James P. Lenfestey: The third party's over

  • Article by: JAMES P. LENFESTEY
  • Updated: September 17, 2010 - 7:11 PM

Let's quit voting for candidates who drain centrist energy from major parties.

First, a mea culpa. As a writer for this newspaper's editorial pages in the early 1990s, I am partly responsible for the plague of third-party spoilers that has crippled good government in Minnesota. I argued that the best candidate in the Sixth District U.S. House race in 1992 was Dean Barkley, of Ross Perot's Reform Party, not the proven but flawed DFL incumbent Gerry Sikorski, and certainly not his clueless IR challenger Rod Grams. My skeptical colleagues reluctantly agreed.

Aided by that major editorial endorsement, Barkley won 16 percent of the vote, enough to swing the election to ... Rod Grams (44 percent), the least-informed candidate I ever interviewed in my journalism career.

The rest is unfortunate Minnesota history. With the Reform, now Independence, Party persistently qualifying for public funds by achieving 5 percent of the vote, it has the incentive to continue putting up candidates, and the political chaos has been constant.

The tsunami came in 1998 as Independence Party candidate and feather boa wearer Jesse Ventura won election with 37 percent of the vote over Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer "Skip" Humphrey.

Ventura proved not a terrible governor, though hardly one who could earn national coverage for governmental accomplishments, not outrageous statements. But the lingering effects of that one-off third-party triumph for governor have been toxic.

Since Ventura retired, a parade of third-party candidates has siphoned support, and far more important, centrist energy from the two major parties. The result? Today the Republicans have become so shrill and ideologically rigid they have driven all moderates from their ranks. The DFL, far more centrist, still nominates party loyalists over more easily electable public executives such as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

There are two solutions to this seemingly intractable problem, one short-term, one long-term.

First, voters this election must not be seduced again by third-party candidates, of whom Independence Party candidate Tom Horner is only the latest example. There is so much more to an election than staking out positions at debates between the other two candidates. Parties muster an army of foot soldiers into the electoral process that the Independence Party has proven time and time again it cannot match. The fatal flaw of the Independence Party is its utter failure to build a party. Remember Tim Penny? Peter Hutchinson? They ran, had their reasonable says in the debates, garnered a sliver of the vote and vanished from the political scene. The result was Gov. Tim Pawlenty, never elected by a majority of Minnesota voters, who has presided over the state like an emperor, contemptuous of the majority-elected Legislature and of state law.

The long-term solution is ranked-choice voting. Though many were skeptical, the Minneapolis debut of this election process was relatively gaffe-free. It allows voters to rank their preferences so they don't potentially throw the election to their least-favorite candidate. Voters can nod toward the enticing feather boa, yet ultimately support a serious governor who understands politics and how to manage the state's business. Voters should support statewide implementation as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the serious contest this November is between DFL nominee Mark Dayton, who as U.S. senator voted against President George W. Bush's Iraq fiasco and who speaks similar truth about Minnesota's budget woes, proposing an upper-bracket tax increase, and Republican nominee Tom Emmer, whose ads have an animated cast of children behind him, but whose fiscally empty, socially inflammatory policies will continue Minnesota's recent race toward mediocrity.

The endorsement of Tom Horner by former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson illustrates my point. Carlson, no longer at home in the extremist Republican party, must find it hard to support a Democrat such as Dayton publicly, and Horner is an apparent middle option. But voters should remember in November that the upper-bracket income tax increase Dayton proposes would take rates all the way up to where they were -- in the Carlson administration.

Minnesota's voters need to learn from mistakes. Pick one of the two major parties and get involved. And don't waste a vote on a third-party candidate. For the good of our state, the rule of unintended consequences must end.

James P. Lenfestey, of Minneapolis, is a former editorial writer for the Star Tribune.

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