Because They Can
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.
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.
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."
Does Fiske have a favorite socialist joke? He's silent for a long while before admitting, "No, I don't." Then he recalls that, "We have a very funny column in The Militant called 'The Great Society.'" And still later: "As of a year ago there were 471 billionaires in the world and their current annual income was equal to the two billion poorest people in the world. I don't think that's funny. It's a crying contradiction."
Frank Germann is a true believer. For 22 years he has been an active member of the Libertarian Party in Minnesota--giving money to it, handing out literature at the State Fair for it, and writing extensively about it through online newsgroups. But the former civil engineer really didn't want to be the party's candidate for governor this year.
"I was drafted," he allows with a chuckle. "I was dragged in, yelling and screaming, 'No, no!' I just would have rather had someone else do it." But in small parties, activists turn into candidates by default; sooner or later everyone who's willing--however grudgingly--takes their turn. The reluctant candidate was officially anointed at the April 18 Libertarian convention at Mystic Lake Casino, a venue chosen in part because the den of slot machines and blackjack tables is far from Democrats' and Republicans' idea of a fitting site for any official function.
"I'm not sure that I'm the most ideal candidate from the personality standpoint," concedes the 56-year-old Germann. "I'm kind of quiet." But if every race needs its Paul Tsongas, the laconic Germann seems accommodating for the party's sake. He figures he may be just "too subdued" for political grandstanding, but adds, with signature optimism, that "it takes all kinds, too, maybe."
Germann's two-story white suburban home in Dakota County's West St. Paul serves as campaign headquarters. As sun streams in the front windows on a cool fall morning, Germann fetches fuel from a coffeemaker atop the organ--his wife plays--in the corner of the room. A plastic tub on the dining room table holds what appears to be the bulk of his campaign literature. A small sign planted in his front yard proclaims, "Enough is Enough! Vote Libertarian"--one small cry for breaking rank with conformity along these tidy, quiet streets.
Germann says he once considered himself a conservative. He voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 after getting out of the Navy. In short order, he grew disaffected when it began looking to him like Republicans were getting as hooked on big government as Democrats. He took to reading Ayn Rand tomes and hefty economic texts (Milton Friedman's Free to Choose is a favorite). He remembers being "ticked off" as he watched Republicans take office on the promise of lowering taxes and then failing to follow through. "I was politically homeless and I was looking for a home," Germann recalls of his wandering in the political wilderness. "I found it with the Libertarians."
While he downplays his own viability as a charismatic candidate, Germann is unquestionably a political animal. Online newsgroups have become a favorite vehicle for computer-savvy politics junkies to feed their addiction, and Germann is a steady, tireless provider of sustenance to forums such as the Minnesota Politics Forum and a Libertarian newsgroup. "I like putting my views out in front of people that have never heard of a Libertarian solution to a political question," says Germann, who guesses he spends a minimum of two hours a day online.
Despite his professed reticence in the political arena, Germann did run for City Council in West St. Paul in 1988. Although the race was nonpartisan, he says he made no secret of his politics, and ended up with a decent showing at 39 percent of the vote. This year, he concedes he hasn't done much campaigning, but says he's gotten the best response when he hands out a phony, outsize $1,000 bill with a picture of himself on it. It's meant to symbolize the amount every person in Minnesota would get as a tax refund from the state's bulging budget surplus, if those holding the purse strings were to follow Germann's directions.
That refund is the party's defining issue this year. Also on the plank: Germann (an uncharacteristic Libertarian with his pro-life stance) would eliminate state income and sales tax in Minnesota, a move he guesses would cut state revenues by about two-thirds. Essentially, the party marries social liberalism with fiscal conservatism to forge a "mind your own business" platform. Libertarians oppose laws governing sex between consenting adults and think drug laws do more harm than good. They believe farms should operate without government subsidies, that the minimum wage causes unemployment, citizens have the right to bear arms without undue restriction, and U.S. military intervention around the globe is unwarranted. "Basically," Germann says of the party's don't-tread-on-me ethos, "we're for a lot less government, and a lot less regulation."
