In appointing Dean Barkley, the head of Minnesota's Planning Agency, to fill out the remainder of Paul Wellstone's Senate term, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura has actually made a surprisingly respectable choice. The outgoing governor has been having another one of his very public temper tantrums ever since participants in the Wellstone memorial service booed his presence, and the ex-Navy Seal vowed to retaliate by nominating an "ordinary person," like a garbageman, to the seat.
Instead, he picked the one person who can claim the most responsibility for building the Minnesota Independence Party into a credible third force in state politics. Barkley, who appeared to have no clue that Ventura was planning to nominate him until he got a call from a staffer telling him to don a suit and tie instead of the sweatshirt and jeans he was planning to wear to work today, just might show the Senate what it means to be a real independent in the next few weeks.
Barkley is no political neophyte. A lawyer and small-businessman, he got involved in politics in 1992. Inspired by Ross Perot's campaign, he ran for Congress as an independent and garnered a healthy 16 percent of the vote while blending fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. His plan for reducing the federal deficit, for example, combined means-testing of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security with big cuts in defense spending. In 1994, he ran for the U.S. Senate and got 5.4 percent, which gave the Independence Party major party status in Minnesota. Two years later, he tried for Senate again and, after being allowed in one of the major candidate debates, got 7 percent. Ventura was the honorary chair of Barkley's campaign that year, and when the two men paraded together on July 4 in Barkley's hometown, he noticed that the crowd cheered more for Ventura than for a popular talk-radio host. That realization set in motion the events that culminated in Ventura's stunning 1998 victory, with Barkley as his campaign chair.
Barkley represents the beating heart of the otherwise dead Perot movement, albeit with a tolerant Scandinavian twist. He was never part of Perot's cult of personality; in fact, he was one of the vocal leaders of the "pro-democracy" faction within the national Reform Party. For a while he tried, as a leader of his Minnesota party, to wrest control of the national party away from Perot and his minions, and later, to keep it out of the hands of Pat Buchanan, whom he saw as a religious fundamentalist nightmare. But his focus was always on building the third-party movement in his state in order to bring a fresh perspective to policy matters.
But that doesn't mean he's as bland or cautious as former Congressman Tim Penny, who has run a lack-luster campaign to fill Ventura's seat in the governor's mansion. Asked today at the press conference announcing his appointment how he would continue Wellstone's legacy, Barkley noted that he agreed with Wellstone on campaign finance reform and political reform issues, and supported the Senator's courageous vote against preemptive war on Iraq. Indeed, Barkley has long backed Clean Money public financing of elections, and also tried to push a non-partisan redistricting plan through the state legislature, albeit without success. His reluctance to go to war probably stems from his earlier political experience as a Vietnam antiwar protestor. As a close adviser to Ventura in office, Barkley played a key role in shaping economic policy, including the decision to focus Ventura's billion-dollar tax rebate not on the rich -- as those Republicans who initially welcomed the wrestler's election had hoped -- but on the struggling middle class, which was at the core of Ventura's support.
If I had to guess, I'd say that Barkley isn't likely to align himself with either Trent Lott or Tom Daschle if control of the Senate, even temporarily, comes down to his vote. He'll caucus alone and vote his conscience. That will probably not be good news for any of the GOP's rightwing judicial nominees, or for special interests hoping to sneak more corporate welfare into the spending bills that have to be resolved during the coming lame duck session. Then again, Barkley's also not likely to roll over for organized labor on the homeland defense civil service issue, nor is he a free trade critic like Wellstone. Maybe, if fights over unresolved vote counts spill into the Senate chambers, he'll get a chance to distinguish himself as an honest arbiter. Whatever happens, this brief stint in the Senate isn't likely to be Dean Barkley's last moment in the political spotlight.