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'We need to build a brand -- and the Independence Party -- from the ground up'

MinnPost Asks: IP Interim Chairman Mark Jenkins

Mark Jenkins
Mark Jenkins

For those who thought that the November elections may have spelled the end of the Independence Party,  meet Mark Jenkins.

Jenkins has moved into the position of "interim" party chairman. He’s convinced that the inability, to date, of the DFL governor and the Republican-dominated Legislature to work together to solve fundamental state problems will be proof to Minnesotans that there has to be a middle way.

Jenkins, 48,  is a former Republican who attended his first political caucus, an IP caucus, in 2003. He was one of only three people at the event.

“The other two were college students who were there to get class credits,’’ he recalled.

By virtue of his attendance, Jenkins won the right to be a delegate to an IP state convention, where he met such IP stalwarts as Jim Moore and Jack Uldrich.

“I was impressed," he said. “These were guys who were serious, not just one-idea people."

Over the years, he became more and more involved in party committees and recently stepped up to become the “interim" chairman when Uldrich, for business reasons, stepped aside.

Jenkins, an unsuccessful state Senate candidate in November, will be the heavy favorite to become the full-time chairman at the IP convention at the end of April.

He talked about his vision for the party with MinnPost.

MinnPost: What’s the great lesson of the 2010 election for the Indpendence Party?

Mark Jenkins: The way the parties are governing has tossed out any concept of working with the other side. That’s the unfortunate reality. This year [during the campaigns], they talked a better story of working across the aisle during the campaigns. But the reality is that that’s not what they’re doing. We’re seeing examples of this across the country. The lesson of 2010 is that there is a wide gap of moderate Minnesotans not being represented. They’re not getting the government they’d like to see.

MP: But IP gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner attempted to campaign to the middle. Why didn’t he do better? [In the end, Horner, despite significant support from former pols and a briefcase full of editorial endorsements, wound up with just 12 percent of the vote.]

MJ: There are probably a dozen reasons. That’s one of the reasons I decided to run myself. I thought if I didn’t run, I couldn’t really understand the challenges. The main challenge I always throw out is that we have not built a good foundation for a candidate to build his or her campaign around. You take very good candidates — and we’ve had people like Tom Horner and Tim Penny and Peter Hutchinson — and they always have to build their candidacies from the ground up.

I’d walk up to a door and say, "I’m running for state Senate." And people would invariably say, "Are you a Republican?" or they’d say, "Are you a Democrat?" and when I’d say no, they’d immediately assume they knew if I wasn’t one, I had to be the other. The biggest thing I want to be able to accomplish in the next 18 months is that when a candidate goes to the door, people will say, "Oh, you’re an Independence Party member."

We need to develop our own message. We’re still working on two or three bullet points. A starting point could be something like  "fiscally responsible and socially tolerant." It just can’t always be that we’re against both of the other parties. If we can get that messaging out, it would give our candidates a leg up. It would give them a chance to save on early money and early messaging.

MP: What other things did you learn while door-knocking?

MJ: That’s a pleasantly disappointing thing. I’d go to a door and here’s what I’d get: "Are you a Republican or a Democrat?" I’d say, "Neither." Depending on which house you were at the person would say, "Good, as long as you’re not a Democrat." Or, in another case it would be "Good, as long as you’re not a Republican." What’s disappointing is that our politics have gotten that way. But what’s pleaant for us is that it means there is an opportunity.

MP: But how do you overcome the idea that a vote for the IP candidate is “a wasted vote"?

MJ: That gets re-phrased every year. You hear it come from the party that loses. Up until Tom Horner, we were supposed to be winning races just for the Republicans. This time, because of dis-enfranchised Republicans, we were the reason that the Republicans lost. That’s what we hear. I think we need to take it on directly. We’ve been too nice, too polished, in dealing with that.

