Ind. Candidate Isn’t Riding Ventura’s Pink Boa

M By Stephanie Simon

mILACA, Minn. – The candidate is strolling through the senior citizens center, looking to shake hands. But the white-haired men and women bent over their quarters are playing cards too intently to pay him much heed.

Then Don Murray bounds up – 80 years old and flamboyantly exuberant.

“Hey!” he booms, clapping the candidate on the back. “So you’re Jesse’s buddy, eh?”

Tim Penny’s meet-and-greet smile tightens.

“Well,” he says, “I am the independent candidate for governor.”

In Minnesota these days, that is a delicate position indeed. Penny is running to succeed Gov. Jesse Ventura, the ex-wrestler-in-pink-boa who has specialized in promoting his own outrageous persona, to the embarrassment of many constituents.

As an adviser – and yes, friend – to the governor, Penny hopes to capitalize on Ventura’s reputation for blunt talk, decisive action and devil-may-care independence. Yet he also has to prove that a third-party governor can get things done.

Minnesota voters elected Ventura – running on the Reform Party ticket, although he later defected to the Independence Party – in part because they delighted in his disdain for partisan politics. They found out, however, that a governor who gleefully body-slammed both parties could not advance his agenda very far.

So, in an odd twist, this year’s Independence candidate is campaigning as the ultimate insider.

Penny served 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives before resigning in 1994 with a scathing denunciation of Washington politics. This time around, he reminds voters at every stop that he and his running mate, state Sen. Martha Robertson, are seasoned politicians – he a former Democrat and she an ex-Republican.

Penny, 50, positions himself as the “sensible center,” above the partisan fray. He rattles around the state in the “Common Cents Express,” a low-rent orange-and-black minibus with a cracked windshield and seriously deficient shock absorbers. He boasts that his campaign is cheap by necessity (he won’t take political action committee money) and old-fashioned out of principle (he refuses to hire pollsters).

But although he has all the trappings of an upstart outsider, Penny never stops pushing the message that he and Robertson know how to work the system. As he puts it: “We know the players. We know the programs. And we can get things done.”

His opponents say that’s bunk.

No matter how experienced, a third-party governor will have trouble corralling legislators to back him on difficult decisions, they argue. And with the state facing a $2 billion budget deficit, difficult decisions inevitably await.

“A third-party governor is a failed experiment. It was fun and entertaining when everyone had money and everyone had jobs. But when times got tough, when (Ventura) had to govern, when he had to build coalitions, he failed,” said state Sen. Roger Moe, 58, the Democratic candidate.

The Republican candidate, state Rep. Tim Pawlenty, 41, echoes the point. His spokesman Peter Hong said: “We’ve had the ultimate case of tri-partisan gridlock. It’s time for Minnesota to get out of neutral and pick a direction.”

“The people who pushed Jesse so much said he’d be a good go-between with the two parties in the Legislature. But he treated the legislators like clowns,” said Brian Humphrey, mayor of the small town of Princeton. “He wasn’t an honest broker.”

Humphrey is leaning toward supporting Pawlenty. “I guess I’m a party person,” he said, sounding almost regretful that he could not in good conscience call himself an independent.

Across the state, however, even the most zealous “party people” are beginning to take Penny’s campaign seriously. Polls show him running roughly even with Moe and Pawlenty; the race is, at this point, a three-way tie. And while just 8 percent of Minnesota voters identify themselves as independent, 57 percent believe the state is “better off” with “more than two strong political parties,” according to a recent poll by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

John Brandl, for instance, is a lifelong Democrat, yet the former state legislator plans to vote for Penny. “I know all three candidates and they’re all responsible, good people,” he said, “but the hold that special interest groups have on politicians is a major problem, and Penny has a chance to break the mold.”

A large part of Penny’s appeal is that he’s no Ventura: Earnest and intense, he listens more than he talks.

On the campaign trail, Penny can happily spend an hour discussing arcane finance issues with a small-town mayor – leaving himself just three minutes to meet potential voters on Main Street. When he addresses groups, his shoulders hunch and his voice tends to trail into a mumble.

If he wins, it’s safe to say Minnesota vendors will no longer be hawking “My Governor Can Beat Up Your Governor” T-shirts.

That’s a major plus to voters like Kristan Dye, who directs the Chamber of Commerce in the rural town of Mora. “As long as he doesn’t stick his foot in his mouth and doesn’t wear a boa, we’re fine with the idea of a third-party governor,” she said.

Penny has asked Ventura to join him in a few appearances. And he gladly accepted the governor’s leftover campaign funds. Mostly, though, the candidate is going it alone.

His chief message is fiscal responsibility – and it’s a sobering one.

Pawlenty, the Republican candidate, has vowed not to raise taxes if elected. He tells voters he can take care of the budget deficit by cutting government waste. And he promises that he will spend amply when spending is warranted; for example, he wants to fund $3 billion in road repairs through bonds.

Moe, the Democrat, has said he’s open to certain tax increases, especially on gasoline and cigarettes. Yet he also promises new programs, such as paid time off for parents of newborns and an “early education cabinet” to focus on preschools. “Somehow, some way, we’ll make it work,” he says, projecting confidence.

Penny, in contrast, goes out of his way to advise voters that the state has, as he puts it, a “big mess” to deal with – and that the cleanup may not be pretty. He warns that tax hikes and service cuts are inevitable. He tells college students he may have to raise tuition rates. He warns mayors that state aid to municipalities may be slashed. His mantra: “Everything’s on the table.”