An Unlikely Spoiler

Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa at home
Tony Nelson

Last Tuesday, Ed "Eagle Man" McGaa, quirky candidate for U.S. Senate, sat quietly inside Lucille's Kitchen, a restaurant on the city's north side. Insight News editor Al McFarlane was holding court, moderating his weekly public-policy forum in front of a crowd of 40, nearly all of them African Americans.

After a song by a five-piece soul band crammed in a corner, McFarlane introduced McGaa to the assembled, and to those tuning in to KMOJ-FM (89.9), Minneapolis's black-oriented community radio station.

"As African Americans, we feel we are really made up of small nations, not minorities," McFarlane said to McGaa, who was seated to his left at a long conference table. "What do you think of resisting the effort by European society to limit [and] destroy our identity?"

McGaa didn't even blink before launching into a diatribe against the "religion of the Man." As an American Indian, he inveighed, he had been denied his own religion for most of his life. And Martin Luther King Jr. had opened doors for his people. "You are a natural people; you come from nature," said McGaa. "That's not an insult; that's true. And that's a beautiful thing. Hell, I'm just like you--we just want to be loved." There were some giggles and "amens" in the crowd before an outbreak of applause.

McGaa then proclaimed that African Americans and American Indians were related; that they had "intermarried" for years and everyone in the room had Indian blood in them. "I'm from South Dakota, so you know where the hell I've been," he continued. "I've been way down in Mississippi.

"I'm a politician, so they're gonna get down on me for saying this," McGaa concluded, as heads nodded in agreement. "But it's all true."

While the folks at Lucille's may have been impressed with McGaa's musings, his blunt talk has rankled some members of his own party, the Green Party of Minnesota, whose endorsement he secured as an unknown back in May. Initially, his campaign struggled for recognition, for a time falling so far below the radar that many began to wonder whether McGaa was serious about running for office. In recent weeks, however, McGaa has emerged as a more viable, if quixotic, candidate.

Questions still abound about his role in the Green Party, and in the upcoming election, where the contest between Republican Norm Coleman and incumbent DFLer Paul Wellstone may well decide the majority in the U.S. Senate. Locally, though, McGaa's presence, and that of Independence Party endorsee Jim Moore, promises to complicate a race that could be decided by several small pockets of swing votes.

Although there was much controversy about whether the Greens should even field a candidate in the race (and pressure from Wellstone supporters for the Greens to stay out), it's not entirely clear that McGaa will siphon votes from the DFL after all, or whether he's the right person to help the party shake its image as a fringe group, or whether he's even a true Green.

"Certainly some within the party are not really happy with how he is presenting himself," concedes Holle Brian, Green candidate for the state-representative seat in District 62B in Minneapolis, adding that several other, more well-known candidates may have been dissuaded from running against Wellstone. "We are just getting started and this Senate race is a very tough race. It's very demanding and high-profile."

That the Greens may be overextending themselves by entering a close, costly race for U.S. Senate is not a new thought. Back in January Bill Hillsman, the Minneapolis ad exec whose TV commercials helped secure Wellstone's and Gov. Jesse Ventura's upset victories, opined that the Green movement "will damage itself if the candidates aren't very good," and suggested that the party would do well to focus on just two or three statewide races. "For a Senate race, you really have to know who a candidate is," Hillsman concluded. "The party's platform is not strong enough to help them carry five percent."

(Achieving five percent of the statewide vote grants any party major-party status in Minnesota, crucial for potential state funding and ballot placement for candidates. And the Greens achieved that threshold in this state with Ralph Nader's showing in the 2000 presidential election, but the group does not get public money for the U.S. Senate race, because it is a national contest.)

But half a year later, here's McGaa. Despite the fact that he came to the Green party only four weeks before the convention, McGaa emerged with an endorsement. Some early missteps by his campaign raised concerns that McGaa's inexperience will reflect poorly on the party as a whole. (There's already been a misunderstanding over campaign-fund filings; ultimately it was proven that McGaa's campaign had not done anything wrong. Still, McGaa, Holle Brian chuckles, "is not interested in doing a lot of paperwork.")