I was at a party and a lady said, "Aren’t you just spoilers?" And I said, "Absolutely. We’ve got a big goal in front of us. The other parties have two choices. They can get rid of us by better representing the middle. If they move to the middle, we become irrelevant. Then, we won because our battle is to get representation. But the other thing they can do is keep go farther to the left and the right. If they continue to campaign that way, we’ll stop spoiling for them and we’ll win.

MP: But to win, you have to have a framework. How do you build a framework?

MJ: We have to build a brand that people are attracted to. We have a diehard group of passionate, persistent volunteers. But we have to bring others in. Brand is going to be important. ... There has to be an assumption we stand for something. I’ve got some ideas but I want to make sure everyone is on  board with what those points will be. What my goal is is to have a point that is attractive to reasonable Republicans and, likewise, a point for practical progressives. And then we need something that completely differentiate us. What’s an issue the other two are afraid of because they don’t want to get their hands dirty? We can’t be afraid. Heaven forbid. What do we have to lose?

MP: Many of the things you talk about — building an identity, bringing in more people — are time-consuming. Is there patience in the party to building slowly?

MJ: If you look at how long we’ve been hoeing this row, you can see that the party has patience. ... We’ve had a grand slam home run [the election of Jesse Ventura]. But we can’t keep waiting for the next home run. We have to hit some singles. I’m not going to tread water waiting for the next Jesse. You can’t build a party that way. We have people who believe in the vision. I’m not worried about the internal party people. The question is how do I get people from other parties to see that we’re the real thing? We’re still relevant. If we weren’t, the other parties wouldn’t keep complaining about us.

MP: What are some specific goals?

MJ: None of us should be so arrogant as to think we’ll win the first time out. ... It’s OK if it takes two or three times to win. We need to find people willing to run two or three times.

MP: Does that mean Horner should run again?

MJ: I’ll do everything in my power to make sure he’s on the ballot again in four years. I think there are already people who are saying, "Hmmm, maybe that vote [for Horner] would not have been wasted.’’

MP: What are goals for 2012?

MJ: I don’t want to sit out 2012, but maybe it’s time to pay more attention to the down-ballot races. City councils, mayors. And if we have a good qualified candidate for the U.S. Senate, that’s great. But I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to chase that person down.

MP: Is money — or lack of it — the single biggest issue?

MJ: It’s a huge issue. But having run my own small campaign, I realize it’s not the only issue. I heard somebody say once, maybe it was Paul Wellstone, that you can never have enough money, time or volunteers. But at the same time, we can’t sit still waiting for the money to come in.

One of the challenges we’ve had in raising money is that we’ve had to go back to the same people over and over again. Man, I feel bad for our steady contributors. We’ve hit up these same people, year after year. We do need to reach out and find more people.

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Comments (7)

Sorry Mr. Grow but the Independence Party of Minnesota members are nothing more than a group of disenfranchised losers that have been run out of the major political parties. They are mostly arrogant, self-appointed intellectuals that relish in the role of spoiler, as admitted by Mark Jenkins in your article.

After the fluke election of an opinionated and purely populist candidate Jesse Ventura by 37% of the vote in 1998 for Governor, the IP has put forward 3 consecutive intellectuals to act as spoilers. Granted no sane person would claim Jesse Ventura to be an intellectual but look at the IP candidates for governor since; former Democrat Congressman Tim Penny 16.1% in 2002, former college professor Peter Hutchinson 6.4% in 2006 and former Republican public relations apologist Tom Horner 11.9% in 2010.

Oh yes, they all three received endorsements from newspaper’s editorial boards from around the state which meant absolutely nothing in the election outcome. All smoke but no substance. After three major elections the state’s voters have declared that they only want one liberal party, the DFL.

Whine as Jenkins has about party building from the ground up, the IP can’t argue the fact that they have an 85% turnover rate of delegates from each election cycle and are flat broke. It should be noted that Mark Jenkins drew a whopping 7.2% in his run for State Senate. The two major party’s at least stand on their platforms (liberal vs conservative) and not a mushy milk toast moderate agenda.

