By John Celock
Sixteen years after upending Minnesota politics and the nation by electing Jesse Venture as Minnesota’s governor, the Minnesota Independence Party is in a fight to keep it’s status as a major party in the state.
Born as the Reform Party of Minnesota and rechristened as the Independence Party, the party has been a force in state politics since the 1990s. Ventura’s 1998 victory helped place the party on the map, but at the same time that win could have also hurt the party long term.
“I think one of the worst tings that JV did was he wasn’t interested in helping to build a third party,” David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University and longtime analyst of Minnesota politics, told The Celock Report. “He gets elected in a fluke under relatively unusual circumstances in 1998. Jesse Ventura never actually had gone through the work to build the party and support local candidates. He did minimal to nothing in 2000 and 2002 in supporting candidates.”
The Independence Party has not had a statewide win since Ventura and former Lt. Gov. Mae Schunk, his running mate, won in 1998. The party’s only other statewide officeholder was former U.S. Sen. Dean Barkley (I), who was appointed by Ventura to a two-month term in 2002. Barkley garnered the IP major party status during his 1994 U.S. Senate run. Former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny, the party’s 2002 gubernatorial nominee, received 16 percent of the vote in his run for the governor’s mansion.
The Independence Party is focused on keeping their status, citing the need for a third party in the state and says that they are focused on more than the five percent, but rather in trying to regain a foothold in statewide office. Bob Helland, the party’s nominee for secretary of state, told The Celock Report that while others are trying to steer the narrative to the end of the IP, those within the party see it as more than just trying to get five percent.
“We’re in theses races to win,” he said. “We’re talking about getting 30 percent.”
Helland, a former staffer in the state Department of Revenue, is part of a ticket headed by IP gubernatorial nominee Hannah Nicollet. He speaks with confidence about his race for the secretary of state’s office as an avenue for the party to get the five percent or more in an effort to show the party’s appeal statewide. Helland is facing off against Democrat Steve Simon, a state representative, and Republican Dan Severson, former state representative, in the race to succeed retiring Secretary of State Mark Ritchie (D).
“Secretary of state was an open seat and it seems like a good place for a guy like me to step in with state level knowledge,” Helland said of his run for the office.
Nicollet is challenging Gov. Mark Dayton (D) and Republican nominee Jeff Johnson.
Helland is focusing his campaign on the administrative and economic development aspects of the secretary of state’s office, stressing his background from the Revenue Department. He noted that his opponents are focused on the election law aspects of the office, but said that many of the policy areas they’ve discussed are impacted by the state Legislature and not directly the secretary of state. He said this would include promoting economic development, including bringing together various state agencies involved in the process after business registration.
Helland, 29, is also using his age in an attempt to boost the IP this year. If elected, he could be the nation’s youngest statewide elected official. The only statewide candidate from a state major party younger than Helland this year is North Dakota state Sen. Tyler Axness (D), a candidate for the state Public Service Commission, who is 27. Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) is currently the nation’s youngest statewide elected official.
“The one thing that I thought would be easier is to get young people involved,” he said. “I think getting it out that this is possibly the youngest statewide elected official in the nation can get them involved.”
In addition to Helland, the IP nominee for state attorney general, Brandon Borgos, is 33. Nicollet is 40.
In addition to Ventura not engaging in party building, Schultz from Hamline University pointed to the death of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) in a 2002 plane crash as playing a role in the current fortunes of the IP.
“In 2002 when Wellstone’s plane crashed, that polarized in Minnesota in ways that last to this day. On the day before the crash, if we looked at polls, we had Tim Penny, the IP candidate polling at 27 percent, the Republican at 27/28, the Dem at 26,” Schultz told The Celock Report. “That plane crash and immediately Tim Penny sinks by 15 points in the polls. There was something in the plane crash and the Wellstone memorial service that polarized the state. And made it hard for third parties.”
Schultz was referring to the 2002 memorial service for Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, which has been described by some, including Ventura, as a partisan rally for the Democrats. Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who replaced Wellstone as the Democratic nominee for Senate that year, lost the race to Republican Norm Coleman, in what has been attributed to backlash from the memorial, which had featured partisan leaning speeches.
Minnesota has had a long history of third party involvement, including a strong Green Party presence in the state. Schultz said that third parties in the state have normally gained strength at “periods of crisis,” including during the Depression and when there is “fatigue” with Democrats and Republicans. He noted that Ventura’s 1998 victory is attributed partially to the state being in good condition and voters willing to take a chance on the former professional wrestler and Brooklyn Park mayor.
Schultz said the strong third party presence in the state has had a number of effects, including preventing most statewide candidates from winning with a majority of the vote. At the same time, he said it has not translated into Republicans and Democrats seeking out third party voters, but rather targeting their bases. He did note that during Ventura’s governorship, compromise was needed in state government as the third party governor worked with a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican state House of Representatives.
Since Ventura handed the keys to the governor’s mansion to Republican Tim Pawlenty in 2003, Schultz said the Independence Party’s fortunes go down hill.
“For 12 years the Independence Party has had no serious impact in terms of public policy and no serious impact in terms of moving an election,” he said.
Helland remains upbeat about the IP’s fortunes long term.
“This party is serving a lot of good. It is giving people an avenue to participate in democracy,” he told The Celock Report.