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Independence Party loses major-party status in 2014: an analysis

by William McGaughey

November 5, 2014

To retain major-party status (which has certain advantages with respect to public financing and ballot access), a political party in Minnesota needs to win at least 5 percent of the vote in a state-wide election. The Independence Party, which elected Jesse Ventura governor in 1998, failed to obtain the necessary percentage in any of the state-wide races in 2014.

The preliminary results of yesterday’s election are:

Brandan Borgos attorney general 2.31%
Steve Carlson U.S. Senate 2.40%
Hannah Nicollet governor 2.88%
Patrick Dean state auditor 4.01%
Bob Helland secretary of state 4.91%

Bob Helland, running for a vacant seat, was the party’s last, best hope to retain major-party status but, even though his percentage rose as returns came in, he ultimately fell just short of the necessary 5%.

As a candidate in the Independence Party primary for U.S. Senate in 2002 (31% of the primary vote) and the party’s candidate for U.S. Congress in the 5th district in 2008 (6.92% of the vote), I write with some familiarity with the Independence Party although I am not a party insider.

First, let me say that the Independence Party faces at least two disadvantages:

1. Because the Democrats and Republicans monopolize most state offices, a vote for a third-party candidate seems to many voters to be a “throwaway vote”.

2. The Independence Party has an unclear brand. People do not know what the party stands for.

I challenged the party-endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate in 2002 because I did not think he differentiated himself sufficiently from the Democrats and Republicans. The classic IP formulation runs like this: “We are neither left nor right but in the middle.” (Therefore, we are not partisan extremists. Hurrah for us.) Or else it is this: “We are socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”

The Independence Party website states: “The Independence Party of Minnesota is not a party in search of an identity; rather it is a party in search of courageous people willing to let go of the status quo and fight for real political reform.” It lists three core principles:

1. Cannabis legalization: “We support the legalization, taxation and regulation of cannabis.”

2. Balanced budgeting: ““We support government budgets that are structurally balanced and avoid shifting of expenses or borrowing to make them appear balanced.”

3. Campaign Finance Reform: “The IP supports an amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution stipulating that candidates for public office can only receive financial donations from eligible voters who reside within the jurisdiction of the office they seek.”

I consider principles #2 and #3 to be rather innocuous “good government” proposals which I would favor but which would not motivate nonpolitical people to become involved with the Independence Party. Principle #1 does, however, have some teeth to it considering that people do care about marijuana legalization but neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have the courage to embrace full legalization. I also favor this proposal, not because I want more people to smoke pot, but because the present system gives law enforcement an excuse to stop and search and ultimately incarcerate people unnecessarily. Like Prohibition, the criminalization of marijuana results both in increased crime (including violent crime) and excessive law enforcement. It is not progress to put more people in prison for non-violent offenses.

Brandan Borgos, the IP candidate for Minnesota Attorney, had been board chairman of NORML, an organization to support legalization of marijuana. I thought his candidacy, if successful, offered the most promise with respect to branding the Independence Party. Yet, Borgos received the lowest percentage of the vote of any state-wide IP candidate. A reason for this was surely that another candidate for Attorney General, Dan Vacek, was listed on the ballot under the label “Legal Marijuana Now”. He received 2.99% of the vote compared with Borgos’ 2.31%. In fact, a young first-time voter whom I escorted to the polls yesterday remarked that he had voted for “Dan” because he wanted to get into the lucrative marijuana-distribution business if it became legal. It would therefore seem that the average voter simply did not know that the Independence Party, and in particular Brandan Borgos, supported marijuana legalization but they could see from the ballot that Dan Vacek did.

Another promising candidate, I thought, was Patrick Dean, the IP candidate for state auditor. In his case, he was a whistleblower who lost his job as manager of the St. Paul Port Authority’s real estate when he brought this organization’s financial wrong doing to the attention of the state auditor (who happened to belong to the same political party as the St. Paul mayor.) Dean, in other words, had walked the talk of honest government and been punished for it. He had the second-highest percentage of the IP state-wide candidates but not enough, unfortunately, to help the party retain majority-party status. The average voter did not know who Dean was.

