Party On

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

It's noon and the ninth annual convention of the Independence Party of Minnesota is taking a break for lunch. The party delegates are in the heart of the St. Cloud State University campus, outside Stewart Hall, eating box lunches. The plaza is a sea of American-flag golf shirts, sequined American-flag hats, and a few Jesse-inspired American-flag do-rags.

The mood is downright giddy: Just four weeks ago, with Gov. Jesse Ventura announcing that he would not seek reelection, the Independence Party seemed all but dead. The announcement left the party reeling and, more important, without a galvanizing candidate.

But if the convention is any indication, the Independence Party has been resuscitated, almost single-handedly, by Tim Penny. After some hemming and hawing, Penny, a former DFL U.S. congressman, agreed to seek the party's endorsement for governor, to the joy of many IPers and the notice of many Minnesota voters. (State education commissioner Christine Jax mounted a brief challenge, but bowed out when it became clear that Penny was the party's choice.)

Inside the university auditorium today, a clearly defined (if still relatively small) Independence Party has assembled. The 177 delegates in attendance in St. Cloud are overwhelmingly white, and many are middle-class men in their 50s (they probably make up at least half of all radio talk-show callers.) But diversity is evident, too. There are many women, a blue-collar and union contingent, and a handful of minorities. Once derided as a party of outcasts, the Independence Party is now made up of activists and, in the case of Penny, old political pros.

"Sure, there's a hodgepodge, and that's what we're about," says Jeff Carlson, a delegate and pipe fitter from St. Louis Park who is clad in a black sleeveless Harley-Davidson shirt. "But we're also about integrity and getting things done."

Delegate Henry Sullivan, the African-American manager of Lucille's Kitchen in north Minneapolis, was a DFLer for ten years before defecting, disenchanted. "There's no place for people of color," he says. "It's welcoming to people here. And people of color have got to start somewhere."

And it is welcoming here. News reports on the radio earlier in the morning made much ado about IP plans to have "heightened security" at the convention to keep Democrats and Republicans from crashing. The reports, it turns out, are false.

In fact, it feels like a backyard barbecue. Penny chats with former Minneapolis City Council members Steve Minn and Lisa McDonald. The two candidates seeking the IP endorsement in the U.S. Senate race, Alan Fine and Jim Moore, talk amiably in a corner. Saundra Spigner, a black delegate from Plymouth who is also the Metropolitan Council's First District representative, and Martha Robertson, a state senator from Minnetonka who was a Republican just two weeks ago, discuss "a party of inclusion" and "building a team."

But it's Robertson, the woman Penny chose as his running mate, who may best signify the turn the party is taking. A conservative woman from the suburbs whose expertise is education, Robertson may provide the swing vote necessary to catapult Penny to the governor's mansion. Never mind that things looked hopeless just a month ago; by the time the convention adjourns, Robertson looks like an inspired choice.

The DFLers chose perhaps the ultimate insider: state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, a rural legislator who has spent more than 30 years in DFL politics. Republican Tim Pawlenty, the house majority leader from suburban Eagan, will have trouble capturing urban votes. And Ken Pentel of the Greens may be seen as a one-dimensional candidate interested only in environmental issues. But the Penny-Robertson ticket--which Penny maintains is an equal partnership--is a smart one: Penny can say he grappled with urban issues in Congress while trumpeting his rural roots; any voting block not wooed by his résumé can look to Robertson.

The endorsing process begins with Lt. Gov. Mae Schunk, who gives a halting, awkward speech that nevertheless draws much applause from the delegates--especially when she talks about how Ventura (absent because of his recent hospitalization) "paved the way for Independent government" and "a highway for the future."

Nominally, Penny had an opponent, Thief River Falls businessman Jim Haviland. But as soon as Penny begins his speech, the endorsement becomes a forgone conclusion. Penny is a low-key, smooth public speaker, quipping that he is "no Jesse Ventura" while sounding the governor's familiar refrain that there "must be a better way of doing the state's business, with no rigid ideology." He promises to do no opinion polls, not to use political consultants, and not to take special-interest money--three pledges that Ventura stood by.

Clearly, Penny thinks he can win. After his nomination, he greets a throng of reporters. He passes numerous questions off to Robertson and conveys a confidence once unheard-of for a third-party candidate. When the subjects of campaign spending and attack ads come up, Penny responds that he's going to "to let [his opponents] do whatever they want to do....I'm more interested in the chunk of voters in the center and why they are disengaged."

After Penny's show, the atmosphere in the auditorium deflates slightly. A tape loop of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Neil Diamond's "America," and the Ray Charles version of "America the Beautiful" play while pictures of Ventura flash on the large screen above the stage. Ballots are cast for the senate race (Moore, a commercial banker, wins easily) and for secretary of state (won by uncontested candidate Dean Alger, an academic and campaign-finance-reform activist). Some minor-party initiatives are quickly approved.

Still, there's a feeling that this is the year the Independence Party, by sticking to the middle of the road and avoiding party infighting, might well come of age and move away from Ventura's massive shadow. The task now, all the delegates agree, is just to get on with the campaigns.

By 5:07 p.m., after just seven hours, the Independence Party delegates adjourn.


Correction published July 18, 2002:
In the original version of this story, G.R. Anderson Jr. misspelled the name of Independence Party delegate Saundra Spigner and failed to identify her as the Metropolitan Council's First District representative. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.

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