Conservative Republicans will take charge of the US Senate as a result of Tuesday’s voting. But the nation’s newest senator, at least for the time being, is not singing from the right-wing songbook on questions of war and peace.
The man chosen to temporarily occupy Paul Wellstone’s seat in the Senate says that he will echo the late Minnesota senator’s opposition to the Bush administration’s approach to war with Iraq.
Dean Barkley, the nation’s newest senator, was sworn in as Minnesota’s interim senator after Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura appointed him to hold the seat that has been vacant since Wellstone died in a plane crash October 25. Barkley will not be a senator for long.
State and federal officials are still debating whether Barkley will be a short-term senator or a very short-term senator. Minnesota law seems to require that Republican Norm Coleman, who on Tuesday narrowly defeated Democrat Walter Mondale be sworn in as soon as he is certified as the winner of the contest in mid-November. However, Senate rules are read by some as suggesting that Barkley should be allowed to serve through early January, when new senators traditionally take their places.
No matter how long his tenure turns out to be, however, Barkley promises to be a feisty independent in the tradition of Ventura, whose 1998 gubernatorial campaign he organized. Barkley was a founder of Minnesota’s Reform Party, which evolved into the Independence Party with which he and Ventura are both affiliated.
The new senator describes himself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, but that shorthand does not begin to describe the complex player who has made a career trying to upset the two-party system in Minnesota. Barkley first earned a measure of national attention as a prominent backer of Ross Perot’s 1992 Reform Party presidential bid, and a Reform Party candidate for the House and the Senate in 1992, 1994 and 1996. (Barkley’s 1994 Senate bid secured 5.4 percent of the vote, winning “major party” status for the Reformers under Minnesota election law. That designation assured Ventura a place in the 1998 gubernatorial debates and access to public financing for that year’s campaign.)
Barkley’s political roots run much deeper, however — all the way back to the politics of protest in the early 1970s. Raised in Wright County, in the same rural Minnesota region that former Vice President Hubert Humphrey was from, Barkley grew up to be a Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party precinct coordinator. But in the early 1970s, he broke with the state’s “Humphrey Democrats” to organize Wright County for George McGovern’s antiwar presidential candidacy.
While Barkley moved to the center on many economic issues — a journey that took him out of the DFL by the early 1990s — he remains dubious about military adventurism abroad. Speaking on Minnesota Public Radio after he was selected to fill the Senate seat, Barkley said he shared Wellstone’s opposition to granting President Bush a blank check to wage war with Iraq.
Barkley also noted that he greatly respected Wellstone’s independent streak — despite the fact that he had challenged the DFL Senator’s 1996 reelection bid — and recalled that they had worked closely on campaign finance and government ethics issues. The new senator said he would keep Wellstone’s staff in place.
Does that mean that, despite his Independence Party membership, Barkley will caucus with Senate Democrats? Not necessarily. Despite calls from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, Barkley said, “I don’t really care which party controls the US Senate.”
The Minnesotan said he would try to work closely with the Senate’s other independent member, Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, who talked at length with Barkley on Monday. Jeffords joined Wellstone and 21 other senators in voting against the Iraq war resolution last month.
Barkley’s mentor in Washington will be former US Senator Lowell Weicker. He says he’ll be staying at Weicker’s Virginia home throughout his short tenure in the Senate.
Weicker, it should be recalled, served in Washington as a liberal Republican from Connecticut until he lost his seat in a campaign that saw Democrat Joe Lieberman run to his right. Weicker later left the party and was elected governor of Connecticut as an independent, third-party candidate. An old ally of Jeffords, Weicker has been a frequent critic of conservative policies advanced by the Senate Republican leadership and the Bush administration.