Because They Can

Six minor-party contenders for governor promise to bring back the primo dime-bag, turn the governor's mansion into a flophouse, tax water, get big brother out of your bedroom, ditch the nukes, and reveal the secrets of gravity-defying hair.

Perhaps it comes down to this: All six of this season's minor-party gubernatorial hopefuls share an abiding belief in the possibilities and promise of the electoral system. If they didn't pledge allegiance to it on some level, they wouldn't bother to run. Perhaps, then, it's that the American system of representation leaves the field open to all who qualify, which turns out to be most all who care to run for office. They run because they can. And why not? These six minor-party candidates don't expect to ever move into the governor's mansion; what they are doing is taking advantage of the chance to toss their off-the-beaten-track ideas into the mix.

Still, it's no secret that minor-party contestants are poorly served by the framework of contemporary American politics. At an early October debate of the five minor-party candidates organized by the Minnesota Citizens Forum--a joint venture between the Star Tribune and KTCA-TV, with an assist from Minnesota Public Radio--the group seemed reined in by the strictures of conventional politics. (Davis was excluded from this session, since he isn't on the ballot.) It was clear that evening that the tightly orchestrated format used for major debates, which demands slice-and-dice one-minute answers, didn't suit the five on stage. It caused them to sound suspiciously like conventional candidates: The standard questions--about taxes, crime, and education--didn't allow them much room to speak to their issues--the environment, legalizing marijuana, organizing workers--and so left a sort of dull, dead-end impression of the event with listeners. (McCloney lamented at the end of the debate, "In this format, I feel like my hands are tied behind my back." Ditto his tongue.)

Debate is a misnomer for what happens when the group sits down together in a public forum; they aren't, after all, competing against each other. Even though each carries his own distinct set of issues, they stand as one in their belief that, indeed, there are candidates other than Skip, Norm, or Jesse whom voters would do well to consider in the polling booth on November 3.

Tom Fiske
Socialist Workers Party

Tom Fiske's military-style haircut, blue short-sleeved oxford, and patterned tie suggest the staid, conservative uniform of the quintessential "company man." Then he opens his mouth.

"It's becoming more clear that capitalism is not working," he states matter-of-factly. After years spent surveying the American landscape, Fiske sees cracks that could open up into chasms. He talks of economic crisis on an apocalyptic scale, rails against "The Bosses," and proclaims the need to build "an independent movement of working people in this country."

Fiske has been a Socialist for more than 30 years--an affiliation dating back to the Oakland native's involvement in the anti-war and civil rights heyday at the University of California at Berkeley. He speaks reverently of seeing Malcolm X lecture at the school in 1963; sitting on a folding chair the other day in St. Paul's Pathfinder Bookstore, which doubles as headquarters for the local Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Militant Labor Forum meeting hall, he reached to his right, grabbed a paperback off the shelf--Malcolm X: The Lost Speeches--and flipped to the very speech he had heard on campus that day.

At 54, Fiske seems never to have lost the ideals of his college years. But for the candidate and party supporters, activity during an election season isn't much different than it is during an off year. Fiske says he's been doing the same things he always does: showing up in support of picketing strikers, joining farm rallies, and working literature tables at area colleges. "We don't see the electoral arena as the primary arena for defending working people," Fiske says. Instead, his running for governor gives the socialist chapter one more chance to hand out leaflets and attract publicity and activists to "the struggle."

In the current climate of economic uncertainty, Fiske sees signs of mobilization in recent strikes at UPS, Honeywell, Northwest Airlines, and US West. "The attitudes among working people are changing," Fiske concludes. He says when he's making rounds these days in Twin Cities shopping centers, handing out pamphlets and talking up the cause, folks tend to bring up issues like living wage jobs and access to affordable health care and child care before he can raise them himself. It's obvious, he says, that "the market isn't working for them." If that's the case, one of the SWP planks he's running on shouldn't have much trouble picking up popular backing: shorter work weeks with no cut in pay.

Fiske, who works the graveyard shift as a unionized machinist for an Eden Prairie manufacturer, ran for senate against Sen. Paul Wellstone under the SWP banner in 1996, on a similar platform to his current one: Besides echoing the party's push to build a politicized workers' movement, Fiske decries police brutality and champions government support for farmers, including a moratorium on foreclosures. He has also had a hand in the ongoing protests against KQRS-FM and morning show host Tom Barnard, which makes him unique among this year's gubernatorial contestants.

While Republicans have at times resorted to referring to Democratic policies as "socialist" to make political hay, Fiske insists there is no kinship whatsoever between the SWP and the Democratic Party. "We don't view ourselves as part of the left," Fiske declares. "We think all the capitalistic parties are obstacles. We're not trying to reform capitalism."

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