Disloyal Opposition

Minnesota's DFL Courts The Greens--Sort Of

For 16 years DFL stalwarts have gathered on the first Thursday of each month in a tiny pharmacy on University Avenue in Minneapolis's Prospect Park neighborhood for political bull sessions. Dubbed "Tom's Drugstore," after owner and host Tom Sengupta, the forum has built a quiet legend.

On the evening of December 6, banners in the windows of the stucco building urge support for Sen. Paul Wellstone's campaign, alongside a quote about caring for children and the disadvantaged, attributed to Hubert Horatio Humphrey. Inside, among the aisles of insoles, light bulbs, and hand lotions, as Ken Pentel arrived, the Schneider Drug was abuzz with talk of the 2002 U.S. Senate race. Pentel, a former Green Party gubernatorial candidate, joined Cam Gordon, a Green and former candidate for Minneapolis City Council; Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's campaign manager; and Jim Niland, a former Minneapolis City Council member and longtime Wellstone supporter. The four drew up chairs around a faux potbelly stove and began a debate about what role local progressives should play in the upcoming U.S. Senate race.

Quickly, Pentel and Gordon found themselves in the hot seat, answering belligerent questions from the audience of about 20 regarding their pacifist views about what could be done in Afghanistan and, more important, steadfastly clinging to the notion that the Green Party had to run its own Senate candidate.

"They were going on about how Paul is the best shot for the progressive agenda," Pentel recalls. "They were concerned about the Greens taking votes."

"It was like going into a cage," Gordon agrees, chuckling. "We were surrounded by Wellstone die-hards."

Though it was never said point-blank, the two Greens recall, the implied message was clear. "We never heard them say, 'Don't run a candidate for Senate,'" says Pentel. "It was more like, 'Don't spoil it. You don't want Norm Coleman to get in there.' I told them that night, 'Worry about your own camp, and do your own hard work.'"

Given the current political climate, it's no wonder the DFL is more than just a little concerned about the next election cycle. Although Gov. Jesse Ventura remains a political independent, his surprise win in the 1998 governor's race broke down the walls for third parties, and nobody has benefited from a new wave of populism more than the seven-year-old Green Party of Minnesota.

In the 2000 presidential election, Ralph Nader garnered enough support locally to ensure major-party status for the Minnesota Greens, not so long ago viewed as a fringe group. Last fall a number of viable Green Party candidates for various local offices surfaced, and two Greens were elected to the Minneapolis City Council.

Meanwhile, no political establishment has struggled more to respond than the DFL. The once-monolithic party has shown signs of being fractured and out of touch for the last few years, and its ranking elected official, Wellstone, is running for a third Senate term against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican, under a cloud of disappointment. Given the Greens' sudden high profile, and their passion for populist issues such as the environment and campaign-finance reform, whatever candidate they run may well be poised to attract a significant number of Wellstone supporters.

"It's a dynamic we haven't had," confirms Janet Busse, chair of the state's Green Party. "We could have an infinite debate about what we might bring to the race. But the fact is, as a major party, we will run a candidate, because that's what major parties do." (Major-party status eliminates much of the red tape that made it hard for Green candidates to run, and it entitles them to a prominent place on the ballot.)

The question of whom the Greens might run, however, still looms large. Winona LaDuke, Nader's vice-presidential running mate, is a name that has been tossed around, but speculation is that she won't run. Busse maintains that the party will be very careful in choosing, and even grooming, a candidate. "We don't want to discourage anyone from coming forth, but we also feel it takes practice to find a real message and a real goal," she says. She adds that the practice of third parties running fringe candidates-- those who might seem to be "a one-issue person" or a "perpetual runner"--is a thing of the past. The ideal candidate is someone who has been in the political spotlight before.

It's taking on the status quo of the two-party system that tops the Greens' priorities. "I could foresee issues around the war and the Patriot Act," she says, referring to the antiterrorism bill passed by Congress in October. "These are things that people on both ends of the political spectrum are concerned about. And it seems like Wellstone has managed to dissatisfy everyone on this."

Which may explain the high tensions--and great divides--at the Tom's Drugstore session, where loyalties were being pulled in multiple directions. DFLer Jim Niland, for example, ran for reelection to the Minneapolis City Council in 1997 as a Green-endorsed candidate and helped the Greens get off the ground in Minneapolis. He is also, however, a longtime supporter of Wellstone's.

Back in June, Niland stumped for R.T. Rybak at the Minneapolis Green Party convention. Though the mayoral candidate did not gain the party's endorsement, Niland claims that Rybak succeeded in tapping Green support. "It's clear that a progressive democrat could pick up Green-minded people, like R.T. did," Niland insists, adding that Wellstone's campaign will "aggressively pursue Green Party voters."

Blodgett, doing his third stint as Wellstone's campaign manager, says it's only natural that the senator's supporters would engage with the Greens, citing Wellstone's Green-friendly record on the environment and on fighting health-insurance companies. "We certainly aren't telling the Greens what to do," he maintains. "We are making the case in the next ten months that in Paul Wellstone we have the most progressive person in the U.S. Senate."

Blodgett says that the presence of a third party will force people "to look at this race a little differently." If the Wellstone campaign can get voters to view the race as one between Wellstone and Coleman, he posits, "People will be supportive of Paul."

It's this two-party tunnel vision, especially coming from the DFL, that really rankles the Greens, most of whom have dedicated years to keeping their party afloat only to be called spoilers once they became a major party. "Now we are back to the 2000 presidential election and the strategy of voting against somebody," Busse complains, admitting that there are people within the Green Party who are "uncomfortable" with the possibility of handing the election to Coleman. The problem is that those same Greens are equally sure that this discomfort is something the DFL is counting on.

"They hope that it isn't so much that people will want Mr. Wellstone, but that they won't want Mr. Coleman," she says. "People don't want to live that way anymore, where you are just voting against somebody....We can't not run somebody just to keep Wellstone from losing. He might lose anyway, and then we're not even in there."

Further, Pentel is quick to note that it's foolish for the Wellstone campaign to think it can pick up Green supporters--especially because many of them are former DFLers who became fed up with the party. "It's the move toward centrist thinking that lost [the DFL] support in the first place," he claims. "I believe they will have a hard time getting votes from the Greens."

But Pentel is not naive. He fears the stigma of a "wasted vote," and he acknowledges that, once inside the voting booth, "people just cave." That's why some DFLers, such as Niland, seem to want to appear as congenial to the Greens as possible. "It's not a question of saying no to the Green Party," Niland says. "Basically we talked to them and said, 'We want to see you grow and do well in statewide elections....It's not a zero-sum game. The Greens can continue to grow and maintain major-party status and help get Paul reelected."

The Wellstone camp won't tell the Greens to stay out of the race, Blodgett adds. But "it should give them pause to run somebody against Paul Wellstone. It would be a mistake. There's not much opening for the Greens in this race," he opines.

Pentel, for one, is tired of the argument. "There's a sense that no matter what we do, we're not a player, and we're not a legitimate party," he concludes. "We can respect each other. But we are different parties.

"We are a major party now. We can't sit around and negotiate ballot lines with the DFL."

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