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. …