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Will Cory Hepola’s bid for Minnesota governor matter in the November election?

The state DFL party seems to think so.

Cory Hepola speaking at a press conference in the Capitol Building: “I’m gonna go out and earn people’s votes. The moment has never been better than right now.”
Cory Hepola speaking at a press conference in the Capitol Building: “I’m gonna go out and earn people’s votes. The moment has never been better than right now.”
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Will Tuesday’s announcement of the third-party candidacy of Cory Hepola matter in the 2022 race for governor of Minnesota?

The state DFL party seems to think so. Even before the former TV news reporter and radio talk show host declared, state DFL Chair Ken Martin released a critique of the campaign, saying Hepola is a spoiler that will help Republicans win the job in November.

“The current field of Republican candidates for governor is the most extreme that Minnesota has seen in decades, making Hepola’s spoiler campaign even more irresponsible,” said Martin in that statement. “A vote for Cory Hepola is a vote to help the GOP cut taxes for the rich, defund public schools, and force their anti-choice agenda on Minnesotans.”

Martin doesn’t have to think Hepola and the fledgling Forward Party of Minnesota will get enough votes to win. He just has to worry that he’ll get enough votes. “Three out of the last four Minnesota gubernatorial elections have been decided by single digits — and two of them were decided by one percent or less,” Martin said.

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Expecting the attack, Hepola had a response ready, calling Martin’s statement “dismissive.”

“It’s really telling the people of Minnesota, ‘Hey, you don’t know what you want. You’re just gonna line up and vote for us,’” Hepola said during an announcement press conference in the Capitol Building. “I’m gonna go out and earn people’s votes.

“The moment has never been better than right now,” he said. “Fifty percent of people identify as independent and they have not had choice. Today they have a choice.”

Incumbent Gov. Tim Walz is expected to win the DFL endorsement for governor. There are nine candidates  seeking the GOP endorsement: Paul Gazelka, Scott Jensen, Michelle Benson, Kendall Qualls, Neil Shah, Mike Murphy, Rich Stanek, Scott Magie and Bob Carney, Jr.

Hepola, who grew up in Perham in Otter Tail County, said he has been thinking about this campaign for three years, shortly after leaving KARE television and during his first years as a talk show host at WCCO radio. He left the station the day after he responded to a question about his candidacy by MPR, the timing determined by the station, not Hepola.

While at KARE, Hepola co-anchored a news broadcast with Camille Williams, his wife.  She left the station in 2018 as well. They have three young children.

The campaign is being cast as part of a Minnesota political tradition of third parties, with references to Jesse Ventura’s 1998 victory in a three-way race and with 37 percent of the vote. That was 24 years ago, however, though the concept that there are voters in the middle not enamored of either party is driving both the campaign and the pending formation of the Forward Party of Minnesota.

The new party is the first state party that has formed as part of a national campaign created by Andrew Yang, a Democratic candidate for president in 2020 and mayor of New York in 2021. The state party kickoff is set for Thursday evening.

Hepola said Wednesday he expects the party will become a formal party and that he will seek its nomination for governor. He also said he expects there will be other candidates for other offices running under that party label.

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So what do they stand for? Beyond general calls for better education, better public health and better economic opportunities, Hepola’s campaign webpage says “stay tuned Minnesota.”

Hepola responded to some questions about his political beliefs.

He thinks Minnesotans are overtaxed; called the state’s $9.25 billion surplus “an embarrassment,” said Walz’s response to the pandemic was good in the early months but that he hung onto emergency powers for too long; he described himself as pro-choice when asked about abortion and pro-clean water when asked about pipeline projects; he said he supports universal pre-kindergarten and said the response to high crime rates lies somewhere between calls to defund the police and tough-on-crime rhetoric. Hepola said he voted for Walz for governor in 2018 and Joe Biden for president in 2020.

“I grew up rural. We live in the Metro area. We are a multi-cultural family. We surround ourselves with different people from backgrounds … from different areas and communities here in the state,” Hepola said. “The two major toxic parties are cable, big business, big machines. We’re Netflix … the disrupter.”

When asked whether he thought he could attract moderate voters from both the GOP and the DFL, Hepola said he thought he could, at first saying he could “steal” from both.

“I hate the word steal. We’re not going to steal. People have been dying for this, dying for somebody to step up,” Hepola. “Successful businesses today position themselves as what? Socially progressive and financially thoughtful. That would be a good way to phrase what we’re about.”

The last person to float the idea of a campaign for governor outside the Republican and DFL parties was Richard Painter, a law professor who left the GOP to run for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2018. The lack of response appears to have quashed that idea and Painter is now running for U.S. House in the First Congressional District as a DFLer. But he is close to the people launching the Freedom Party of Minnesota.

Painter too was accused by the state DFL of being a spoiler who would skim votes from Walz and help Republicans, just as candidates from the two marijuana legalization parties — both actual candidates and those put up by GOP operatives — skimmed votes from DFL legislative candidates.

John Denney is one of the organizers of the Forward Party of Minnesota. He ran under the Independence Party flag in 2006 in the 6th Congressional District. Initially created as an independent expenditure campaign committee, Denney said Wednesday he is working on completing the state process for the Forward Party to become a minor party. Minor parties nominate candidates by petition and control who gains access to the ballot under their name.

John Denney, left, is one of the organizers of the Forward Party of Minnesota.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
John Denney, left, is one of the organizers of the Forward Party of Minnesota.
Under Minnesota election law, any minor party that collects at least five percent of the vote in a statewide election becomes a major party, which provides some benefits but also allows anyone to file under the party name and be placed on primary election ballots.

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“It’s a challenge,” Denney said of the process. “But we are the first state party of the Forward Party nationally so we have a lot of the focus and attention. They’ve only been out of the gate for four or five months now. Right now Andrew (Yang) is looking at us as the building block of the launching of the Forward Party right now.”