Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny has picked state Sen. Martha Robertson, R-Minnetonka, as his running mate. Robertson says she's switching to the IP in order to present a centrist alternative to Minnesota voters. Her announcement comes on the same day that another Republican senator -- Sheila Kiscaden of Rochester -- bucked the GOP for the Independence Party. But Republican officials say they're not worried the announcements represent any sort of trend.
Tim Penny knows something about switching parties. The former six-term congressman had been a life-long Democrat before switching late last month to the Independence Party. The move came after Gov. Jesse Ventura and state IP officials publicy courted him to jump into the race. Penny says the combination of him and Robertson should appeal to voters who have grown weary of traditional partisan positions.
"A former Democratic legislator, a Republican legislator -- both with moderate records, both with an independent streak, both who feel passionately about the 60 to 65 percent of Minnesotans who are somewhere in the sensible center," he said.
Robertson has served in the state Senate for 10 years and has often clashed with local party officials over her views on education funding and her support for the Profile of Learning graduation standards.
This year, she was denied party endorsement for the seat she currently holds. Robertson says the Republican Party has swung too far to the right, and is no longer a welcoming environment for moderates.
"There is a message of intolerance as it relates to the issues of being anti-choice, about being anti-gay, about being anti-Indian, about being anti-standards in education -- in many instances being anti-light rail and -transit," she said.
Penny and Robertson, however, will still face a challenge for the IP banner. Their most prominent opponent is Children, Families, and Learning Commissioner Christine Jax -- another DFL defector -- who has yet to name a running mate. Jax has also spoken of the need for a middle way between the traditional DFL and GOP positions.
That sentiment gained more momentum when a second Republican lawmaker jumped ship. State Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, R-Rochester, says Penny's decision to run with the Independence Party is encouraging other disaffected lawmakers to join the third-party movement.
"They end up on Gilligan's Island with the Skipper being Gov. Ventura and his little buddy, Tim Penny."
- Bill Walsh, GOP spokesman
"I know that I'm not the only person who's comtemplating this change. I know that there's several other moderate Republicans that I've had conversations with that will be making their own announcements in the coming week. And I think that there's some Democrats that are looking at this as well," she said.
Kiscaden and IP officials declined to discuss what other politicians may be considering a party switch, but the state Republican Party doesn't seem overly concerned.
Spokesman Bill Walsh says the defections of Robertson and Kiscaden from the GOP don't necessarily signal new strength for the Independence Party.
"It's the castaway party. I mean, a lot of these folks have not had success in their own parties and have been cast away, and they end up on Gilligan's Island with the Skipper being Gov. Ventura and his little buddy, Tim Penny. And now we have Martha Robertson maybe being Maryann," he said.
But IP officials say their success in drawing Penny, Jax, Robertson, Kiscaden -- and maybe others -- shows the party has finally hit its stride.
Nancy Jorgenson, the party's chair pro-tem and a former Democrat, She says the GOP has lost touch with most Minnesota voters. "It's a good indication that they're not willing to budge from the far right. You know, they have to look and take a more centrist approach. And if they want to call us a party of Gilligan's Island, hey, my island's got plenty of room," she said.
But Republican spokesman Walsh says the party is more than willing to accomodate moderates who support the party on at least some of the its marquee issues. However, he says the party has a platform for reason.
"When you're not with us on abortion, which is an important issue, when you're not with on the Second Amendment rights and gun control, when you're not with on education reform like the Profile of Learning, when you're not with us on tax-and-spend and financial issues, what have we got left? I mean, how big does the tent have to be?" Walsh said.
The Penny-Robertson ticket -- if it survives this week's endorsement contest and potential primary challenges -- is expected to face the DFL team of Roger Moe and Julie Sabo, the GOP pairing of Tim Pawlenty and Carol Molnau, and Green Party candidate Ken Pentel. Pentel has yet to name a running mate.More from MPR