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Jesse and the Independence Party
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Where will the Independence Party go now that its most visible representative is leaving center stage? Ventura is shown during an appearance on MPR's Midday on Dec. 17, 2002. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Jesse Ventura's election four years ago was remarkable not just for the flamboyant individual Minnesotans picked, but for the party he represented. Ventura hitched a ride to the governor's office with Ross Perot's Reform Party. Then after disagreements over the direction of the national organization, Ventura oversaw the party's rebirth as the Independence Party. And throughout his tenure, he called for greater participation by Minnesota voters and more viewpoints to enrich the political debate. But even members of his own party say he did little of the day-to-day work necessary to capitalize on his electoral success.

St. Paul, Minn. — Ventura's harshest critics - those who dismiss his public policy and cringe at his unconventional style - concede one point: the outgoing governor woke a block of potential voters from their slumber, bringing them to the polls on a crucial Tuesday in November 1998. Engagement, says Ventura, may be his greatest legacy.

"I think that the one thing I did and the one thing I hear over and over from people, citizens all over," he said, "is the same quote: 'I never paid attention until you got in there. And now I pay attention.'"

Voter turnout for the governor's upset victory was just over 60 percent -- the highest for a non-presidential election in Minnesota since the early '80s. But turnout was even higher this year, when more than 61 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in a highly unusual race that included the death of a sitting U.S. senator.

Turnout never quite reached the 70-percent mark that the governor set as an unofficial goal. And one close ally of the governor says Ventura has himself to blame. This year, former DFL Congressman Tim Penny ran to replace Ventura under the Independence Party banner.

"He could have done more during his term in office to reach out to the disaffected voters, the trenchant voters, the younger voters," said Penny. "And he didn't. I think he really missed an opportunity during these four years to re-engage Minnesotans in a way that I think they're eager to be re-engaged. But he sort of let the opportunity pass."

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Image Breathing easier

Ventura's '98 victory sent tremors through the established political parties. DFL state party chair Mike Erlandson says there was a concern that the third-party movement would blossom into a formidable challenger, with Ventura leading the charge.

"He filled the Target Center with 20,000 sort of Ventura fans and had bands," Erlandson said. "And they had a big party. And, you know, had he done an event like that every year, charged $20 or $25 a head ... that party would have had a couple hundred thousand dollars to help candidates win elections. They never did that. They never had an office, a phone, or a fax."

Ventura grows impatient with such criticisms, particularly when they come from political opponents. He says he fulfilled his obligations to the state and should be judged on his legislative accomplishments. Crafting a party infrastructure, he says, was never part of his job description as governor.

"That's a full-time job," said Ventura. "Because I got criticized any time I took a second employment or made any money on the side. They said, 'Wait a minute, governor is a full-time, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job.' How is it then my job to build the party? That falls under Jack Uldrich."

Jack Uldrich is the chair of the state Independence Party and acting director of the state planning department. He acknowledges that the party could have done more to develop a grassroots base during Ventura's time in office. But Uldrich says many party members hoped Ventura would catalyze a new groundswell of support. He says that never happened.

"When history looks back, I think that they will say one of his shortcomings was that he didn't do enough to build the party or to really guarantee continued sucess for third-party movements," said Uldrich.

State Republican Party spokesman Bill Walsh says, by contrast, he expects incoming governor Tim Pawlenty to build on the GOP's successes of last November.

"The governor plays a strong role in recruiting candidates," said Walsh. "You know, when we need him to call somebody and say, 'Hey, we really need you to run for office,' if you can have a governor call, it's hard to say no. And that's a great asset. It's similar to what the president's done in the state and in the country."

Ventura did recruit some high-profile Independence Party candidates. He encouraged former DFLer Tom Foley to run for Congress in St. Paul's 4th District. And he publicly lobbied Tim Penny to mount his gubernatorial campaign this year. Ventura also appointed long-time associate and early party activist Dean Barkley to serve the remainder of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone's term. That move boosted Barkley's visibility - and Ventura himself acknowledges he made the appointment to advance the third-party cause. But Barkley says Ventura's greatest contribution was simply getting elected - and governing.

"I told him from day one, the best thing the governor can do is be the best governor and get some accomplishments done to show that a third way can actually govern the State of Minnesota," said Barkley. "And for three out of four years, Jesse Ventura did a very, very excellent job of leading the state of Minnesota."

Barkley says in Ventura's last year in office Democrats and Republicans struck a bargain to marginalize the independent governor. But despite Ventura's efforts for some of his close associates, he was largely absent at the grassroots level. He offered little support to IP Senate candidates Jim Gibson and Jim Moore. And he opted to attend a Timberwolves basketball game rather than appear at the party's election eve celebration in November.

Although the IP has attracted attention in several large races, state chair Uldrich admits the party's done little to build an infrastructure to new develop candidates. Its most successful candidates have had significant name recognition before signing on.

University of Minnesota political scientist Lisa Disch says that's a fairly modern method.

"The Independence Party strategy brings the risk that people don't know what it stands for," Disch said. "Because it seems to be just picking the disaffected or the refuse from the major parties. So the question is, well, what do you really stand for? That comes -- that kind of strategy breeds that sort of question."

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Disch says a party consisting of independents is a contradiction in some sense. Can a party be non-partisan? But Disch says in today's climate, where voters are more attracted to candidates than to party pedigrees, the approach can be appealing. Even so, IP activists say they hope to better define the party's platform and cultivate a brand image. Former party chair Diane Goldman says Penny began the effort when he tried to capture the middle ground in this year's governor's race.

"And that seemed to resonate with voters quite a bit," said Goldman. "But still, we get criticism from the media and from the other two parties as to that the sensible center doesn't really stand for anything. And I think we have to work on that message."

The IP did have one noteworthy success in 2002. State Sen. Sheila Kiscaden of Rochester switched from the Republican to the Independence Party over the summer and reclaimed her seat at the Capitol. Nonetheless, last week she announced she'd caucus with her former Republican colleagues, leading some IP officials to voice disappointment. But Kiscaden says the party has to be realistic about how the system works.

"There are no other Independence Party candidates in the Legislature," Kiscaden said. "There does not seem to be a strong Independence Party in Minnesota at this juncture. So I think it would be fair to say that I'm an independent with a small 'i.'"

Kiscaden says she doesn't consider it her job to guide the party's development. And her sentiment is not so different from Ventura's.

"I don't think you necessarily have to get into something that it then becomes a lifetime 'committment,'" said Ventura. "I'm not going to spend the rest of my life working the third-party movement, I can tell you that. No. I'm not going to do that."

It's not clear who will pick up Ventura's mantle as the party's standard bearer. But party activists -- Barkley, Penny, Uldrich, Goldman, and others -- say with or without Ventura, the IP will soldier on.

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