The IP is a waste of time. Their only stated goal is to be a spoiler and depending on whom they run either former Democrat or liberal Republican will determine which major party will win the election.

Tom Horner, regardless of his self-inflated ego isn’t dumb enough to waste his time running again under the IP banner in 2014. It was clear that the more Minnesota saw of Horner in his 30 debates, the more they rejected him as an electable candidate. Tom Horner accomplished what he and Arne Carlson set out to do, spoil the election for the GOP.

Minnesota has demonstrated with a clear voice that they aren’t buying the snake oil that the IP is selling. Even the former IP Senate candidate, Dean Barkley, who in April 2010 begged the Tea Party to come in and take over the IP has seen the light. If former IP chair Jack Uldrich, who orchestrated Jesse Ventura’s win as party chair in 1998 couldn’t garner any more than 11.9% for Tom Horner (who spent nearly $1.2 million), than how will Mark (7.2%) Jenkins expects to build anything?

Really Doug, it must be a real slow news day to write about these characters!

Well, Larry here really seems to have it all figured out. Tell me, Larry, how may political parties are allowed to participate in your democracy?

Bruce, you give me far too much credit. Minnesota voters continue to speak and their answer is two parties, DFL & GOP. Don’t you and your IP ilk ever get tired of defending your wasted voting record on lousy candidates like Penny, Hutchinson & Horner or is spoiling elections your idea of democracy? Time to wake up and get a life!

Hang on, Larry. And a little more respectfully, please. There is no wasted vote in a democracy. The IP brand has been offered to voters for only 10 years. The D/R has a combined 350+ year head start on us. And has deeply ingrained institutional and psychological advantages. Would it be okay to get a little bit more time?

Larry, you have several facts right, but those alone don't paint the entire picture.

You have the election results right (all the way down to the decimals), but 11.9% of the Governor's race translates into a quarter million people (251,396) who believed that Tom Horner was the best person for the job. I will not abandon a quarter million Minnesotans because our opponents think that their voices are insignificant.

You claimed that our candidates are "all smoke but no substance". I'll claim that our challenge is the exact opposite. As a salesman, I learned that consumers buy the sizzle, not the steak. As a party, we have been able to find, and put forward, top grade candidates. We have not been able to re-create the sizzle of the Ventura campaign. That is not an easy task, but it is one I am willing to take on.

One "fact" that I find interesting is your claim on delegate turnover. I can tell you from experience that 85% is a bit, O.K. exceedingly, high. I tend to side with the critics who claim we have the same small, but persistant, group of supporters we have always had. I will do my best to invite new people into active rolls within the party. I am proud to say that reasonable Republicans and practical progressives are always welcome in the IP.

Regarding the spoiler label, lets look at this another way. If we are the "spoiler", then the losing party is the "spoiled" party. I agree. Both of the other major parties have been spoiled by two way races for too long. We come along and make the races easier by lowering the percentage (and number) of votes needed to win a race (a candidate can win a three way race with less than 50% of the vote now). Yet the other parties blame us for the fact that they aren't able to win with a lowered threshhold.

Larry, I don't expect to change your mind with a comment here. I do, on the other hand, hope to show you, and all Minnesotans, that the IP is the alternative to the ever extreme campaigns and governance of the other two major parties. Feel free to contact me directly if you want to discuss this more.

Here's your brand..."greatest good for greatest number"...If you said you didn't think the focus should be on the group...farmers, business, rich, poor, but rather on the policies that provide the greatest good for the greatest numbers, you might have something....instaed of "taxes good" or "taxes bad", you might ask what policy will provide the services needed by the people of the state and balance our books...if you can't get to a point that you are able to stand for fiscal responsibility and the greatest good, then your party isn't worth having!

Herb, I like that. The Greatest Good for The Greatest Number. I'll play with that as an idea. Thanks.