Karen Carlson, McGaa's campaign co-manager, admits that it's been "tough to get going, with some resistance toward the campaign from our own party." Nonetheless, McGaa will face an equally low-profile opponent, Ray Tricomo, a schoolteacher from Oakdale, in the primary.

McGaa himself is undeterred. "I'm a veteran, a combat veteran," he says. "Some Greens have a problem with the fact that I've fought."

Slightly reclined on a couch in his two-and-a-half-story Edina home, McGaa hardly comes across as a warmonger. He is a very young-looking 66, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and a slight paunch. He's been divorced twice and raised seven children. He is hard of hearing, a result of his days as a fighter pilot, and often bellows to make his plainspoken points.

An Oglala Sioux and the author of four books relating Indian wisdom, McGaa talks passionately about the damage being done to the environment, offers disdain for the Bush administration's "Star Wars idiocy" and the war on terror, criticizes Wellstone for having voted for too much foreign aid at the expense of Social Security, and says he has a plan for dealing with corporate corruption.

In his wide-ranging conversation, though, McGaa--who has also been a union ironworker and a lawyer in the St. Paul City Attorney's Office--continually refers to his combat experience (a stint in Korea, 110 missions in Vietnam as an F4 Phantom pilot) as his greatest political asset. "There is a strong, mystical brotherhood among veterans, and there are more of them than Greens," McGaa says, insisting that veterans pushed Jesse Ventura to victory. He also feels that his service record puts him at a distinct advantage over Coleman and Wellstone, despite Wellstone's track record of shepherding veterans' issues in D.C. "Wellstone can be friendly with the vets," he quips, "but I actually served."

Regardless of whether McGaa is right, it is precisely this campaign-trail line of talk that has many dyed-in-the-wool Greens nervous. In January, former state Green Party chair Janet Busse insisted publicly that the Greens seek candidates who were not fringe characters. But in McGaa, Busse, who left her position two months before the convention, sees exactly that. "There's work that needs to happen in this party," she says now. "And the work that needed to be done was stalled in pettiness, and that's how we ended up with someone like Ed McGaa, who nobody really knew."

Busse says she and other "party builders" are frustrated by McGaa's campaign and now think that the Greens should have skipped the Senate race altogether. "We're a young party," she says. "From that perspective, I can understand how these things happen. In some ways, he couldn't be a better candidate for Wellstone."

Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's campaign manager, stops short of saying his candidate is breathing a sigh of relief at having such a neophyte as an opponent, but says that he doesn't believe McGaa's campaign "is fully formed yet." "We are not saying that a vote for McGaa is a vote for Norm Coleman," Blodgett says. "But we are doing what we've always done, and that is focusing on Green voters and Green-leaning voters."

(Initially there was speculation that the Greens would pit Winona LaDuke, Nader's erstwhile running mate, against Wellstone. But LaDuke has come out supporting Wellstone over her own party, something that McGaa says "was very hurtful" at the convention.)

Sarah Janecek, co-editor of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota, believes the Greens will ultimately survive because of the professional, visible campaign of gubernatorial candidate Ken Pentel. "There's all this pressure in the Senate race, and so many Greens didn't want somebody to challenge Wellstone, so they fielded a weak candidate," Janecek says, adding that the Greens will remain a major party. "They solved their problem with Pentel, who will help them maintain the five percent."

Is McGaa's candidacy a boon for Wellstone? "Oh, definitely," says Janecek. "He seems to be a bit of a flake."

Many admit that the Green endorsement of McGaa had as much to do with his Sioux heritage as anything, as the party is committed to the principles of inclusion and diversity. And McGaa's environmental stance, which is what led him to seek the party's endorsement, jibes well with the Green platform. Yet for all McGaa's drawbacks, the move may have been astute--especially given his performance at Lucille's Kitchen.

"I've got so much to do, I don't know how much I can motivate the black vote," McGaa chuckles, adding that he is "not a professional politician." "But I relate to them. We're oppressed in the same ways. Blacks like me."

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