Statistics from national headquarters show that the party now claims 30,000 dues-paying members, a total head-count that has tripled in just four years (with defecting Republicans outnumbering Democrats by 4 to 1). More than 162,000 voters across the nation are registered Libertarians in the 24 states that allow voters such identification; some 220 elected and appointed office holders in 33 states hold down City Council seats, small-town mayorships, and lesser posts. This fall, Libertarians are the only party aside from the Democrats and Republicans running candidates for all five constitutional offices in Minnesota (the Reform Party failed to run a candidate for State Auditor) in Minnesota.
As for Reform's candidate for governor, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Germann doesn't seem too ruffled about being upstaged. "I don't think I could beat him in a wrestling match," Germann chuckles. "Anything else, I'd probably be able to take him on."
Fancy Ray McCloney
People's Champion Party
"What would it say about the state to put this androgynous African American into the governor's office?" asks the androgynous African-American gubernatorial candidate, who argues that such an unprecedented move could only amount to a huge public-relations boost for Minnesota.
Fancy Ray McCloney's crisp white shirt is open four buttons to the wind, baring the smooth torso of the self-proclaimed "Human Chocolate Orchid." He sports a neon-bright, lounge-lizard red vest, black slacks, and lots of gold: three rings, a bracelet, a watch, and the large diamond-studded star that swings from his neck. A pencil-thin mustache quivers above his upper lip; gold highlights accentuate his gravity-defying pompadour.
"This is my political attire," he boasts. "I have matching red underwear."
"If I don't look good, folks get disappointed. It's true! It's not easy being Fancy Ray," insists McCloney, best known to the public as host of the cable-access show Get Down With It!, which has been on the air for nearly a decade. But Fancy Ray has transcended his roots as a Little Richard impersonator and created his own signature character. Around town, he's achieved a measure of celebrity through sheer chutzpah; as such, he believes he has a responsibility to his public: Dress to Kill, or fade into obscurity.
Like all politicians worth their stones, McCloney has his set stump speech. He contends that the major-party candidates and the election itself are nothing but jokes, and that if he's not elected, the state will have to settle for an amateur. "If you're going to elect a joker, elect the best joker of all," says the self-anointed "Best-Looking Man in Comedy."
But the People's Championer grows serious, if not somber, when he talks about the priorities he would focus on as governor. "Everything's a joke, but something's seriously wrong with this state," says McCloney, who argues that as head of state he would work to combat poverty, fight for affordable housing, and crack down on the red-lining tactics of banks and other institutions in communities of color. He espouses a program he dubs "Minnesota Spice" which would foster better relations among all races in the state. If elected, he'd try to deliver a come-one, come-all inaugural ball starring Prince, Little Richard, James Brown, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, George Clinton--with Bill Clinton blowing blues on sax.
"I am truly the everyday person," says McCloney, pausing a well-timed beat: "With a pretty hairdo." McCloney mentions the elder Hubert Humphrey as a political hero--because "he took a stand for people of color"--alongside Muhammad Ali and late Minneapolis City Council member Brian Coyle. (Speaking of inspirations, can it be mere coincidence that Little Richard is playing at Mystic Lake Casino on the eve of the election?)
McCloney takes his name from his grandfather, Fancy Wade, who served as a father figure during his youth. "He was known for being a sharp dresser and a ladies' man," recalls McCloney. When Wade passed away in 1984, McCloney inherited his music collection and discovered the tape of Little Richard that forever changed his life. Family ties run as deep in McCloney's persona as they do in his campaign: His running mate is his mother. "My mom epitomizes to me hard work, struggle, doing the right thing, living right, setting positive goals and achieving them," he says. "Vote for the real family values candidacy: Fancy Ray and his mother, Toni McCloney."