A third candidate, Steve Carlson, was a special case. His 2.40% of the vote was not bad considering that the “throwaway vote” factor applies especially to the contest for U.S. Senate. Carlson, however, was not running with the party’s blessing. The Independence Party nominated Kevin Terrell at its convention in May 2014 but Carlson won the IP primary by a decisive margin. The party’s state chair, Mark Jenkins, told Minnesota Public Radio: “We won’t support Mr. Carlson. He has never sought our support. ... He doesn’t even begin to reflect the Independence Party’s views on issues.” The MPR report later noted: “He (Carlson) has defended a Missouri Senate candidate’s remarks about ‘legitimate rape,’ alleged a war on white males and said the person who shot and killed Trayvon Martin ‘provided a valuable service.’” Carlson objected to the IP’s support of marijuana legalization.

My own opinion is that the decision of primary voters trumps “ the Independence Party’s views on issues” as articulated by party leaders and even the party platform. The IP should have supported Steve Carlson as the party’s legitimate representative in the contest for U.S. Senate although party leaders disagreed with his views. Lukewarm support would have been adequate.

This leads to a discussion of how the Independence Party chose its candidates in 2014. Here I have a bit of an inside view having myself considered running for Governor as an IP candidate and having attended the party’s convention in Mankato on May 17th where the statewide candidates for 2014 were nominated.

I considered running for Governor wishing to advance some original proposals to improve government in Minnesota, especially the judiciary. First, I wanted public office holders to take an oath “to serve the best interests of the people” rather than just “to uphold the law” which would create a more open-ended obligation to be a responsible office-holder. Second, I wanted to create an additional check upon abusive government by creating a panel that would hear complaints brought by citizens against particular elected officials and would have the power to remove those persons from office after a certain procedure had been followed. I wanted to present these ideas to the party leadership and to the convention. Then if I was selected as the party’s candidate for Governor, I would travel around the state articulating those views.

I first expressed my interest to Mark Jenkins, state party chair, at the 5th district convention at Washburn library in Minneapolis. He told me that I had to contact another party office to obtain an application form and then attend the party’s Executive Committee meeting at the Edina public library to present myself as a prospective candidate for consideration. I did obtain the application form and did appear at the Executive Committee meeting.

At the meeting, I told party leaders that I was considering a run for Governor this year. I had certain advantages and disadvantages. As an advantage, I had run credible campaigns with the Independence Party before, was known to newspaper editors around the state, and had something to say. As a disadvantage, I had always run solo campaigns before and felt that this kind of campaign would not be adequate to win an election. I needed to have a campaign organization. My objectives in running would be, first, to win the 5% of votes to allow the IP to retain majority-party status; and, second, to advance serious issues that would help to brand the party and attract voters.

Immediately after I had spoken, Mark Jenkins said that he could not support my candidacy. I had admitted that I could not win. He thanked me for my past services to the party. Since no other committee members voiced an opinion, I thanked the committee and then promptly left the room speaking briefly to Brandan Borgos on the way out. Jenkins later emailed me to the effect that I would still be free to run in the primary for Governor if I felt so inclined. I replied that I was no longer a candidate.

When I attended the party’s convention on May 17th, another prospective candidate for Governor and another person rode to Mankato with me in the car. The party now had a candidate for each statewide office except Governor. There were two candidates competing for the U.S. Senate nomination, Kevin Terrell and Hannah Nicollet. Just to be sure of my own non-candidacy, I asked Jenkins if IP candidates who were not endorsed at the convention could campaign at the party’s state fair booth. He said they could not. Since campaigning at the state fair would have been a large part of my effort to obtain 5% of the vote, this reinforced the conclusion that I would not be a candidate for any office.

