Sixteen years ago, Dean Barkley put a dent in the Minnesota political scene, when he ran for the 6th District congressional seat and captured a surprising 16 percent of the vote as an independent.
After that, Barkley went on to become a founder of a nascent political movement that was known at the time as the Reform Party before morphing into today’s Independence Party. Under whichever moniker, Barkley made two runs for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and ’96, capturing 5 percent and 7 percent of the vote, respectively, ensuring that the IP would have major-party status in the next election cycle.
And that came in 1998, when Barkley was one of the strategists behind Jesse Ventura’s shocking gubernatorial win. Barkley, who became director of planning in the Ventura administration, is widely believed to have been the sound policy wonk behind the governor. (“The best way to convince Jesse of an idea is to throw it out there and let him think he thought of it,” Barkley says.)
Then, in 2002, during the waning days of the Ventura administration, Sen. Paul Wellstone’s plane went down. Ventura appointed Barkley to fill the remaining two months of Wellstone’s term. So, after some 30 years of political activism and agitating, Mr. Barkley suddenly went to Washington.
A man of many ‘hats’
Since then, he’s worn many hats: lobbyist, campaign manager for Kinky Friedman’s ill-fated Texas gubernatorial bid, Metro Mobility bus driver and the namesake of an admittedly sleepy law practice.
When Ventura decided he wasn’t going to run against Sen. Norm Coleman and Al Franken in the 2008 Senate race, Barkley decided he’d ante up — one more time, he says. Having survived the primary as the preferred IP candidate against a large field, Barkley suddenly finds himself in a three-way race again.
MinnPost caught up with Barkley recently at his Plymouth law office, where he displayed the self-deprecating sense of humor and no-nonsense policy beliefs that he’s known for.
“I’ll give you my patented sound-bite, nothing answers,” he says by way of starting the interview. “How’s that?”
The Barkley campaign is pretty simple — because money is always an issue — but it might hit a sweet spot right between Coleman and Franken on a range of key topics: deficit reduction, immediate withdrawal from Iraq, drilling for oil on land that’s already available while exploring alternative fuels, the legalization and taxation of medical marijuana, health care that opens up the Medicare system for all Americans on a cost basis, lowering the drinking age to 18.
Debates give Barkley chance to make up for limited funds
This Sunday marks the first of five debates among Coleman, Franken and Barkley before Election Day — a major chance for the former senator to get his message out directly to voters. Recent polls have shown Barkley hovering near 14 percent, but Barkley’s never had much use for polls anyway (see Ventura, Jesse).
Conventional wisdom would hold that Barkley would pull votes away from Franken, but the Independence candidate himself doesn’t necessarily believe that — he thinks the fiscal conservatives that are normally diehard Republicans are his to grab and, indeed, he takes his hardest swings at Coleman.
With Democratic efforts to reach a veto-proof majority in the Senate, the issue of which party Barkley would caucus with is in play, too.
As of now, he is planning to do what he did during his two-month term, according to Christopher Truscott, communications director for Barkley’s Senate campaign. Last time, “Dean didn’t caucus with either party, though he worked with both,” he said. “True story: In the Senate dining room, which is divided into Democratic and Republican sections, Dean sat right in the middle,” Truscott said.
Here are excerpts of our interview with Barkley edited for length and clarity:
MinnPost: The first question I’ve got is: Do I call you Senator?
Dean Barkley: You can call me whatever you want. I respond to all kinds of different barks.
MP: But you are campaigning as Senator Barkley.
DB: Yes, Senator Dean Barkley. I have been there, I have a track record. So I know where the bathrooms are, so I have a head start on everybody else. I know where the tunnels lead and I know what trains to take.
MP: Do you know where you can get free rent and no utilities?
DB [laughs]: Well, I have to ask Norm; maybe I can take over his apartment.
MP: You have branded your campaign a little bit with Jesse Ventura, obviously. Do you want a tight affiliation with the governor in that regard? What sort of relationship are you trying to portray there?
