“Ken always had a lot of passion. But it was sort of like, ‘What’s he gonna do with it?’” Pentel’s brother Tom recalls. “It wasn’t always clear.” By the mid-1990s Ken Pentel was an experienced organizer and lobbyist for several environmental organizations and causes, including serving as a leader in the opposition to dry-cask storage at NSP’s Prairie Island Facility. Increasingly, he found that his lobbying was stymied by better-funded organizations. “It was frustrating to learn that the grassroots were not enough to overcome the money advantage of corporations at the legislature. So I really had to ask myself—what more do I have to do?” Then, in 1996, Ralph Nader announced that he was running for president. “A light went off in my head: That’s what I need! Party politics, and a candidacy like Ralph’s, is so much more holistic than activism.” Pentel became the co-director of the Minnesota Nader effort, and though it managed only 1.1 percent of Minnesota’s vote, its impact was profound. Suddenly there was a recognizable Green Party in Minnesota, and that party was increasingly associated with Ken Pentel, who often served as its spokesman.
In December 1998, the Sierra Club contacted Pentel and asked if the Green Party had a candidate who would be willing to participate in a gubernatorial debate on the environment. They didn’t, and so Pentel, who was working as the Green Party’s primary organizer, began to search for one. It was a difficult task. The Minnesota Green Party, like its other state and national counterparts, was not yet a cohesive professional organization with a ready pool of candidates. In many ways, it was still an offshoot of various environmental organizations and their urban liberal constituencies. By Pentel’s account, he contacted more than 25 potential candidates, but nobody was willing to challenge the established parties (Jesse Ventura was not yet considered a serious contender). “I was so pissed,” he told me laughing. “And then, one week before the debate, someone suggested that I run.”
Pentel filed for governor in February 1998. Days later he showed up to debate Norm Coleman, Skip Humphrey, and Jesse Ventura. “I didn’t know if I knew as much as them, but I knew our position was good,” he said. Pentel, like Ventura, also knew how to appeal to an audience. “He’s always been kind of a charming person, always liked to be on center stage,” Pentel’s brother recalled. “He’s just good at that.”
Just how good has been evident at recent candidate forums. For example, at a February 2002 Minneapolis Urban League gubernatorial debate, the candidates were asked, “How do you plan to involve the hip-hop generation in your administration?” Roger Moe’s answer produced laughter (“just hearing him say ‘hip-hop’ was enough,” Pentel said), and the others produced yawns. But Ken Pentel, answering last, performed Run-DMC’s “Wake Up” and, according to him, “It brought the house down.”