Third-party politics face a stiff test in Minnesota in 2000, a year which will determine whether Gov. Jesse Ventura's Reform Party has sunk roots deep enough to become a perennial political force or remain a sideline player and occasional spoiler.
Meantime, the two traditional major parties are previewing their political strategies as they prepare for a legislative session that begins in February. Lawmakers face an enviable challenge, deciding what to do with a projected $1.6 billion budget surplus expected to accumulate by June 2001.
Democrats, Republicans and Ventura all agree that some kind of tax rebate is a virtual certainty, likely crafted to give maximum credit to incumbents as the election approaches.House Republicans, finishing their first term in the majority since the mid-1980s, plan to put together a $400 million transportation package aimed at relieving freeway congestion in the suburban Twin Cities and fixing roads outside the metro area.
Democrats say they, too, will make transportation a priority, but they plan to add mass transit to the mix.
The biggest legislative tussle may come over the biennial budget for capital projects financed through state borrowing. The last major capital bonding bill came in at just under a billion dollars two years ago, when only the state House was up for re-election. With the Senate also up this year, pressure will mount for legislators to authorize capital projects for their home districts.
But Ventura has vowed to hold the line on bonding, warning lawmakers he wants to limit the capital projects package to $400 million. Even if the governor loses that battle, the Reform Party's legislative candidates would have an issue to campaign on fighting the entrenched two-party system and its pork-barrel tendencies.
Another fight is likely over Ventura's proposal for a one-house legislature. He has pushed unicameralism at every opportunity, saying it would streamline government and reduce the amount of backroom dealing that takes place in conference committees. But legiuslative leaders oppose the concept, and will try to keep the unicameral referendum off the general election ballot.
The Reform Party test will play out on two fronts: the race for Republican Sen. Rod Grams seat and the election of the Legislature, where all 201 House and Senate seats are up for grabs this fall.
Grams, seeking his second Senate term, is widely considered vulnerable, but none of the half dozen Democrats in the race so far has the instant name recognition that would make for an easy challenge. And only one would-be candidate has deep enough pockets, thanks to a personal fortune, to threaten an incumbent from the outset.
That would seem to create a climate for the Reform Party, the only state affiliate of Ross Perot's national organization, to win a second statewide office.
But Reformers missed a major opportunity when former U.S. Rep. Tim Penny announced he will run again as a Democrat if he challenges Grams, which he says he's inclined to do.
Penny, whose serious, bookish demeanor and Washington Beltway experience offers a sharp contrast to Ventura, could have provided the Reform Party a degree of political respectability that is probably permanently outside the reach of Ventura, a former pro wrestler who revels in his bad boy shenanigans.
Penny was a top advisor to Ventura during the governor's inaugural transition period, sharing an office with Dean Barkley, the Minnesota Reform Party Senate candidate in 1996 and 1998.
Barkley strongly urged Penny to challenge Grams as a Reformer. Throughout 1999 Penny said he was leaning toward remaining a Democrat. He reaffirmed his loyalty after Ventura's infamous Playboy interview and flirtation with Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.
Penny's presence in the U.S. Senate race would present the Reform Party rank-and-file with a dilemma: whether to support Penny, a simpatico centrist with a chance to win, or the party's nominee. So far, only James Gibson, a software executive and political unknown, has emerged to seek the Democratic nomination.
Ventura's surprise gubernatorial win is likely to inspire lots of Reform candidates for the legislature. The public's readiness for a larger third party presence at the Capitol is questionable, however. In a few special legislative elections since Ventura took office Reform candidates have finished behind Republicans and Democrats.