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Maverick Provided Minnesota a Third-Party Option

November 05, 2002|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- If Jesse Ventura was the body, Dean Barkley was the brains.

A lawyer who once took out a $30,000 second mortgage on his house to pay his campaign bills, Barkley was the maverick candidate who ran over and over again to put a third party on Minnesota's political map. In the 1994 Senate race, he got more than 5% of the vote, giving what is now the Independence Party a claim on public financing. And in 1996, when he got more than 7% of the vote in the Senate campaign that reelected Democrat Paul Wellstone, Barkley opened the door for Ventura.

Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a champion wrestler who became a radio talk-show host, actor, sports commentator and mayor, stunned everyone with his gubernatorial victory in 1998.

"He was greatly surprised and greatly gratified," Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., said of Barkley. "He was the mastermind."

The son of a small-town mayor, Barkley is a Minnesota native. After earning bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Minnesota, he ran a retail furniture company, practiced law and opened a carwash business outside Minneapolis.

"I'm the first former carwash operator to be a U.S. senator," he said after he was appointed by Ventura to fill the seat left vacant by Wellstone's death.

Married with three children -- stepson, Tim; son, Garrett; and daughter, Brooke -- Barkley shielded his family from the rigors of his quixotic campaigns, putting 32,000 miles on a green van in 1996, at times solo.

But his wife, Susan, is credited with encouraging his against-the-odds campaigns. "He's in his element doing this," she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1996. "He's so happy when he's involved in politics."

Barkley, 52, was once a Democrat, but he says he "outgrew it." Galvanized by the 1992 presidential campaign of Reform Party candidate Ross Perot, he developed a disdain for both major parties, and for their methods of campaign financing, which he calls legalized bribery by special interests. "I basically came to the conclusion that Democrats don't know how to say 'no' to spending. They try to buy answers," he said. As for the Republicans, he called their platform "anti-women, anti-gay, anti-choice."

By the time he ran for the Senate in 1996, he was convinced a third party remained a real option. "I can't understand why the electorate won't wake up and stop voting for two parties they don't believe in," he said.

A fiscal conservative who hews to the deficit-busting agenda of the Concord Coalition, Barkley is unlikely, friends say, to favor making President Bush's tax cuts permanent. And, they add, he is not expected to favor the more controversial Bush judicial nominations, since he is a vote for gay rights, abortion rights and civil-service protections. But he is just as likely to part company with Democrats on spending.

"He's a decent guy who's been tilting at huge windmills," said D.J. Leary, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota.

The state has a long tradition of iconoclastic mavericks. This is the state whose progressive tradition produced a Farmer-Labor Party, the perennial presidential candidate Harold E. Stassen and the antiwar movement's Eugene McCarthy, whose 1968 candidacy doomed President Johnson's hopes for reelection.

Even in a progressive state, the unpredictable Ventura has been a jolt, and most expect similar surprises from Barkley. "You can find no point of public difference between them," Schier said. "They share a scorn for big-money politics as usual."

Barkley agreed to the last-minute appointment ceremony timed to interrupt the televised two-party debate between Democrat Walter F. Mondale and Republican Norm Coleman, and Schier thinks he shared Ventura's anger that the independent candidate, Jim Moore, was excluded.

But he suspects Barkley will play better in Washington. "He shares Ventura's resentments, but he doesn't lead with his testosterone," he said.

"It's like that scene in [the movie] 'Animal House' where there's a good angel on one shoulder and a bad angel on the other," said Stephen Frank, a political scientist at St. Cloud State University who co-wrote a biography of Ventura. "Jesse was the bad angel and Dean was the good one."

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