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Chapter Two: Developing a Campaign Strategy

 

I was running in a third-party primary for what is mainly a policy position. A U.S. Senator is responsible for formulating government policies at the national and international levels. This would give me a platform for advancing proposals in the areas of trade and labor standards, keen interests of mine a decade ago. I would be appealing to primary voters who were members of the Independence Party, formerly the Reform Party which Ross Perot founded in 1992. Perot gave this party a heritage of concern with public debt. He also opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), predicting that there would be a “giant sucking sound” as U.S. jobs went south of the border.

The Minnesota Reform Party scraped and clawed its way to major party status thanks to Dean Barkley’s run for the U.S. Senate in 1996. Barkley received six percent of the vote that year as the incumbent Senator, Paul Wellstone, won reelection against his predecessor in the U.S. Senate, Rudy Boschwitz, a Republican. Its moment of glory arrived two years later when Jesse Ventura “shocked the world” by being elected Governor of Minnesota. How dare the voters select a former pro wrestler for such a position! Under Ventura’s leadership, the Minnesota Reform Party broke with the national party when Pat Buchanan took it over. Distancing itself from that effort, the Minnesota party was renamed the Independence Party. I myself was drawn into Reform/ Independence Party politics through personal acquaintance with Alan Shilepsky, the Reform Party’s candidate for Secretary of State in 1998.

Since I would be appealing to voters in the Independence Party primary, I thought first to write a letter to party members explaining why I had decided to run. To do that I would need the party’s membership list. Originally, the Independence Party Constitution called for open inspection of party books. However, a proposed Standing Rule adopted at the 2002 convention tightened access to this information. It stated that where non-endorsed candidates were running in the primary against endorsed candidates, the non-endorsed candidates might gain “access to Party list(s)/ database(s)/ information, upon approval by the appropriate governing body of the IP.” The endorsed candidates, in contrast, would automatically receive the information.

Wishing to rent the IP membership list, I queried the party chair, Nancy Jorgenson, by email. She informed me that the party’s central committee would meet on Saturday, July 27, to consider this and other matters. The committee did meet. It denied my request. Ms. Jorgenson explained that I had had an opportunity to seek endorsement at the convention. Having failed to receive it, I would have to suffer the consequences. That set the tone of my relationship with the Independence Party. I was doing this on my own, running against an officially endorsed candidate. I could only post the letter to Independence Party members on my campaign web site in hopes that a few curious souls would find and read its message.

Lack of party endorsement impacted my candidacy in another way. Candidates for state-wide political office often find it useful to rent booths at county fairs and at the State Fair. Not only is there a high concentration of potential voters near the booths, but these are people seeking novelty and excitement. They do not resent a candidate’s intruding in their space. They want to meet political candidates. Because this kind of event is considered an appropriate place for interaction between candidate and constituents, to campaign there favorably colors voters’ perceptions of the candidates. For obvious reasons, State Fair officials do not want candidates wandering around the grounds with a sign. Candidates must rent a booth or be invited to use a booth rented by a political party.

Jim Moore, the endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate, had full access to facilities belonging to the Independence Party. According to the newspaper, Moore spent the maximum number of hours at the State Fair on each of its ten days. I never set foot inside the State Fairgrounds. I inquired of the party’s candidate liaison, Mike Landy, whether I, as a nonendorsed candidate running in the Independence Party primary, might stand in or near the party’s booth at the State Fair talking with visitors. His response was in the negative. Still, I did not want to give up on this option. On Sunday, September 1st, an hour or so before my freak automobile accident, I stood at the north entrance to the State Fair grounds displaying my two-foot-by-four-foot campaign sign to persons approaching from the parking lot. After twenty minutes of such happiness, a security guard told me that I was trespassing on State Fair property. I found another spot nearby on Snelling Avenue, less well-traveled but legally not so protected.

