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Candidates gang up on Penny at the State Fair
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
August 30, 2002

The major party candidates for governor reacted positively Friday to news that a new baseball labor agreement will apparently prevent Major League Baseball from eliminating the Minnesota Twins for the next four years. The candidates learned of the tentative agreement shortly before appearing in an Minnesota Public Radio debate at the State Fair. During that forum, Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny found himself the subject of pointed questions. Political insiders consider Penny the frontrunner in the governor's race, two months before the November election. Two of the candidates questioned Penny's ties to Governor Ventura. Penny says he's not in lock step with Ventura, and he called for a special session to help flood victims, something Ventura has been unwilling to do.

Gubernatorial candidates Ken Pentel and Tim Pawlenty.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

While most baseball fans might cheer the news that players and owners avoided a work stoppage, Minnesota politicians might treat the labor agreement as a mixed blessing. The deal all but guarantees the contentious stadium issue will return for the next legislative session.

Still, all four candidates were pleased with the news - and Republican Tim Pawlenty noted that the agreement means no contraction for at least four years. "The good news about all the strike talks was it made baseball be accountable," he said. "And just like big business, big whatever, big baseball needs to be accountable, and these strike discussions actually moved it in that direction, so that's a good development."

Pawlenty, the House majority leader, voted against the stadium bill that passed last session. That measure essentially allowed St. Paul to try to work out an agreement with the Twins, but city leaders and team officials weren't able to reach one.

The Independence Party's Tim Penny says he supports tweaking last session's bill to allow counties, not just cities, to bid for a new stadium: "We have to get Hennepin County in, and doesn't that just kind of take care of it, then? It's as simple as that, I think."

DFLer Roger Moe, the longtime Senate majority leader, also supports allowing Hennepin County to bid for a new ballpark. But Moe says no stadium debate is ever simple: "There's probably the notion that, well, gosh, now, since there's no talk about contraction for a number of years, maybe the pressure's off - I disagree, I think that we should continue to move ahead on this. I don't think it puts the Viking-Gopher debate ahead of this now or anything like that. I think we should just continue to meter on the way we've been going."

The Green Party's Ken Pentel - a former environmental lobbyist - says he'd consider a baseball bill only after issues such as homelessness, energy policy and universal health care are addressed.

"I love the Twins, in the sense that I hope they win the World Series, but we need to take care of public business, not private business. I don't want public money or time going into dealing with the private business of baseball anymore," Pentel said.

Gubernatorial candidates Roger Moe and Tim Penny.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

The stadium issue didn't come up during the one-hour debate, which was dominated by talk of education and questions for Penny. Penny is viewed by the other campaigns as the frontrunner in the race, and the other candidates are starting to raise questions about his record. Penny served in Congress for 12 years as a Democrat, and left the DFL this year after Governor Ventura urged him to run for governor in the Independence Party.

"Tim, I read where you and the governor have struck a deal whereby the governor is going to be your ambassador over the next four years, using the public..." Moe started his question for Penny. But he was interrupted by laughter as the audience responded to Penny, who was holding up an orange sign that read "Not True" on one side, and "Distortion" on the other.

Penny said he wanted to bring "truth on a stick" to the fair. "Campaigns get into misleading information and distortions and overstatements and sound bites and scare tactics and I don't like that piece of politics. But it happens," he said.

Penny says he did talk to Governor Ventura about occasionally going along on overseas trade missions, if Penny is elected governor. Penny says Ventura is an international celebrity who brings attention and business to Minnesota. He says Ventura wouldn't be on the state payroll, or be in a Penny cabinet.

Pawlenty continued the theme by asking Penny if he'd call a special session for flood relief: "And you're Governor Ventura's most trusted advisor - or one of them - why haven't you exercised some leadership? Why haven't you exercised some leadership and called upon the governor to call a special session to get some emergency relief into northwestern Minnesota? We need leaders, we don't need Governor Maybe."

Penny says he is not Ventura's most trusted advisor. He says he's one of several people who advise the governor on policy matters only about three times a year.

Ventura has said he won't call a special session unless lawmakers come up with a way to pay for flood relief. Penny says he disagrees with the governor on this issue, and he would call a special session. "We are not identical," Penny said. "The governor and I are obviously from different background, different personalities, different political styles, and my approach on this issue would be different."

Even Pentel targeted Penny, challenging him to explain the positions he took while working for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Some of the audience members were less interested in Penny's ties to the governor, and more concerned about Penny's approach to balancing the budget. The state is expected to face another budget deficit of at least $1.6 billion in the next two-year budget cycle.

Wendy Swanson-Choi of Apple Valley asked the candidates if they'd cut education funding to balance the budget. All said no, although Penny said he won't overpromise during a campaign. He told Swanson-Choi that while he won't cut education spending, everything should be on the table: "It means that we look at the funding formula, well it means that we look at other aspects."

"So the funding formula is on the table?" Swanson-Choi asked. Penny responded: "In terms of the rate of increase, it is! In terms of a rate of increase, it is. We're not talking about reductions, or quote-unquote 'cuts', but we're looking at every part of the budget."

Swanson-Choi asked whether Penny would include inflationary increases in his education budget."Well, it depends on, what's the rate of inflation? Is it three-percent, is it four-percent, is it five-percent?" Penny replied.

Swanson-Choi said she's not completely satisfied with Penny's answer. She says after working to pass a levy referendum in her school district last year, she's not interested in having to pass another one if the general education formula isn't adequately funded.

Another audience member, Deb Walsh of St. Paul, says the debate might have persuaded her to vote for Penny. "I was undecided between Moe and Penny, and I think that Penny will add a fresh face," she said. "I think Roger Moe has done some wonderful things, but I think it's Tim Penny's time to step up to the plate."

Walsh says her only concern about Penny is his association with Ventura. During the debate, Ventura was campaigning for Penny in another part of the fair.

More from MPR
  • Audio: Listen to the entire debate Midday - 8/30/02
  • Campaign 2002: The race for governor