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In Minnesota, It May Be a Hard Sell for an Independent

Post-Jesse Ventura, Tim Penny must show voters a third-party governor can get things done.

October 13, 2002|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

MILACA, Minn. -- The candidate is strolling through the senior citizens center, looking to shake some hands. But the white-haired men and women bent over their quarters are playing cards too intently to pay him much heed.

Then Don Murray bounds up -- 80 years old and flamboyantly exuberant.

"Hey!" he booms, clapping the candidate on the back. "So you're Jesse's buddy, eh?"

Tim Penny's meet-and-greet smile tightens. "Well," he says, "I am the independent candidate for governor."

In Minnesota these days, that is a delicate position indeed. Penny is running to succeed Gov. Jesse Ventura, the ex-wrestler-in-pink-boa who has specialized in promoting his outrageous persona, to the embarrassment of many constituents.

As an advisor -- and yes, friend -- to the governor, Penny hopes to capitalize on Ventura's reputation for blunt talk, decisive action and devil-may-care independence. Yet he also has to prove that a third-party governor can get things done.

Ventura was elected -- on the Reform Party ticket, although he later defected to the Independence Party -- in part because voters delighted in his disdain for partisan politics. They found out, however, that a governor who gleefully body-slammed both parties could barely advance his agenda.

So, in an odd twist, this year's Independence candidate is campaigning as the ultimate insider.

Penny served 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before resigning in 1994 with a scathing denunciation of Washington politics. This time around, he reminds voters at every stop that he and his running mate, state Sen. Martha Robertson, are seasoned politicians: he a former Democrat, she an ex-Republican.

Penny, 50, positions himself as the "sensible center," above the partisan fray. He travels the state in the "Common Cents Express," a low-rent orange-and-black minibus with a cracked windshield and seriously deficient shock absorbers. He boasts that his campaign is cheap by necessity (he won't take political action committee money) and old-fashioned out of principle (he refuses to hire pollsters).

But although he has all the trappings of an upstart outsider, Penny never stops pushing the message that he and Robertson know how to work the system. As he puts it: "We know the players. We know the programs. And we can get things done."

His opponents say that's bunk. No matter how experienced, a third-party governor will have trouble corralling legislators to back him on difficult decisions, they argue. And with the state facing a $2-billion budget deficit, difficult decisions await.

"A third-party governor is a failed experiment. It was fun and entertaining when everyone had money and jobs," said state Sen. Roger Moe, 58, the Democratic candidate. "But when times got tough, when [Ventura] had to govern, when he had to build coalitions, he failed."

State Rep. Tim Pawlenty, 41, the GOP candidate, echoes that. Spokesman Peter Hong said: "We've had the ultimate case of tri-partisan gridlock. It's time for Minnesota to get out of neutral and pick a direction."

"The people who pushed Jesse so much said he'd be a good go-between with the two parties in the Legislature. But he treated the legislators like clowns," Princeton Mayor Brian Humphrey said. "He wasn't an honest broker."

Humphrey is leaning toward supporting Pawlenty. "I guess I'm a party person," he said, sounding almost regretful that he could not in good conscience call himself an independent.

But across the state, even the most zealous "party people" are beginning to take Penny's campaign seriously. Polls show him running roughly even with Moe and Pawlenty; the race is, at this point, a three-way tie. And though just 8% of Minnesota voters identify themselves as independent, 57% believe the state is "better off" with "more than two strong political parties," according to a recent poll by the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper.

John Brandl, for instance, is a lifelong Democrat, yet the former state legislator plans to vote for Penny. "I know all three candidates and they're all responsible, good people," he said. "But the hold that special interest groups have on politicians is a major problem, and Penny has a chance to break the mold."

A large part of Penny's appeal is that he's no Ventura: Earnest and intense, he listens more than he talks.

On the campaign trail, Penny can happily spend an hour discussing arcane finance issues with a small-town mayor -- leaving himself just three minutes to meet potential voters on Main Street. When he addresses groups, his shoulders hunch and his voice tends to trail into a mumble.

That's a major plus to voters like Kristan Dye, who directs the Chamber of Commerce in the rural town of Mora. "As long as he doesn't stick his foot in his mouth and doesn't wear a boa, we're fine with the idea of a third-party governor," she said.

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