By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
It's been said that running for the governor's seat in Minnesota requires massive amounts of time, cash, and hard labor.
Don't have a formal political party to back you? Doesn't matter. No plan to raise money or run TV ads? No problem. Not a single volunteer or yard sign? State law will not discriminate against you. All you need is a little hustle and a few petitions.
Getting on the statewide gubernatorial ballot in Minnesota takes nothing more than recruiting a running mate and securing 2,000 John Hancocks from folks who want you to run. After the secretary of state's office has audited those signatures--they advise getting an extra 200, just to be safe--and determined that you're old enough (25) and live in the state, your name will appear on ballots in polling places from Grand Marais to Pipestone. (Major party candidates get to skip the petitions and pay a $300 filing fee instead.)
It may come as news to you, but this year there are nine candidates for governor. Democrat Skip Humphrey, Republican Norm Coleman, and Reform Party standard-bearer Jesse Ventura--all major leaguers--are surely household names by now. Then there are the other five on the ballot: Tom Fiske (Socialist Workers Party), Frank Germann (Libertarian Party), Fancy Ray McCloney (The People's Champion Party), Ken Pentel (Green Party), and Chris Wright (Grassroots Party). And don't forget Leslie Davis, who has mounted a one-man write-in campaign
under the Protect the Earth Party. (Free-spirited voters are always at liberty to scribble down any name they see fit, whether it be Davis's or that of the time-honored protest-vote sweetheart, Mickey Mouse.)
To qualify for major-party status, a party's contender for statewide office must garner at least 5 percent of the total votes cast in their election, and at least one vote in each of Minnesota's 87 counties. To hang on to that status, the party needs to have a statewide candidate pull another 5 percent every two years in the general election. That means automatic ballot status, which in turn bolsters visibility. So far, such standing remains but a long shot among this fall's six outsiders.
Even so, the Libertarian, Socialist Workers, and Grassroots parties all rank as familiar perennials in Minnesota; voters are likely getting used to seeing them on the ballot, though the names of the candidates usually change from year to year. The Green and People's Champion parties are new to the statewide roster; while the former has the advantage of affiliation with the international Green movement, the latter benefits from having the charismatic McCloney, long recognized by Twin Cities cable viewers as their hair-with-flair show-host darling. For his part, write-in candidate Davis favors making up new parties for each of his (by now considerable) runs for office.
It isn't just that state law is conducive to small parties; there's an undisputed populist element to Minnesota politics. Minnesotans cast more than 300,000 votes for third-party candidates in the 1996 presidential election--nearly 14 percent of all votes cast, with the bulk going to Ross Perot. Similarly, an October 20 Star Tribune/KMSP-TV poll showed Ventura with 21 percent of the vote, more than double his numbers in mid-September. Even Minnesota's two main parties have run in sharp contrast to their national counterparts. The DFL party was created by the 1944 merger of the Democrats and the more activist Farmer-Labor party, and remains under that label today. In the mid-1970s, Minnesota Republicans, in an effort to distance themselves from the shame of Watergate, rechristened their alliance the Independent-Republican (IR) party. (They recanted in 1995, streamlining the name to divest itself of any possible third-party associations.) This century, the state's voters have catapulted into office three third-party governors--consecutive Farmer-Laborers, all in the 1930s.
"If you look at Minnesota in the context of all 50 states, I would hazard a guess that it's as easy to get on the ballot here as it is anywhere," says Joe Mansky, director of elections for the secretary of state's office. "I think the fact that we see so many minor-party candidates is a good indication that it's not too hard to clear that bar."
That's the easy part.
Harder to figure is why, with such remote prospects for election, they do it at all.
To get attention? Nah. As a rule, minor leaguers aren't included in any of the significant debates, their names aren't floated in public opinion polls, and they are granted but token coverage by the media. They typically don't have any money for advertising, so they remain as obscure on election day as the day they signed on to run. When they do get covered, they are often held out as comic relief. Even the political fringe doesn't regard being ignored and dismissed as "getting attention."
To martyr themselves for the cause? It's true that you could call many of them pure, uncut idealogues who are merely the chosen front-men for their party's unwavering platform. But there are plenty of castle-builders in major and minor parties alike who have no taste for seeking office, no matter how quixotic the quest.
Because they're fools? From all indications, they're not: If you have happened to see any minor-partyers speak, you will have detected notable similarities to their major-party kin. All have at least a handful of rehearsed lines: planned, pithy patter that distills platforms into quote-worthy quips--a serious politician's enviable forte. They tend to "stay on message," just like highly paid political consultants tell viable candidates to do. No silly whim or temporary insanity set them, against better judgment, on the campaign trail.