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Abortion - front and center in Penny campaign
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
June 28, 2002

Former DFL Congressman Tim Penny, who this week decided leave the DFL and run for governor under the Independence Party banner, now finds himself a lightning rod in the abortion debate. Advocates on both sides of the issue consider the governor's office a linchpin for the success or failure of abortion measures at the state Legislature. While Penny says he's searching for middle ground on the issue, so far he's only managed to draw criticisms and questions from both sides of the debate.

Tim Penny
Former First District Congressman Tim Penny announced Thursday he's leaving the DFL to run under the Independence Party banner for governor. Penny is positioning himself as a centrist candidate, and in so doing is already attracting criticisms from both sides of the abortion issue.
AUDIO: Listen to Laura McCallum's interview with Penny, recorded on June 27, 2002. (Listen)

(MPR Photo/Rob Schmitz)

Throughout his 12 years in the U.S. Congress, Penny had generally been regarded as moderate Democrat - one with a clear opposition to abortion. But Penny says he's never allied himself with either side of the debate and has struggled with the issue in what he calls the "conflicted center." He says he'd rather focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies than on changing current laws regulating legal abortions.

"First and foremost, abortion is a tragedy for society. But it is more importantly a tragedy for each and every woman faced with this God-awful decision. And so for that reason, I have come to the conclusion that we support the law of the land here. And that needs to be maintained. That right to choose will be maintained," Penny says.

"Tim Penny used to be pro-life. Now he's totally gone to the pro-abortion side," says Scott Fischbach, executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group.

Fischbach says he's particularly troubled by Penny's stance on the so-called "woman's right to know" legislation, which creates a 24-hour waiting period during which women seeking an abortion would be required to digest information on risks and alternatives.

Penny says he supports arming women with as much information as possible, but that it's an insult to require them to delay the procedure for 24 hours. Fischbach calls that position "pro-abortion rhetoric."

"The 24-hour provision has been part of the legislation since the conception of the legislation," says Fischbach. "So Tim Penny's position today - and very much opposed to where he's been over the last 20 years in public life - he is opposed to "woman's right to know."

"It will not make the activists on either side entirely happy."

- IP gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny, on his position on abortion

The state Legislature has passed the "right to know" legislation twice during Gov. Jesse Ventura's tenure. He's vetoed the bill each time, leading Fischbach to conclude that capturing the governor's office is one key to securing passage of the measure.

Tim Stanley agrees. Stanley is the executive director of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Because the next governor will wield considerable influence over the debate, Stanley says he's encouraged to see Penny move towards support of abortion rights.

"I believe that he has done some thinking on this issue - he has evolved on the issue. And we in the pro-choice community take pride in being able to win converts to the issue. But...I do not believe that I can firmly consider him a pro-choice candidate until he really proves it in rhetoric," says Stanley.

Others in the abortion-rights camp take an even more skeptical view. Children, Families, and Learning commissioner Christine Jax is also seeking the IP endorsement. Jax supports abortion rights and says Penny has yet to demonstrate the same committment. Penny freely admits he probably won't attract support from what he calls the extreme sides in the issue - but Jax says there's nothing extreme about protecting abortion rights.

"It is not an extreme issue to say that government should not be in a bedroom or in a doctor's office or in a faith community. A choice issue is an issue involving women's health, privacy, and religious decision," Jax says.

Ventura, who has publicly endorsed Penny's candidacy, faced one of the most dramatic moments of his administration when he was first presented with the "Right to Know" bill. After keeping lawmakers, staff, and the public guessing about how he'd respond, he ultimately vetoed the provision. He's now offering Penny some characteristically plain-spoken advice.

"Simple. Just vote the way you want to vote and ignore all of them," Ventura advises.

But at the time of his first veto, Ventura said he learned the hard way that there's no middle ground in the abortion debate.

More from MPR
  • Profile of Tim Penny
  • Campaign 2002: The race for governor