DB: Well, just that Ventura supports my run. That he thinks that I’d make a great senator. That he saw what I did when I was there and I thought I was — did a very good job for the short period of time that I had. And that he’d like to see me go back and finish the job.
MP: Tick off some of the things that you did in those two months.
DB: Well, we were actually in session for eight days. I think the biggest accomplishment was that I was part of a group of a five or six centrist senators that basically banded together to make sure that the Homeland Security Bill got to the floor for a vote. And when we agreed that the form of the bill was satisfactory to us, we were the swing votes that actually made it pass.
MP: And you had some misgivings on this, as I recall.
DB: There were a few things I didn’t particularly care for. But we had to make the decision: Do you give up the entire idea of reorganizing government to deal with our security interest in a more efficient way — which was the largest reorganization of the government in about 40 years — or do you make them start over again next year? Which means it would not have passed. So, we kind of held our nose a little bit with the few things that they threw into the bill and made sure it passed.
MP: When he was exiting office, [former U.S. Sen.] Mark Dayton said, “My view of Washington going in was that it is a cesspool, and my view going out is that it’s a cesspool.” You’ve had experience through looking at the sausage-making part of legislation, so what makes you want to go back there?
DB: I’m not willing to give up on my country, I’m just not. It doesn’t have to be that way. The Senate used to be a collaborative body where you actually got to know the other senators, you got to develop friendships, you used to build correlations to actually agree on what issues we need to tackle and actually find compromise and answers to whether it’s, you know, you name the issue: energy, debt, health care that we can’t afford anymore, prescription drug cost.
Where do you want me to end the issues that they’re not addressing right now?
MP: Right. And…
DB: And it’s because they don’t talk to each other anymore. But it does not have to be that way. We can return to some civility. The Senate race could — I tell you neither one of these guys are going to go there and make friends with anybody.
I mean, they’re both going to take their side and continue to stick their tongue out at each other while nothing gets done in Congress.
MP: Some people would say the partisanship is good. Why do you think that a collaborative …?
DB: Is it? Good for what?
MP: Well, it’s good governance to …
DB: It is? Well, do you like what governance is doing to you right now? Ninety — what is it? — 91 percent of Americans do not like what Congress is doing right now. I didn’t know there were 9 percent of the public were lobbyists, you know, that still approve of Congress. [laughs] I mean, people have figured out that it’s a broken system.
MP: Well, what can you bring to it then?
DB: Both parties have slowly but surely drifted further to the left and the right where they have less and less in common. The centrist-common-sense moderate who use to have a good say in Washington, it’s fewer and fewer. The Tim Pennys, the John Kasiches the, you know, the Hubert Humphreys, Durenberger, they’re not there anymore.
And they’ve been replaced with Norm or we don’t know, depending on what year you’re talking about, what Norm stands for. He changes but with the political winds. Which is fine, I guess, if you want someone that does that, you’ve got a great one there. But …
MP: Well, people are allowed to change their minds. I mean, part of the problem that people have with the Bush administration is that they’ve held steadfast …
DB: And I’ve said that’s fine. Norm’s good at it. I’m giving him credit that he’s very good at changing his positions. For the reason he does that, you’ll have to judge for yourself. He was Bush’s best buddy for the first four years until his numbers dropped.
But I haven’t changed my position since I started running in ’92. The same issues I ran on then are even worse now. That’s the one thing wrong with the Republicans –that they’ve lost their soul when it comes to not spending money.
MP: You know, a lot of people would say that the Republican losses in ’06 had a lot less to do with the war and a lot more to do with them abandoning their principles as sort of fiscal agents.
DB: Right. Have you heard Coleman mention the debt once?
MP: Nobody wants to talk about it.
DB: I do. McCain at least mentions it once in a while. So there’s some hope.
MP: Why run now?
DB: When I ran [at] first, I knew I was not going to win at that time. I was simply trying to get the party — major party status, which I accomplished.
