Turmoil in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jesse Ventura has retired his act to Baja California and is reportedly confining his politics to coaching Kinky Friedman on his long-shot run for governor of Texas. But back here in Minnesota, Ventura's Independence Party has hatch...

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jesse Ventura has retired his act to Baja California and is reportedly confining his politics to coaching Kinky Friedman on his long-shot run for governor of Texas. But back here in Minnesota, Ventura's Independence Party has hatched another novelty -- a slate of wonkish candidates for all five top state offices with solid public service credentials and a pledge to end the infighting and get on with the state's business.

At an interview with all five in their shabby walk-up campaign headquarters, I was impressed by their earnestness -- and by the odds they are facing in tackling incumbent Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Attorney General Mike Hatch, the endorsed candidate for governor of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

In 1998, Ventura -- the one-time pro wrestler and born showman -- won a huge upset victory as a third-party candidate. But none of these five people struck me as potentials for People magazine's cover.

The leader of the group -- and the man who assembled the team -- is Peter Hutchinson, a professional systems management expert who has worked as Minneapolis deputy mayor and school superintendent, state commissioner of finance and a vice president of the Dayton Hudson Corporation, now Target Corp. He is co-author of a handbook for public sector managers, "The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis."

The folks he recruited over a long series of lunches -- and introduced as a team only this month -- are equally credentialed. Maureen Reed, the candidate for lieutenant governor, is a physician, a health plan administrator and a regent of the University of Minnesota. John James, the candidate for attorney general, is a former state revenue commissioner.


Lucy Gerold, the auditor candidate, is a deputy chief of the Minneapolis Police Department. And Joel Spoonheim, the youngster of the group and the candidate for secretary of state, is economic and redevelopment director for the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park.

As Sam Rayburn once remarked of the Kennedy White House staff, none of these worthies has ever run for sheriff -- or anything else. The Democratic and Republican politicians I saw on my visit here are respectful of Hutchinson's expertise but skeptical that the Independence slate can do anything more than steal some votes from the major-party candidates.

Pawlenty said, "Their positions are indistinguishable from those of the Democrats," implying that they would likely divert votes from Hatch.

But Hutchinson said their earliest endorsements have come from Republican moderates, including key figures in the administrations of former GOP governors.

If Hutchinson and Co. can raise $2.5 million, as they claim they can, this will be an interesting test, not just for them but for the nascent independent and third-party movements popping up around the country in response to the partisan gridlock in Washington and many state capitals.

Minnesota was one of those states last year. With Democrats narrowly in control of the state Senate and Republicans clinging to a similarly slim margin in the House, Pawlenty forced -- or, as he says, endured -- a budget showdown that led to a partial shutdown of government and the temporary closing of state parks. This year, with revenues up and the legislators chastened, there has been more cooperation. But the memories of past bitterness linger.

Calling themselves "Team Minnesota," the five Independence candidates say they will work on a common agenda, rather than pursue their individual ambitions and policy goals. The issues they stress are those they say are most urgent for the state: improving education, health care, transportation and the environment. They also promise to include local officials in their deliberations and budget-making, eliminating turf wars and unfunded mandates. "With one team and one agenda, Minnesotans will get the results they want and pay for," their campaign flyers declare.

How well they could keep those promises with a Legislature dominated by -- and currently split between -- Democrats and Republicans is an open question. The Independence slate says that legislators should not be diverted from pressing business by divisive social issues that "bring out the extremes." So it calls for no change in current gun laws, no ban on abortion and no state lottery. Its literature takes no clear stance on gay marriage.


In most states, a highbrow campaign by such deliberately non-ideological policy wonks would not stand a chance. But Minnesota has a reputation for independence and good government. These are odd stepchildren for Jesse Ventura. But who knows what disillusioned voters may choose to embrace this year? .

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