Hot Fusion

PAUL WELLSTONE, U.S. Senate candidate of the Independence Party? The scenario is enough to send some people dreaming, and others howling. But it's out there, along with a host of other possibilities opened up by a court decision allowing multiple-party candidacies on the Minnesota ballot.

On the surface, the debate over what's also known as "fusion" candidacies sounds pretty technical, though the implications are potentially dramatic. Right now, candidates in Minnesota can only run under the banner of one party; that's why, when state Rep. Andy Dawkins (DFL-St. Paul) showed up at the Secretary of State's office in 1994 to file as both the DFL and the New Party's candidate, he was turned back. The New Party--a group attempting to establish a fresh presence at, for lack of a better word, the left/independent end of the political spectrum--sued the state, and won in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The judges noted that fusion was common throughout the U.S. in the 19th century, when it was extensively used by the likes of the Populist Party, and remains legal in 10 states to this day. In his first race for president, Ronald Reagan won the New York primary only with the help of Conservative Party fusion voters.

Though the state of Minnesota argued that fusion would confuse voters, the court noted it had to be "skeptical of a state's claim that it is enhancing voters' ability to make wise decisions by restricting the flow of information to them." It went on to quote James Madison, who felt that more political parties lessened the chances for "oppression, factionalism, and nonskeptical acceptance of ideas."

What the judges did not do was figure out what exactly a Minnesota ballot should look like with fusion. Under the current ruling, it's believed candidates' names would appear several times, once for each party nominating them. State officials think that would be messy, which is why the Legislature is now considering a bill specifying the ballot design; it's laid up in committee while legislators--especially DFLers, who aren't quite sure whether fusion would help or hurt them--figure out what to do. The major point of controversy seems to be whether the ballot should show how much support for a candidate came from each party's voters; in other words, whether there should be a check-off box so Dawkins voters who identify themselves as New Party could indicate as much. For minor parties, that's important for more than philosophical reasons: Under Minnesota law, a party that reaches 5 percent of the vote automatically becomes a major party, which in turn brings a variety of benefits. The IP accomplished that in 1994, when Dean Barkley ran for U.S. Senate; current speculation about a Wellstone/IP candidacy revolves around the notion that having a recognized name on the ballot would help the IP stay above the threshold. (As of early this week, the party was expecting to hold its first series of precinct caucuses in most or all Minnesota legislative districts. The only candidate actively seeking its senatorial endorsement is Thomas Schrunk.)

But while some IP leaders have made no secret of their admiration for Wellstone--having appeared with him at press conferences announcing political initiatives--the notion of fusion instantly highlights the divisions in a party currently defined mostly by not being one of the majors. Former Republicans in particular bristle at the idea, and party secretary Phil Madsen says the senator has "a snowball's chance" of being nominated by the IP because of his "liberal voting record. This is a group of centrists, of the moderate middle. And we would disband before we would abandon our principles for our 5 percent."

Besides, Madsen says, the IP doesn't need Wellstone, expecting its lift instead from the presidential race. Ross Perot--whose United We Stand-America organization is slated to fuse with the IP in Minnesota under the name Reform Party--is sponsoring a national convention in August at which people from around the country will vote on an endorsement online. Potential candidates mentioned so far include former Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, retiring Sen. Bill Bradley, and Minnesotan Tim Penny.

In any event, the Wellstone/IP idea is moot for now because, as the law stands, a major party cannot fuse with another major party. That could change, however, under the pending state legislation. And whatever the outcome of that, chances are good for some surprising wrinkles in November.

 
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