MP: What brings you to it now? Are you trying to just maintain major party status?
DB: No, absolutely not. I think that the public is mad. They’re upset with both Democrats and Republicans. And the only reason Democrats and Republicans get away with the same old thing is they never have any competition.
And I want to give the voters of Minnesota an option that they don’t have to vote for the same old thing, that they do have a different way of approaching politics in this country.
Like Jefferson said, “We need a revolution every generation or so.” It’s been too many generations since we’ve had a revolution. And fortunately, we don’t need guns this time. We can do it with the vote.
MP: Are you afraid of becoming in a sense, obviously, not the same party but maybe a statewide Independence Party version of Ralph Nader, this guy who’s constantly running …
DB: No. No, this is my last time I’m running. I mean, this is it. I was hoping that Jesse was going to do it. He didn’t tell me until an hour before the filing deadline that he was not going to run for sure.
And he left the opening there on purpose, because quite frankly, he had not made up his mind. Until about an hour before when he flipped the coin and it came up tails.
So, and I decided someone needed to do it. I thought that I had the best name recognition. I’ve got a track record, and I thought that I’d have the best chance of actually beating the $40 million that you have to run against, the $20 million each from Norm and Al.
Jesse was outspent heavily and still won. If I can get my message out, anything can happen in this election. Right now, it’s still a tie.
MP: But what I’m getting at is, and this is not a slight against you, but you’ve run for three different races and have not won. But also, getting enough of the vote that some people would say, “Well, he’s just a spoiler.”
DB: That’s saying that somehow the parties own votes. Parties aren’t owed — you earn votes. And quite frankly, whether I take more Democratic votes or Republican votes, I could care less whether Al Franken or Norm Coleman wins, because neither one of them are going to do one thing to change the way Washington operates.
They’re right out of central casting. They’ll both fit in perfect, if you want more of the same. They’re both nice guys, I have nothing personal against them, but they’re participating in a political system that is destroying our country.
MP: What about money?
DB: What about it?
MP: What does it take for you, money-wise?
DB: I have no idea. I’ve been calling people, sent out a mailing. I’ll raise all I can raise. I have no idea what I’m going to raise right now — it’s still too early to tell. A lot would depend on how well I do in the debates. How much more negative the other two get with each other.
MP: But do you feel that you get slighted in some coverage and debates?
DB: Stuff like that doesn’t bother us at all. For the past 16 years, they’ve been writing our obituary over the Independence Party and how we can’t do anything.
We continue to throw out, I think, more superior candidates than the other parties do. For some reason, the voters — except for Ventura because of his unique abilities to motivate enough people to vote for him — haven’t decided that they want to give us that option yet. I think that it’s getting stronger and stronger.
Is this the year that they’ll actually decide well, you know? Barkley hasn’t raised $20 million, I haven’t seen him in his bowling ads. But I like what he says, you know, he actually knows what he’s doing. Maybe we ought to give him a shot. I don’t know when that’s going to happen.
But being maligned or ignored or discounted, that’s been the whole 16 years, so that doesn’t bother me one bit.
MP: It’s easy to make fun of Norm’s living arrangements in Washington, D.C., and it’s probably also just as easy to make fun of Franken’s tax history, and they seem to be going after each other on that. But what do you see really as the flaw in either candidate, or why are you better than those two?
DB: Like I said, I have nothing personal against either Norm or Al, and I’m not going to play the games that they’re playing with each other. I’m running against the political system as it exists now, what it’s doing to our country, its inability to deal with any of the issues that we need dealt with.
The bought-and-paid-for people they become by using this system. People don’t give money to politicians because they love them, but because it’s a great investment and they get a good return out of it.
MP: Where are you on drilling for oil?
DB: I think drilling is fine. I have no problem with expanding drilling. We have millions of acres of existing oil land that’s already being leased that’s not being used. The federal ban is stupid and should be lifted.