On an even more personal front, McCloney often professes to be ageless. One day he'll insist he's 25; the next, he swears to be 28, but allows as how it changes daily. A City Pages cover story in 1992 put him at 28 then, which would make him 34 today. Fancy Ray disavows such calculations. But he isn't concerned that his waffling on the topic will hurt his political credibility. McCloney takes the question as just another setup for a joke. "It doesn't matter if I lie about my age," he quips. "I've never lied about sex or my relationship with Monica Lewinsky."
Should it come to pass that politics don't pan out, the candidate dreams of broader vistas than his current status as a low-budget TV hero, and talks cryptically of a deal in the works. He will reveal only that it's going to be "huge." For now, Fancy Ray figures his campaign, like his cable-access shtick, is all part of a greater mission. "My whole goal in this life is to lift people up in some way," McCloney croons. "I've got a calling that's in me. I'm here fighting for the people!"
With a pretty hairdo.
Ken Pentel is rifling through his cluttered office trying to find a copy of the Green Party's platform. "It must be out in the car," he says finally, with mild exasperation.
The car? Is this the candidate whose literature espouses the goal of offering "incentives for walking, biking, and using trains and buses--move people, not cars"?
This is not, after all, a perfect world.
"I, on a personal level, sold my car in 1981," says Pentel of his old Honda Civic, which by his estimation was getting 45 miles per gallon on the freeway. "I borrow friends' cars. There's enough cars around." When there aren't, Pentel takes his bike.
While the Green Party is most identified with environmental politics--anti-nuclear energy; for conservation and preservation of water, soil, air, and natural habitats--Pentel is also talking up electoral reform this fall. He believes in complete public funding of campaigns and advocates an electoral system in which a party's representation would reflect the percentage of votes it receives. Such a setup would, it's clear, be a boon to minor parties, and anathema to the dominant majors.
Among the so-called fringe-party office seekers this season, Pentel is the candidate most accustomed to working within the system. He has walked the halls of the Capitol as a registered lobbyist, working on environmental issues such as the 1994 fight over nuclear waste storage at NSP's Prairie Island plant. He spent 11 years as a canvasser for the local office of Greenpeace.
He describes the Green Party, around the nation and here in the state, as a "spontaneous emerging movement." He says, per its politics, that the party is decentralized and has a philosophic kinship, but not an organizational relationship, with the party that emerged in Germany in the late '70s. In 1996 Pentel served as the Minnesota campaign manager for the Ralph Nader/Winona LaDuke Green Party presidential bid which was on the ballot in 21 states. The pair got close to 25,000 votes in the state.
By some indications, the Green Party is more organized than other small parties, with local affiliates of the statewide organization active in both Minneapolis, Duluth, and St. Paul. Pentel says he's managed to post about 125 yard signs around the state, including on some prominent real estate in Duluth, Bemidji, and Rochester. His square, wooden campaign buttons have his name stamped in green soy ink (it just didn't work: They're barely legible).
Pentel acknowledges that his résumé is that of a behind-the-scenes player, but he says no one else in the party was willing to take on the role of candidate. "I really wanted to manage a campaign," he stresses. "But since no one stepped forward willing to talk about these values, I was not going to stand by and hear silence around key issues." He hasn't had a job since his contract as a field organizer for the party ended in March; after November 3, he figures he'll be looking for work. (McCloney, ever the coalition-builder, swears he'll offer Pentel and other minor candidates positions in his administration.)
Pentel acknowledges some affinity for at least one of the major parties: "A number of my inspirations come from the Democratic Party...There's a progressive element of the DFL that's very aligned with what we're doing." Pressed for political heroes, his list includes three DFL legislators: Rep. Karen Clark, Sen. Ellen Anderson, and Rep. Alice Hausman--all of whom support, however unofficially, the Green's four-pillar philosophy: grassroots democracy, social and economic justice, nonviolence, and ecological stewardship.
Pentel's proposals include a "nuclear free" state, powered by Minnesota-generated renewable energy sources. He talks of diversifying rural economies and promoting organic and "community supported" farming. As governor, he would work to license farmers to grow industrial hemp, and to decriminalize marijuana use.