For the rest of the campaign, I was a non-person so far as the Independence Party was concerned. That was to be expected. I did expect that Independence Party officials would want the party’s endorsement to mean something. What was unexpected was the attitude of Minnesota’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune. This newspaper, dominant in Minneapolis and its suburbs, has an average daily circulation of 415,500 copies on week days (and 674,300 on Sundays), more than twice the volume of the state’s next largest, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. On Wednesday, July 31st, the Star Tribune ran a front-page article on the Independence Party and Green Party primary contests for U.S. Senate. The article, headlined “Major minors: McGaa and Moore could make a dent,” spilled over into two full columns on page A8. Disappointing to me was the fact that this newspaper story failed to mention that Moore faced opposition in the primary. There was nothing about me or Ronald E. Wills. One sentence in the article mentioned that Ray Tricomo was opposing Ed McGaa. Here, too, I was a non-person.

I thought that I might make up at least some of the lost ground by writing a letter to the editor of the Star Tribune calling attention to the omission. Once, during the Mayor’s race, the newspaper had printed such a letter when a story on a debate between six candidates mentioned four of the candidates, but not me. This time, the tactic did not work. The Star Tribune did not print the letter. My next option was to call Lou Gelfand, the Reader Representative. Gelfand informed me, in a message left on my answering machine, that he had no control over publication of letters to the editor. However, he would contact the news department to suggest additional coverage of the Independence Party race for U.S. Senate.

Weeks went by. I paid a visit to the Star Tribune office, met briefly in the downstairs lobby with the paper’s political team leader, and left samples of my literature. Nothing happened. As expected, the Star Tribune did publish information about me and the other candidates in its Voter’s Guide, which appeared on Friday, October 6th. Unexpectedly, on the same day, it printed a letter to the editor which I had written to defend the Green Senate candidate, Ed McGaa, against insinuations that he was untrue to his professed interest in environmental protection by having participated in a failed business venture in South Dakota. But that was all. The Star Tribune had given Jim Moore a huge publicity advantage over both rival candidates in its news reporting. This newspaper even refused to accept a paid ad from me unless its content was substantially changed.

With respect to news coverage, the huge part of the Minnesota political market which is Minneapolis and its suburbs became like a gaping hole in the doughnut. For the most part, I had to write this off as Moore territory. Not so St. Paul. The St. Paul Pioneer Press, to its credit, ran an article on Monday, July 29th, comparable in length to the Star Tribune article, giving all Senatorial candidates in the Green and Independence parties at least several paragraphs of coverage plus boxed personal information and a mug shot. My catchy web site domain name, www.billforsenate.org, was also mentioned. So the eastern part of the Twin Cities metro area was adequately covered. Reporter Toni Coleman had done a good job of reporting both the endorsed and nonendorsed candidates’ campaigns.

What to do about Minneapolis, my own home town, where I live and own rental property? I thought I had a unique opportunity in belonging to the landlord group, Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. First, I would show up at its monthly meeting in August and become visible either as a guest speaker or a participant from the audience. The meetings are videotaped and shown on the regional cable-television station, Channel 6, in hour-long segments on Fridays starting at 11:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Many Twin Cities residents watch this show. Second, a free-circulation newspaper, the Watchdog, features articles by or about landlords. In response to an inquiry, editor Ray Whebbe proposed that I write a story about my experiences on the campaign trail which he would include in the issue coming out a week before the primary. I placed a paid ad in this newspaper, featuring a picture of me and my wife. With a circulation of 10,000 copies, the Watchdog may lack the Star Tribune’s broad reach, but at least this would be a place where I had an advantage over Jim Moore.

Facing obstacles from my lack of party endorsement, I had to devise an alternative strategy to reach voters. A statewide campaign such as mine had to work through the media. Radio and television coverage would be scarce; I was not a celebrity and did not have the funds to air paid commercials. Forget lawn signs. Forget campaign buttons, telephone lists of eligible voters, and all the other trappings of a modern political campaign. My best shot lay in seeking newspaper coverage. Since the St. Paul Pioneer Press had already run a major article and the Star Tribune was ignoring my campaign, I would have to go out state. Some coverage would come on its own as the larger outstate newspapers (notably Duluth and Rochester) ran articles about the primary or compiled voters’ guides. But most would have to come by pounding the pavement, so to speak.

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