As the convention began, I sat near the party’s elder statesman, Dean Barkley, who confirmed that he was not running for any office. The party’s hand-picked candidates for various offices made their presentations. I pointed out that there were several candidates for Governor at the convention, “Captain Jack” Sparrow from Minneapolis and Adam Steele from the 7th district, who were not on the program. Would they also be allowed to make presentations? Mark Jenkins was disinclined to allow it. Diane Goldman said these candidates were “unqualified”. However, someone made a motion to allow such candidates to make informal presentations during the lunch hour. The motion passed. When the disfavored candidates spoke, most people were out of the room having lunch.

The agenda made room for a gubernatorial candidate to speak at a certain time in the afternoon. Since there were no candidates, I was unsure what would happen. Suddenly, however, the IP had a candidate for Governor. Hannah Nicollet had agreed to run for Governor instead of U.S. Senator, leaving the Senate nomination open for Kevin Terrell. So the convention ended on a happy note. All offices had nominees; they were photographed together. As previously mentioned, Kevin Terrell, the Senate candidate, was defeated by Steve Carlson in the August primary.

The rest is history. In the general election held yesterday, none of the IP statewide candidates won 5% of the vote. The party has lost major-party status. What went wrong?

First, I think that party officials were overly controlling. The idea that an “Executive Committee” would have the power to screen persons who wished to be put forth in nomination for various offices at the convention and declare certain persons “unqualified” violates the precepts of democracy. The state convention is superior to the Executive Committee and should therefore be allowed to make its own rules and decisions. I note that the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong objected to the Beijing government’s prior screening of candidates for Hong Kong’s top elected official. Democracy should come to the Independence Party as well.

Second, I object to top party officials feeling that they have the right to define what the party’s values are or what type of candidate the party should run. In an appearance on the public-television show Almanac, Mark Jenkins boasted about positioning the party to be more competitive. No longer would the party be represented by “50-year-old white males”, he said. All he was doing here was positioning the party to be “DFL lite.” The idea of demographic quotas has defined the post-McGovern Democratic party. Exclusion in the name of inclusion is not going to lead the IP back to major-party status. Voters inclined that way will support the Democrats first.

I happen to hold Mark Jenkins in high regard. He has worked hard to build the party. In fact, if he himself had been one of the statewide candidates in 2014, I feel his vote might well have exceeded the 5% threshold. Jenkins is an intelligent and personable representative of the party. But he also has, in my opinion, overstepped his prerogatives as the party’s state chair.

Even though the party website states that the Independence Party does not have an identity problem, such a problem does exist. The very fact of denial confirms the need to deny. Party platforms do not cut it. The general public has little interest in party platforms. The only thing that matters is activity in the public arena. The party needs to host open-ended discussions of political issues, and not just during election campaigns. The party and its members need to get behind issues of real interest to people and not just take refuge in formulations of political positioning. It needs consistent organization to advance certain goals. Then if candidates run under the IP label, that label will mean something to voters, many of whom are not politically inclined.

It would be sad to see the Independence Party go away. In my view, its value is not so much a set of policy proposals but an attitude of “independence” or defiance of authority. This party is not locked into political respectability. Think of Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler. This party was not above nominating such a person. It took on something of Ventura’s rebellious personality. So, if if you dislike what bipartisan government has done to America, consider a third party enough in the mainstream to get votes but free enough to break with convention and make its own destiny.

Still, the IP is a third party. Here is the ultimate challenge: Candidates need to communicate effectively with voters to win elections. Traditionally, they need to communicate through paid commercials in the media (since the media pay little attention to candidates on the basis of issues alone). They need lots of money to mount successful media campaigns. Campaign contributors want to support winners. Since the IP has not won anything lately, it seems unlikely that the party’s candidates can raise much money. Therefore, they cannot communicate with the mass of voters and cannot win elections.

The way out is to bypass the commercial media as much as possible. The Independence Party needs to acquire its own media capability. This means developing interactive web sites, doing radio shows or podcasts, publishing free-circulation newspapers, etc. However, all this will take work - lots of volunteer work. Whether people are motivated to work for the Independence Party of Minnesota is yet an open question. Whether they can get behind a particular set of issues is another. Now that major-party status has been lost, it cannot be business as usual for members of the Independence Party. New thinking is required.

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