In another incarnation, the graduate of Hopkins Eisenhower had more celebrated dreams. "I left high school to go into show business," recalls the 37-year-old Pentel. "I was into dance and I was singing. I went out to L.A. and I took improvisational theater and I kept the dancing up." But the work wasn't there, and his thoughts turned to the thick clouds of smog hanging over the city, pollution shutting down beaches in the Santa Monica Bay, and frequent air advisories warning children and the elderly to stay indoors. It was the Reagan era, and Pentel turned to politics for a stage, attending Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings over discussions to build nuclear reactors along fault lines. He had found his calling--environmental activism.
Today Pentel works out of the cramped back room at the Arise! Resource Center on Lyndale Avenue in South Minneapolis. The space is thick with scattered paper, loose cassette tapes, empty orange-juice bottles awaiting recycling, a box of campaign lit, yard signs awaiting a home, an IBM knock-off computer, and a neatly stacked archive of Utne Reader back issues.
"Live small, think big--that's what I've been saying," Pentel offers by way of mantra, from his crowded office perch. "The Green Party offers hope. Direct democracy is the way to solve problems."
Protect the Earth Party
"I'm kind of the hopeless candidate," Leslie Davis admits. Davis is more hopeless than most because he isn't even on the ballot this year. Instead, the longtime environmental activist and emerging perennial candidate is staging a one-man write-in campaign under the self-styled Protect the Earth Party and the populist plea, "If I win, we all win."
Getting on the gubernatorial ballot in Minnesota isn't that complicated: all it takes is the aforementioned 2,000 signatures and meeting your filing deadlines. But Davis, the only member of his newly christened party, says that route wasn't open to him, because he hadn't recruited a lieutenant governor as his running mate by the time the deadline rolled around in July. He placed classified ads in the Star Tribune over the summer--which proclaimed, "This Race is Between Me and Norman Coleman"--but so far there have been no takers. (After the primary, Davis changed his mind about who his main opponent is: "Now it's me and Humphrey.") He says that he wanted to tap Barbara Davis, president of St. Louis Park barbecue sauce purveyors Ken Davis Products, so he could run a "Davis and Davis" slate, but she turned him down. Still, he remains undaunted: "I'm interviewing a number of people."
In 1993, Davis ran for mayor of Minneapolis, netting 100 votes to place 14th in an 18-way free-for-all primary. The next year, Davis scored 4,613 votes in his on-the-ballot bid for governor under the Nutritional Rights Alliance banner, outpolling only the Socialist Workers Party candidate in the six-way race. Davis notes that the party, which carried the same environmental themes, might have benefited from being listed as "NRA" on the ballots. Matching that total could be trickier this year, since voters will actually have to pencil him on their ballots.
At 61, the single father of four has the indefatigable energy of a young up-and-comer. Davis makes his home and office in a drafty, defunct bar near the corner of Lyndale and Lowry in North Minneapolis. He serves coffee in beer mugs to his visitors. The wooden bar sports his telephone and neat stacks of paper documenting his pro se legal fights against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. (One suit over an ash dump in Rosemount was recently dismissed; he's waiting to hear an appellate court decision related to the garbage burner on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.) He's the only one in the old gin mill, but there's plenty of room for company with 12 stools with flower-print seat covers parked at the bar.
The walls of the old public house are decorated with posters for never-ending battles and news clippings immortalizing past clashes: Yes! To Hemp: Food Fuel Fiber Medicine. Yes! To Hydrogen! Ban Leghold Traps! Did Your Food Have a Face? Go Vegetarian. One corner houses cardboard boxes thick with alphabetically filed manila folders labeled "Radioactive," "Ramsey County," Rivers," "Solar." The wall space between the men's and women's bathrooms is adorned with photocopied clippings of the "Little Alfie" fight near Ely, Minn., in which Davis and Co. succeeded in delaying the U.S. Forest Service's efforts to sell old-growth pines for logging, but ultimately failed to stop it.
