It Ain't Easy Being Green

With seats on the Minneapolis City Council, and tens of thousands of supporters in the Twin Cities, the Green Party is the liberal vanguard of Minnesota politics. So why don’t you take Ken Pentel seriously?

Photos by Terry Gydesen

The Rice Street parade hasn’t started moving yet, and this is causing problems for Ed McGaa, the endorsed Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate. “I’m just trying to give people a choice,” he mumbles to an elderly and angry supporter of Senator Paul Wellstone. “Yeah, and you’re gonna throw the race to Coleman,” the Wellstone supporter snaps back. “Are you at all capable of appreciating that?”

Ken Pentel, the endorsed Green Party candidate for governor, has been monitoring this exchange, and he now decides to join it. “Don’t you believe in democracy?” he demands of the Wellstone supporter. “Don’t you believe people should vote what they feel instead of what they fear? Why do you want to oppress us?” His voice begins to rise. “Why do you tell us to go home without voting, without having our voices heard? What makes you think that’s okay?” The Wellstone supporter backs off. “You don’t have a clue what you’re doing.”

Actually, Ken Pentel has a very good idea what he’s doing. “Green Party banner to the front! Green Party banner to the front!” The parade has finally begun to move, and Pentel instructs his volunteers to carry the orange “Pentel for Governor” banner behind the Green Party banner. “This isn’t about me,” he explains earnestly. “It’s about a movement.”

Ken Pentel’s Green Party colleagues credit him as being the primary force for transforming the Minnesota Green Party from a Twin Cities-based confederation of activists into a cohesive statewide organization with multiple chapters and candidates. Indeed, many, if not most, of the non-metro Green Party chapters would not exist if Ken Pentel, in his capacity as a party organizer, had not personally developed them.

As of early August 2002, there are more than 40 endorsed Green Party candidates running for office in Minnesota, as well as Green Party members on the Minneapolis and Duluth city councils. This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that, from the Minnesota Green Party’s first electoral outing in 1996 until 2001, there were fewer than three Green Party candidates running at any time in the state.

Ken Pentel’s career as a professional activist, and his accomplishments on behalf of the Minnesota Green Party, demonstrate a singular talent for grassroots politics, as well as a genuine commitment to a more ecologically balanced society. But success in statewide electoral politics is usually about more than organizations and issues; for better or worse, it’s also about knowing how to communicate a message that excites voters.

From its beginnings in 1970s Germany, the Green Party has attracted charismatic figures. The German artist Joseph Beuys, one of the founders of the German Greens (and thus, a founder of the International Green Party), engaged in political activities that he considered artistic “actions” in their own right, such as 7,000 Oaks which, as its title suggests, was 7,000 oak trees planted for aesthetic as well as urban renewal reasons. Ken Pentel shares Joseph Beuys’ appreciation of politics as a fundamentally creative enterprise. Over coffee at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he even concedes, “Yeah, in its own way running is a performance.” It’s an admission that is central to understanding Ken Pentel.

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