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The Star Tribune

Will Voters Ever Settle Again for 2 Choices?
By Lori Sturdevant
June 27, 2002

You're tired of politicians who play to the mushy middle? You want to vote for someone you can truly believe in, rather than merely tolerate -- and you won't listen to anybody who says that you'll be wasting your vote?

You just might typify the new Minnesota voter -- and if you do, history will remember Jesse Ventura's 1998 election not as an aberration, but a harbinger.

Further, Ken Pentel of the Green Party will be not a footnote in the 2002 election, but a prophet of a new political order. He could even be one of its midwives.

Never heard of him? Stay tuned. You will hear of him and from him come October, when Minnesota's campaign finance system bestows on his campaign upwards of $250,000. That's his due as the gubernatorial candidate of a party whose presidential candidate passed the 5 percent vote threshold in Minnesota in the last election, earning for it major-party status.

What you'll hear might surprise you. Pentel, 41, is no throwback to the Age of Aquarius, and his party is not group therapy for aging hippies. This longtime organizer and lobbyist for Greenpeace and Clean Water Action is an articulate, tough-minded political realist.

Since he ran for governor as a Green four years ago, Pentel's passion has been party building. He is propelled by the conviction that the two-party era in Minnesota politics is ending.

"People are looking for something that speaks to them. They don't want to be told that they have to settle for the homogenous center," he said. Give them more candidates with a mix of positions, and "people will be more passionate and more engaged in democracy. That should be what we want in this state."

He scorns suggestions that the Greens should not have endorsed Ed McGaa to run against U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat whose voting record is Greener than those of most, if not all, of his Senate colleagues. ("I find it disrespectful. I would never tell another party who they should or should not run.")

Neither is Pentel interested in proposals to allow Minnesota candidates to take more than one party label to the ballot. That's a big-two trick to subsume third parties, he says.

His agenda draws as much from Teddy Roosevelt as it does from liberal dogma. At its heart are protection, conservation and restoration of those things that Minnesotans hold in common. Pentel starts with air, water, soil and wildlife habitats. Defend those resources, he says, and change must come in the way Minnesotans farm, harvest timber, create and use energy, and get to work, to lessen environmental damage and make those activities sustainable over time.

"We've got situations that are literally putting our life systems at risk in this state. The role of government, and of the governor, is to focus on the commons, the general biological condition and the well-being of all citizens," he said.

Pentel carries a conservationist's philosophy to other dimensions. To conserve the Minnesota economy, he would have the state support local, self-reliant small businesses over large conglomerates. To protect human well-being, he would ask the Legislature to enact a state-financed universal health care program.

And to "revitalize democracy," he would push election reforms aimed at making the system friendlier to upstart political parties. He would start with campaign finance reform, to dam up the flow of special-interest money into campaigns. But the Greens and many in Ventura's Independence Party won't be satisfied until they also get Minnesotans voting by preference number -- a system called instant runoff voting -- and electing legislators at large, proportionate to party vote.

Do those things, and there's no more argument that a vote for a third-party candidate is a wasted vote or a spoiler's tool. Do those things, and chances are much greater that Minnesota election contests will no longer be duels, but multicandidate free-for-alls. Do those things, and achieving a governing consensus at the Capitol won't be any easier.

That may not be what Minnesotans want. But it also may be that the cable TV generation will never sit still for only two channels.

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