It wasn't always thus. Once upon a time, eco-warrior Davis sold "coordinated career clothing" for women, and by his own reckoning moved mountains of polyester product. Davis gushes, "Oh, a lot of it! You bet. Millions of dollars of polyester. In 1979, I sold $6 million of that stuff. I don't know if I should be bragging about this." But the garment business fell by the wayside after Davis took a swim in the Mississippi River and came out with his skin burning. In the late '70s, he got involved in a fight with NSP over the utility's proposal to burn PCBs at one of their plants and never looked back. In 1983 he founded Earth Protector Inc., his incorporated alter ego.
Davis sounds a little hurt at the mention of the Green Party, which he perceives as stealing some of his eco-thunder. "I thought they should've gotten behind me," Davis says. Referring to this fall's Green gubernatorial hopeful, he figures that the party is running an "office manager" for governor, but adds, "Ken Pentel is a nice boy. He wears a helmet when he rides his bike." Davis recalls that one Green stalwart went so far as to label him a "soloist."
Was that a polite way of saying "gadfly"? Davis bristles. "I don't like that word, 'gadfly,'" he counters in his still-lingering Brooklyn accent. "I'm a dedicated, committed environmental activist."
The candidate's principal campaign proposal, "The Davis Water Plan," calls for a 2-cent-per-gallon water tax to be levied upon Minnesota corporations using underground well water. (Davis says the Department of Natural Resources currently charges $4.50 per million gallons of water.) He estimates that the plan, once it gets going, will generate $2 billion per year for the state, which could in turn be used to cut personal and corporate taxes. Other issues he's pushing include establishing industrial hemp, organic food, and renewable energy industries in Minnesota.
As for his below-the-radar, off-the-ballot stealth campaign, Davis isn't worried. Ever the optimist, he sees at least one ray of hope--in younger voters. He makes a habit of hitting student unions at local college campuses, where he presses "The Davis Manifesto" into the hands of unsuspecting kids. "I might be able to reach the college students, if I can turn them out," he figures. If not, Davis will barely break his stride: "Life is not over for me after November 3. I continue on."
Skip Humphrey isn't the only gubernatorial candidate who can boast of bringing a landmark smoking-related case before the courts. On September 29, Grassroots Party candidate Chris Wright and his attorney Randall Tigue went before the State Court of Appeals to argue that the inalienable right to grow--and sell--one's own dope is guaranteed by some parchment rolling paper known as the Minnesota state constitution.
Wright can quote Article 13, Section 7, which dates to 1906, from memory: "Any person may sell or peddle the products of a farm or garden occupied and cultivated by him without obtaining a license therefor." The case is appealing Wright's 1996 gardening-related conviction in Hennepin County after Minneapolis Police confiscated Wright's "incredibly great farm products." Wright wound up with a $1,000 fine and 100 hours of community service.
He figures the ultimate service to the community will come if he prevails in court. "If I win my case, not only will I grow vast quantities of marijuana, I will sell vast quantities of marijuana. I will give everyone the right to smoke vast quantities of marijuana," proclaims the 40-year-old Wright, who often wears his long, flowing brown hair in a ponytail. "And I'll bring back the $10 ounce of primo bud!" He dubs the election a "reefer-endum."
One of the central planks of Wright's campaign is his pledge to repeal the Controlled Substances Act. Under Gov. Wright, drugs would be regulated and taxed "just like liquor." His fundamental argument holds that most of the problems associated with drugs--main among them violence and gang activity--come about as a direct result of the prohibition of drugs, rather than drug use itself. He argues that prohibition reduces supply without curtailing demand, encourages criminal behavior by providing an economic incentive, and needlessly overcrowds both the state's courts and its detention centers.
"They can't even keep drugs out of prison," says Wright, sounding again one of his at-the-ready campaign slogans. "What kind of tyranny would it take to keep drugs out of society?" He also notes that two of the state's three major parties are in firm agreement on the issue: "Both Democrats and Republicans believe in criminal regulation of narcotics." No question: The day after the September primary, GOP candidate Norm Coleman attempted to criticize DFLer Humphrey for a vote to ease marijuana penalties 25 years ago, while at the same time admitting he got high in college.
