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‘We need to build a brand — and the Independence Party — from the ground up’

The party’s interim chairman is preaching patience and looking “down-ballot” to capitalize on capturing Minnesota’s still-vacant political “middle ground.”

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.

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“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.]

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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?

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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.

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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.