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Serious about issues: Ken Pentel profile
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
September 17, 2002


Green Party gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel says Gov. Ventura's surprise victory four years ago shows he has a chance to win this year. Pentel is making his second gubernatorial bid, after getting less than one percent of the vote in 1998. This time, he's included in the debates and will get nearly $240,000 in public financing.

Ken Pentel makes guacamole at the Tejas Express Booth at the Minnesota State Fair, with proceeds going toward the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Pentel also has about 10 years of experience as a waiter under his belt and jokes that he's been preparing to serve long before running for governor.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

This is Ken Pentel's second run for governor, but he still faces an uphill battle in educating voters about his campaign. As he worked the crowd at the state fair, most of the fairgoers he introduced himself to hadn't heard of him.

Pentel talked to a couple of women from north Minneapolis, who are concerned about the recent disturbance in their neighborhood. The conversation allowed Pentel to bring up one of his key issues - economic injustice.

"I think there's a lot of pressure boiling in the north side, there's been about 30-40 years of no capital investment, and so we have a situation where there has been economic stress growing," he said.

Aurora Morafka told Pentel that there aren't even any grocery stores in their neighborhood. "No gas stations, nothing. They had a McDonald's there right around maybe about 15 years ago - they actually literally knocked it down because it kept getting robbed and robbed and people kept getting beaten up," she said.

Morafka says she hadn't heard of Pentel, but says she'll keep an open mind about his campaign.

Even while shaking hands at the fair, Pentel usually comes across as intense, serious about the issues, and committed to the ideals of the Green Party: livable-wage jobs, a clean environment, universal health care and sustainable agriculture.

Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmerman met Pentel through Green Party politics in the mid '90s. "With Ken Pentel, what he says is more important, really, than who he is."

Zimmerman says Pentel is motivated entirely by the issues. He says Pentel isn't in politics for personal gain. "He's not a wrestler, he's not anything flamboyant, but his real concern is the average working person out there in the world," Zimmerman says.

Pentel may not be a wrestler, but he has more entertainment experience than any of the other candidates. Pentel grew up in Minneapolis, where his dad owned a car dealership -- Pentel Pontiac -- and his mom was an employment counselor.

Pentel graduated from Hopkins High School. His older brother, Tom, says Pentel is a talented performer who was in plays when he was growing up.

"He's always been interested in theater and creative arts and singing, and Ken would always just sort of break out into song a lot of times," he recalled recently.

After high school, Pentel studied theater at the University of Minnesota for a couple of years, and then moved to California, intending to go into show business.

"I like singing, I like dancing, I like acting, things like that. And the first day I drove into Los Angeles with my mother, actually, we were driving in from the valley, into Los Angeles, and the sky was filled with clouds. And they just didn't look like normal clouds... She said, 'they aren't, they're pollution,'" Pentel says.

With that, Pentel became interested in the environmental movement. He says he never seriously pursued his show business dreams, although he did some improvisational theater while in California. He worked as a waiter, and jokes that he was preparing to serve long before running for governor.

Pentel asked Rhoda Gilman to be his running mate this year, and she accepted. "My first reaction was, 'Ken, you know I'm 75 years old.' He said that was all right, I had a lot of experience, and that wasn't going to make any difference to him," she says.

Pentel says he also thought about going into real estate, and moved to Florida briefly. He came back to the Twin Cities in 1986, opened the newspaper and saw that Greenpeace had opened an office in Minnesota.

"I had known a little bit about Greenpeace, not a lot, but enough to go in, and I got a job right away and started knocking on doors. And that's been it, ever since; it's been basically my main purpose in life is to learn about and educate people on the threats to our living planet," Pentel says.

Pentel worked for Greenpeace for 11 years, as a field manager, volunteer organizer and lobbyist. He lobbied unsuccessfully against a bill to allow highly radioactive nuclear waste to be stored in casks outside the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant in Red Wing. It remains one of the issues he is most passionate about.

"One of the most important resources in the state of Minnesota is the Mississippi River. And any governor that stands by and tolerates the most lethal material in the world being produced on your most precious resource, to me is not acting in the best interest of the state of Minnesota," he says.

While Pentel was lobbying against the Prairie Island bill, he met Rhoda Gilman, an historian who was also opposed to the bill. Gilman says Pentel struck her as a rising star in the environmental movement.

"That he was a very articulate, clear-thinking fellow. I guess I would have pegged him as a potential political candidate, although I wasn't thinking in those terms at the time," she says.

Pentel asked Gilman to be his running mate this year, and she accepted. "My first reaction was, 'Ken, you know I'm 75 years old.' He said that was all right, I had a lot of experience, and that wasn't going to make any difference to him," she says.

Pentel is 41. Gilman describes him as a workhorse with enormous energy and a deep-felt love for nature. His critics say he's so liberal he's out of touch with the mainstream. "I think if Ken Pentel were elected, we'd all be eating tofu and riding unicycles."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty is Pentel's polar opposite in debates. The two traded barbs at Farmfest; Pentel accused the other parties of having "spooky" views on free trade, and Pawlenty said anyone opposed to free trade is "kooky."

"I don't agree with him politically. I applaud him for being in the race. It makes the race interesting, it gives people more choices, but, you know, I think he's got some fairly unusual and probably dangerous ideas," Pawlenty said.

Pentel bristles at those comments. "I think I am common sense. I don't think I'm left or right. I think I'm out front."

Pentel hasn't owned a car since 1981. He rents an apartment in south Minneapolis. His brother Tom says Pentel doesn't care about material things.

"You know, most of his adult life, I don't think he's made hardly any money per year, because he's been... going down to Prairie Island and trying to help with the stop the dumping of nuclear waste down there, and whatever," he says.

Pentel's brother and others who know him well say despite his intensity on the issues, Pentel also has a great sense of humor that doesn't always show up in debates. His colleagues in the Green Party say Pentel is deeply committed to the Green Party movement, and has worked hard at party-building over the years. He also volunteered for Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns in both 1996 and 2000.

Holle Brian, a former Green Party official who's running for the Legislature this year, remembers during Nader's first campaign, Pentel became frustrated with the lack of media coverage of Nader's running mate, Winona LaDuke.

"He went down to the Star Tribune, and he had a tantrum in the Star Tribune offices, basically, collared a few reporters and said, 'Look, you know, this is news, you've got to give it some coverage.' And the thing that impressed me was that he did not take out his frustration on the other campaign workers, as so many people might have, he went to the source of the problem, and said 'You are the people who are the problem, not the people I'm working with,'" Brian says.

Pentel's biggest challenge this year might be getting 5 percent of the vote in November. That will allow the Green Party to maintain major party status and qualify for public financing. The latest MPR-Pioneer Press poll showed Pentel with three-percent of the vote, but Pentel says public financing will allow him to run TV ads in October and tell more voters who he is.

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