Wright would do things a little differently. "If I become governor, I will seek a pardon for all nonviolent drug offenders," he says, though he isn't yet sure how many people that would include.
You could call casting a ballot for the Grassroots Party the ultimate wasted vote. But if Wright's only interest were in getting high, you wouldn't expect him to spend as much time as he does handing out leaflets and carrying signs to promote the legalization issue at public events--activities he says have earned him no small measure of police harassment. Recently, while proclaiming "Legalize Pot, Free Samples!" at Isanti County's Rodeo Days, Wright attracted the attention of local police who wanted to know more about those samples. Wright explained that his literature was printed on hemp paper. The humorless officers ultimately searched Wright, and came up empty-handed.
"Hell, I haven't gotten high in a year on marijuana," Wright confesses. But he does cop to ingesting a host of mind-altering legal substances: beer, Afri-Cola, and cigarettes. "I'm on tobacco maintenance," he jokes, patting the pack of Marlboros in his breast pocket.
Wright was one of the four founders of the Grassroots Party back in 1986. Eight years later, it ran a full slate of candidates for the state's constitutional offices, and provoked sideways glances from major-party honchos when it qualified for a check-off spot on the state's income tax forms--meaning taxpayers can now direct donations to the party. In that 1994 race, Grassroots gubernatorial candidate Will Shetterly came in third with 20,785 votes, or about 1 percent of the vote. The party's candidates for secretary of state, auditor, treasurer, and attorney general, however, all drew more than 50,000 votes each, perhaps in part because they were the only third-partyers in those races. (Colleen Bonniwell, the party's nominee for treasurer, came close to getting 5 percent of the vote in that contest.)
While there are other Grassroots candidates in smaller races this year, Wright, who ran for congress in 1988, is the party's only statewide representative. The party is active in only one other state, Vermont, where it has major-party status.
Hang around the candidate long enough, and you'll find that the pursuit of life, liberty, and legalized pot isn't the only pressing issue for the lifelong Minnesotan and Minneapolis resident: he's pro-choice, opposed to discrimination against the elderly, and for a fast, reliable public transportation system. The computer network engineer also favors an "electronic bill of rights" for protecting online privacy and safeguarding the free flow of information. As for the question of a new, publicly funded baseball stadium, he believes Minnesota voters have voiced their sentiments loud and clear--against charity for the Twins' fatcat ownership. Still, he says wryly, "I would go along with a stadium, as long I can smoke marijuana along with my beer and hot dogs in one of their suites."
In all, Wright believes there's a spirit of dissent in the Minnesota air this campaign season. "I have a feeling that the third-party vote is going to be the largest this state has ever seen," he predicts. "You cannot change the status quo with a vote for the status quo, because then they have no reason to change."
Reform's Alan Shilepsky calls for voting the 1-2-3 way
by David Brauer
Shilepsky says under his system folks can juggle their votes and keep their consciences clean
A friend and I have the same argument every election season. He finds a minor-party candidate who most precisely reflects our shared political views, then announces that he is voting for that person on principle. I play the role of pragmatist, opting for the major-party contender most likely to keep the worst one from winning.
Alan Shilepsky wants to end the quarrel. Shilepsky, 55, is the Reform Party's nominee to succeed retiring Secretary of State Joan Growe, Minnesota's head electoral cheerleader. While his DFL and GOP rivals earnestly talk about raising voter turnout among minority groups and through education drives, Shilepsky proposes the most radical reform: Change elections themselves.
"I think their assumption is that it's hard to vote," Shilepsky says of his opponents. "My assumption is that there often isn't enough difference [between major-party candidates], so it's not worth the effort for most people."
