The Star Tribune
Will Voters Ever Settle Again for 2
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
"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
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.