I don’t think we have to go to ANWR [Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] yet. I think that there are other oil reserves up in Alaska that can be gone after first. But that’s just an easy sound bite for politicians to say that’s how they’re going to solve the energy crisis.
MP: Everybody’s talking about gas and alternative energy and so on and so forth, but nobody talks about what you say is one of the main causes of this: debt, deficit and the value of the dollar.
DB: Right. That’s the central — I talk about it all the time. You know the reason we have $4 gas? There are two reasons for it. One is the dollar tanked.
If [the dollar] was worth what it was 10 years ago, we’d have $2 dollar gas right now, but we don’t. Why has the dollar tanked? One is our deficit spending, and the other is our trade imbalance, which is $750 billion a year going to the Middle East and Venezuela. The combination of those two factors has caused the dollar to free-fall. And that is the main cause of it.
I’m most concerned about how are we going to pay back this $10 trillion [the federal deficit]? How are we going to do that?
MP: Well, how are we?
DB: I didn’t incur it, you know. But, you know …
MP: But you want to go to Washington.
DB: The first bill that I would introduce is a four-year spending freeze, cap on current levels of spending. I’m not going to spend any more money than we’re currently spending. Then hopefully, we can save a lot of money in our military budget by getting our butt out of Iraq. Taking some troops home …
MP: You’re calling for immediate withdrawal.
DB: Yes. Five years and 5000 lives and trillions of dollars are enough. We never should have got into that war. It’s the wrong war. Afghanistan is where we should have been the whole time. We’ve done enough. Now it’s up to the Iraqis. Leave it up to them. We want self-determination, here you go; I hope you do well and get out.
MP: Why don’t more Republicans frame the war in that way? I mean, you can be called a “cut-and-runner” at this point with what you just said. Some would say pulling out of Iraq is a great way to help with the deficit.
DB: Sure it is. Absolutely.
MP: So why don’t more Republicans frame it that way?
DB: Because Republicans don’t talk about the deficit either. Nobody does. I mean, if you’re guilty of doing it, you’re not going to sit there and, you know — if you’re going to rob a bank, you’re not going to put spotlights on yourself while you’re doing it.
MP: Do you have a preference in the presidential campaign?
MP: And what do you feel about the campaign?
DB: I think it costs too much, and it’s way too long. I think no matter who wins, we’re going to have a better president than we have now.
MP: Does it have an effect on your race at all?
MP: Why do you say that?
DB: I don’t think there’s any tie-in. I don’t think there’s any coattails. I think people are going to decide for themselves.
MP: You believe the war on drugs has been a failure. Are you in favor of marijuana legalization at all?
DB: Regulation and taxation, if that’s legalization. If someone wants to buy marijuana for personal use, I think they should be able to get it, pay a hefty tax for it and they’d have to go somewhere and get the prescription for it or whatever. I wouldn’t be opposed to that.
I think alcohol has killed far more people in this country than marijuana ever wanted to think about killing. We ought to tackle alcohol, but obviously that’s our drug of choice so that one’s OK. I don’t know why that one is and others aren’t. It doesn’t make any logical sense.
The answer to our drug problem is education and treatment. If a person becomes addicted, get them the help they need not to be addicted. Don’t begin to make them career criminals and throw them in jail just because they have a drug addiction.
I’m very familiar with addiction. I fought alcohol a couple of times in my life and sought some help with it when I had some things not go quite right, and I turned the wrong way and decided to drink more than I should have and I quit. What we’re doing now is ludicrous. It doesn’t work. It’s not worked, it never has worked, and it never will work. And if you don’t think I’d be a good senator because I believe that, well fine.
MP: What’s the difference between now and 1992?
DB: I’ve got less hair. A little heavier. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have a house. What else has changed? I got a new car.
MP: Politically speaking, though, for you …
DB: It’s gotten worst.
MP: But for you personally, have you had any changes of heart or position on issues? You’re right where you were?
DB: I could use the literature I had in ’92 and just change the date.
G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.