Shilepsky wants you to be able to vote for whichever candidate you prefer in any given election, and still have a role in defeating your least favorite. His answer? Instant Runoff Balloting (IRB). By this computer-tabulated method, instead of casting your ballot for a single office seeker, you would rank your preferences 1-2-3. If nobody receives 50 percent of the first-place votes, the candidate with the fewest top rankings is knocked out; then, that candidate's second-place votes are redistributed to the remaining contestants. The process continues until one candidate breaks the 50 percent mark and is declared the winner.
Shilepsky, a former "Paul Tsongas DFLer" who left a party he believed wasn't centrist enough, argues that dark horses of all ideological stripes will have a much easier time getting support under with IRB. Let's say my friend and I are both smitten by the plucked eyebrows of People's Champion gubernatorial candidate Fancy Ray McCloney, but really, really don't want Republican Norm Coleman to win. Right now, we have to choose--between a "statement vote" for Fancy Ray, or a "strategic vote" for Skip Humphrey, the man most likely to prevent Coleman from occupying the governor's chair.
This sort of calculated voting, Shilepsky asserts, "is what really makes people cynical and not vote. You have to think about how everybody else is going to vote, and it forces you to look at the polls and pay too much attention to the horse race. That's depressing."
Under IRB, there's no dilemma: We rank Fancy Ray number one, and Skip number two (or three, if there's someone else we like better). If, somehow, Fancy Ray should finish last in the first round, our vote goes to surviving candidates with a better chance of winning, offering us added opportunities to thwart Coleman.
To be sure, some calculation remains, but voters would also have much more freedom to register their true preferences. If they do, alternative viewpoints would in turn get more support and be more influential in shaping the issues. "I think this would really open the system to new ideas that get washed out of the current winner-take-all system," he says.
It's not just the fringies who might benefit. Take Reform Party guber nominee Jesse Ventura, running as a fiscally moderate, socially liberal bridge between spendy DFLers and priggish Republicans. Even now, supporters of the taxophobic Coleman badger give-it-all-back voters not to "waste" their vote on Ventura and thus elect Humphrey. If Instant Runoff Balloting was in place, those voters could rank Coleman first and Ventura second (or visa versa) and at least be assured that a tax-slasher will win. If a majority of people feel that way, Shilepsky says, a system that produces such a winner would enjoy more public support.
Shilepsky also thinks IRB will undercut negative campaigning, especially in primary elections. "You will want to get second choices from your opponents, so you are more likely to be conciliatory rather than beat up opponents with a scorched-earth policy. But you still have to tell the voters why they should vote for you."
Currently in the U.S., the IRB system is used only in Cambridge, Mass., city elections, though leading political scientists call the concept sound. "It's credible," says University of Kentucky professor Malcolm E. Jewell, a national expert on state elections. "As a broad generalization, it's certainly true that voters are more likely to vote if they think their vote will have some real impact."
But retired University of Minnesota political science professor Charles Backstrom notes, "The problem would be getting the voters to accept a new system. It has been very difficult to get voters to participate. Most will, in fact, not rank the candidates"--in part, because they fear that doing so may somehow hurt their top choice and also because they may not be familiar with others in the field.
Backstrom also points out the more gargantuan challenge Shilepsky faces, even if he wins the secretary of state's seat in November: "Since everyone in the legislature got there with the present system, they are not likely to want to change anything."
Ironically, if Shilepsky triumphs, he will win in a system that he argues holds third-party candidates back. He says his race, however, is somewhat of an exception: an open seat for a relatively low-profile position against two major-party opponents (DFLer Edwina Garcia and Republican Mary Kiffmeyer), both of whom lack statewide name recognition.
Shilepsky understands that convincing legislators to rewrite the rules from such an unheralded position is sure to be a battle that will make David's victory over Goliath look modest. But Joan Growe has proven that Minnesota's secretary of state can command some attention from the bully pulpit, which Shilepsky says might be enough for Instant Runoff Balloting to gain muscle. "In a way, this is what it's all about," he figures. "An opportunity for people who have new ideas to be taken seriously."
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