- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Minnesota has long been one of the most curious of American states. After World War II, the Democratic Party there merged with an indigenous populist party and formed the Democratic-Farmer- Labor (DFL) Party. Soon national figures such as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale began to emerge from it into the national political arena.

The state’s subsequent liberal image was replaced in the 1980s with a movement of voters into the political center. From 1994-2000, the state’s U.S. senators were a left populist, Paul Wellstone, and a right-wing conservative, Rod Grams. But otherwise the state drifted to the center. Then in 1998, a centrist populist, Jesse Ventura, running on the new Independence Party ticket, won an upset victory that shattered all conventional images of Minnesota politics. His one term spanned a period from fiscal boom to bust that was also experienced throughout the country.

Former DFL congressman Tim Penny ran as the Independence Party candidate for governor in 2002, but a conservative Republican, Tim Pawlenty, won the race with a plurality of votes. The Independence Party seemed to have peaked with the colorful Mr. Ventura, whose preening vanity and lack of political interest outweighed any desire to build a political movement.

Mr. Pawlenty, who ran on and then implemented a “no new taxes” policy, has controlled the state House of Representatives, but the DFL has controlled the Senate. The recession, which had begun in 2000, continued to produce lower state tax revenues, and huge deficits appeared. While many new Republican governors, facing similar fiscal crises,raised taxes, Mr. Pawlenty refused. In 2004, the charismatic Mr. Pawlenty was being touted as a man with a presidential or a vice presidential future.

By mid-2005, however, the fiscal crisis in Minnesota had forced Mr.Pawlenty’s hand to seek new sources of revenue so that the stateconstitution’s mandate of balancingthe budget could be fulfilled. Although his party base includes the state’s social conservatives, the governor proposed a major expansion of gambling in the state, including a demand for an increased share of revenues of already existing Native American casinos. His party base, offended by this and his attempts to raise taxes on cigarettes and state services (and trying to call them “fees” instead of taxes), became further upset, and recently rejected the re-election of his handpicked candidate for party chair in a humiliating revolt at the party elections.

Mr. Pawlenty isn’t the only one to face political problems. The state DFL also held an election for a new party chair, and its establishment group backed someone who had been part of the local Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004. The left populists, many of who had backed Howard Dean in 2004 and resented the top-down hierarchy that had recently developed in the DFL, rejected this candidate and elected one of their own.

In the middle of all this, the state legislature faced another crisis of balancing the budget. Although the governor stubbornly insisted he would not raise taxes, and the DFL-controlled Senate insisted it would, virtually all observers predicted that a compromise would be reached before the deadline. This deadline came and went, no compromise was reached, and state government has been forced, for the most part, to shut down. (Unwilling to face the fury of holiday vacationers, last-minute legislation kept state parks open.) Minnesota is only the second state in U.S. history to be shut down.

Backbenchers in both parties had to go back to the districts to face the unpleasant music. Many, who had traditionally marched in the ubiquitous July 4th parades, simply did not show up. There is talk of insurrection in both parties as anger among voters grows, and the leadership of both parties, trying to placate their left and right base voters, seem unable to compromise.

The Independence Party, thought moribund after the 2004 election, could now stage another upset of 1998, only this time also winning other statewide offices and a number of House and Senate seats. The DFL, mirroring the national Democratic Party, is in disarray in the state. The Republican Party has no viable plan without a tax compromise. The only question is whether the Independence Party can come up with candidates of sufficient stature and political ability to capture the voters’ attention. Tim Penny, not running this time but still organizing for the third party, says yes it will. Only the next several months will tell.

The national implications are enormous. Minnesota is one of the nation’s most significant “swing” states, located at the center of a supercluster of swing states called “Minnewisowa” that includes Wisconsin and Iowa. All three decided their 2004 electoral votes by the narrowest of margins. Minnesota is also emblematic of several national issues, including health care, housing, taxes, farm issues and Social Security. The political stakes in this region in 2006 and 2008 are high.

A grass-roots voter insurrection in the center, would only make it more complicated and more interesting.

Barry Casselman writes about national politics for the Preludium News Service.

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