candidates got, on average, 11 percent of the vote–a modest increase over the 9 percent average in 2000, when thirty-five ran–is another sign that a bloc of voters have begun to align their political identities around the IP. Like the Greens of New Mexico, the Progressives of Vermont and the Working Families Party of New York, the IPers of Minnesota can now claim a real base.

But it’s not clear that a third alternative can grow simply by appealing to what the party’s website calls “the sensible center,” a place where “single issue” interest-group politics has been supposedly banned (by the party’s rejection of PAC money) and candidates focus on representing the actual voters in their districts with an “inclusive problem-solving approach that involves the best people (e.g., educators, scientists and business or religious leaders) without regard to political leanings.” The issues the IP’s one elected legislator highlights are a balanced state budget that keeps K-12 education a funding priority, privacy protection for private financial and medical records, expansion of a local university, “laws and services that respect and nurture families [and] consumer-centered, cost-efficient public services.”

Even in the land of “Minnesota nice,” this is scarcely a platform to excite disaffected voters, especially the under-40 types who streamed out of the bars and gyms to vote for Ventura four years ago because they were attracted to his working-class populism, in addition to social liberalism and fiscal conservatism. Barkley insists that “as long as the two parties maintain their partisanship and big money baloney that they do, we can build.” But he admits that the IP hasn’t developed much of an infrastructure, despite Ventura’s four years in office. Why? “It’s hard to organize moderates and independents who don’t like being political,” he answers. “Independents are sick of politics; it’s harder to get them to write a check or do something.”

Barkley himself exemplifies the Independence Party’s curious mix of Venturan populism and cautious centrism. He’s sure that when it comes to political and campaign finance reform, the party has an issue that can’t be easily co-opted by the major parties. And he’s right. But much of his time, he touts the ability of a centrist “to listen to both sides, get the good ideas, come to a consensus and get things done–rather than us versus them, win at all costs.”

So far, he’s been mostly a mild-mannered moderate, not a fiery populist. In the scant week and a half that the lame-duck Senate met, he voted for the Republican Homeland Security bill and against a Democratic amendment that would have stripped out several offensive special-interest provisions. He told me he was disgusted by those provisions, but felt it was more important to get the underlying reorganization of government rolling. With a politician’s eye on his home state’s needs, he wasn’t averse to using the partisan fight over that vote to extract a special waiver from the White House that will allow Minnesota to continue its welfare-to-work programs. At the same time, uncomfortable with seeming to be in the Republicans’ camp, he was glad to be able to vote later the same day with the Democrats in an effort to block one of Bush’s right-wing judicial appointees.

Though the lame-duck Senate is done for the year, Barkley is hoping to make a major statement on political reform before he hands in his Senate pass. The issues he cites–deregulating the two-party duopoly, third-party access to debates, public financing of elections, Election Day voter registration, proportional representation, breaking the power of special interests–are certainly ripe for some hellraising. If Barkley keeps pounding on those themes, he and his Independence Party will continue to matter. If not, file this one under historical footnotes.

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