Former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny said Thursday he is leaving the Democratic Party to run for governor on the Independence Party ticket, a move encouraged by retiring Gov. Jesse Ventura. But Penny will face a challenge for the IP nomination. And if he succeeds there, he'll face a crowded field in November.
"I'm ready, I'm running," Penny said.
"All in all, in my heart, serving Minnesota is what gets me out of bed in the morning - even in the seven years since leaving elective office," Penny said.
One of his motivations for running, Penny said, was the bitter partisanship he saw in the Legislature last session, which reminded him of what he'd left behind in Washington
Penny was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 1982, representing the Republican-leaning southeast corner of the state as a moderate Democrat. He attracted attention as a deficit hawk during his years in Washington before stepping down in 1994. Since then, he's been active in public policy forums and flirted with a run for the U.S. Senate in 2000.
Last week, while discussing a potential gubernatorial bid, he charted a strategy to capture the same centrists the Ventura courted in 1998. "I'm the candidate that's in the sensible center. And that will appeal to moderates in both political parties. But most importantly it appeals to that 50 to 60 percent of the electorate that stubbornly refuses to identify with either party. And they need representation, too," he said.
A Star Tribune of Minneapolis poll released Thursday found Penny, Pawlenty and Moe virtually even in public support.
Pawlenty was favored by 26 percent of the 812 likely voters surveyed June 20-24, while Penny and Moe were the choice of 25 percent each. Pentel got 5 percent. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Penny drew support evenly from DFL and GOP voters and was the favorite of moderates and independents. Penny's 74 percent name recognition was slightly higher than Pawlenty's 72 percent. Moe had 86 percent name recognition.
Penny has had informal ties to Minnesota's Independence Party for years, and served as a mentor of sorts during the early days of Ventura's administration.
State Planning Director and IP activist Dean Barkley says he first met Penny in the mid-'80s, and was immediately impressed by the then-congressman's honesty and candor.
"Tim is definitely a consensus builder and what I call a true, centrist moderate. He's pragmatic. He's intelligent. He's experienced. And I think he's got impeccable integrity," according to Barkley.
Penny has the backing of many of the Independence Party's most visible leaders: Ventura, Barkley, and state party chair Jack Uldrich. But winning the party's endorsement next month isn't a sure shot. He'll face at least one challenger in Children, Families, and Learning Commissioner Christine Jax. Jax left the DFL earlier this week to seek the IP endorsement, and she says she differs from Penny on one key issue: abortion. Jax says she, like Ventura, would oppose attempts to create a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions - a measure known as the "Woman's Right to Know" bill by supporters and by something less flattering by opponents.
"Gov. Ventura had to veto the "Women are Stupid" bill," she said on MPR's Midday Wednesday (Listen). "And I would veto that as well. I don't think in all elections the choice issue should be the issue that's defining. But if you're in a state as we are where a veto matters then it needs to be a defining issue."
Penny's record on abortion is mixed. He voted against legislation that would deny federal funding to clinics that offer abortion counseling, but he voted for bills that prohibit direct federal funding for abortions for armed services personnel, prison inmates, and D.C. residents.
Penny is expected to clarify his position on abortion rights as the campaign builds, but his potential opponents say he's already left his fingerprints on the issue.
"Tim left the Democratic Party in reality in the '80s. Tim was an active supporter of Newt Gingrich's Contract for America, supported Newt Gingrich on abortion, supported Newt Gingrich on the effort to give tax breaks to the richest two percent of Americans. So he hasn't been part of Democratic politics for... I'd say almost 15 years," notes Pat Forciea, the campaign manager for DFL endorsee Roger Moe.
Penny supporters, however, say it's not surprising to see Democrats portray Penny as a defector. Former GOP congressman Vin Weber served with Penny in D.C., and the two currently co-direct the Humphrey Institute Policy Forum at the University of Minnesota.
Weber, who is supporting Republican gubernatorial endorsee Tim Pawlenty, says Penny is only attempting to address public policy objectively, without regard for partisan politics.
"Tim Penny has not been keeping his light under a barrel, if you will, about this issue for a long time. He has tried to warn the Democratic Party and send alerts to them since the Congress," Weber said.
Penny, Jax, and other IP hopefuls will meet in St. Cloud next month to battle for the party's endorsement, and could continue the fight into a September primary. The winner would face Moe, Pawlenty, and Green Party candidate Ken Pentel.More from MPR