In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Independence Party Challenge
by Amy Radil
March 6, 2000
Part of MPR's Campaign 2000 coverage
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

Minnesota's Reform Party seceded from the national party this weekend, days before precinct caucuses mark the official kickoff of the campaign season. By an overwhelming margin, Reform Party members voted to follow Governor Jesse Ventura out of the national party, rename themselves the Independence Party, and focus on fielding statewide candidates for office. But the splintering process isn't over; a core of activists say they'll reestablish the Reform Party to keep ties to Ross Perot's national group.
Reform Party Chairman Rick McCluhan casts his vote to disassociate from the national party and form the Independence Party of Minnesota.
Photo: Amy Radil

THE GOVERNOR wasn't in attendance as 200 Reform Party members gathered at Metropolitan State University Saturday to follow in his footsteps. Ventura has kept his distance from party activists and has not promised the new party his support. But Ventura's rejection of Ross Perot's political party over what he calls its dysfunctional leadership and its consideration of Pat Buchanan as presidential nominee carried a great deal of weight with those assembled.

State party chair Rick McCluhan urged members to approve the breakaway, holding out hope that they'll someday rejoin. "We were the organization that shocked the world back in November of 1998 with the election of governor Jesse Ventura, and I think given that type of political climate in the state of Minnesota we are almost duty bound to lead the way to hopefully see the national Reform Party get their act together to the point in the future when they may once again become a viable force," McCluhan said.

But some in attendance said Minnesota should stay part of the national party while its problems are sorted out. Longtime Reform Party activist Eileen Corry, decked out in red white and blue and holding a picture of the Governor, said Ventura's departure simply gave the party to Perot and his allies. "The Dallas people are revelling in the fact that Jesse got out," she said. "They're pouring the champagne.The dysfunction in the national party will heal. And by jumping ship we're making Minnesota an island again."

Other speakers expressed similar fears, that by becoming a state party Minnesota members will be consigned to a political backwater, with no input on national issues. But supporters of the break argued the party should focus on gaining influence within the state first. Steve Minn, whom Ventura appointed and the Legislature rejected as Public Service and Commerce commissioner, experienced Ventura's lack of legislative allies firsthand.

"We haven't even got anybody elected to the state Legislature yet," Minn noted. "Unless we start doing that there is no point in even paying attention to distractions at the federal level."

But several speakers hinted at dissatisfaction with state party leaders, and immediately after the vote to secede, some members said they'll maintain a Minnesota chapter of the national Reform Party. Cedric Scofield, a Minnesota member of the national Reform Party's executive board, says he'll hold a Minnesota Reform Party convention this summer. He says the chapter will be made up of Buchanan supporters, and people who want to keep ties to Perot and his party.

Meanwhile, the new Independence Party of Minnesota will turn its attention to helping the campaign of Jim Gibson, the party's candidate for U.S. Senate. Gibson, a software developer, favored the change to the Independence Party. Support for his candidacy seems to be widespread among party members, in contrast to their sparring on other issues and to the crowded field of DFL candidates hoping to take on Republican incumbent Rod Grams.

Gibson's showing in November is crucial for the health of the new Independence Party. He needs to receive more than five percent of the vote for the party to retain major-party status, which insures an automatic ballot listing and allows the party to receive public campaign funds.