In 2000 Ken Pentel and the Minnesota Green Party ran Ralph Nader’s campaign so effectively that Al Gore was forced to visit the state just days before the election. Those efforts resulted in 5 percent of Minnesota’s vote and, more importantly, they qualified the Green Party for major-party status under Minnesota’s public finance system for political campaigns. Major party status is more than a title. It means that Ken Pentel’s campaign will be the beneficiary of approximately $250,000 of state money in 2002.
Roger Moe’s campaign is right to be concerned about Ken Pentel’s ability to pull urban liberals from the DFL. “All he has to do is target his message to Minneapolis,” Moe spokesperson Greta Lilleoden concedes. “He’s got an easy job to get his 5 percent.” But Ken Pentel is no longer excited by appealing to urban liberals. This year Pentel and the Green Party are looking for suburban and rural voters. At this year’s Anoka County Fair their booth could be found just down the street from the Democrat and Republican booths, right next to the stall with the remote-controlled Hoover vacuum cleaner.
In 1998 the northern suburbs voted for Jesse Ventura in greater percentages than any other region of Minnesota. Young working families, in particular, were attracted to Ventura’s anti-establishment message. “This is our first year up here,” Pentel told me as he handed fliers to voters. “We’re talking corporate malfeasance, corruption. We’re starting to build a presence, raising awareness. Just look. Nothing on the ground,” he said, pointing down the street. I looked and saw his point: Although the asphalt was littered with cups, wrappers, and other candidate brochures, not a single Pentel flyer was on the ground. “People look at it, see it’s a mainstream message.”
Pentel’s estimation of the Green Party’s appeal is not shared by all of his colleagues. “It’s very difficult to promote a radical agenda, what is not a majority agenda,” Holle Brian, a long-time Green Party activist, candidate, and Pentel friend, told me as she evaluated Pentel’s candidacy. “The challenge for the Green Party is to find people who can promote a radical agenda while appealing to people as good people, regardless of the agenda. And Ken’s very good for that.” Green Party Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmerman agreed. “I’ve seen Ken grow in this campaign. He’s learned to broaden the message.”
Late in his first night at the Anoka County Fair, Pentel boldly stepped in front of several disaffected and slightly threatening teenage boys. “What kind of world do you want to live in?” he asked with complete sincerity. One of the boys—the one in the Slipknot T-shirt—decided to be funny and retorted, “What do you think about guns and hunting?”
“I’m not opposed,” Pentel answered before shifting into a soliloquy on habitat conservation. It was a masterful improvisation. Pentel is a vegetarian and a supporter of reducing (somehow) “the number of handguns in circulation.” Though nothing he told the teenager is untrue, neither was it an accurate reflection of how he personally feels about hunting. (You’d be just as likely to see Pentel clear-cutting a forest as hunting in one.) Instead, like any good politician, he carefully tailored a message to a specific audience. And it worked. As the teenager rushed to catch up with his friends, he carefully folded one of Pentel’s fliers into a front pocket. “One day,” Pentel said, turning to me, “he’ll vote for us.”
Ten minutes later Pentel was approached by Gene Merriam, a former DFL state senator with a distinguished past and current record of support for innovative environmental policy. His past support, though, for dry cask storage at Prairie Island tainted him as far as environmental activists are concerned, and they have yet to forgive him. (Likewise Roger Moe, who is widely given credit for pushing Prairie Island through the Minnesota Senate.) “How’s the campaign, Ken?”
“Hey!” Pentel exclaimed. “What’re you up to?” Merriam described his recent work as chair of both Minnesota’s Solid Waste Management Advisory Board, and the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. The two men talked at length, and it quickly became apparent that Merriam was genuinely interested in Pentel’s opinions. Before he departed, he wished Pentel luck with his campaign. “Who was that?” a Green Party volunteer asked. “Gene Merriam,” Pentel sighed. “Former DFL state senator from Coon Rapids. Smart guy and a real idealist who compromised his way into moderation.” It’s classic Pentel.
“Ken definitely has a stubborn streak,” his sister conceded. “Over the years he’s struggled with the need to compromise.” At times, that stubbornness suggests an artist’s temperament. Pentel seems to recognize this in himself. When asked whether he derives an aesthetic satisfaction from politics, he answered thoughtfully. “There’s some sort of connecting the dots that’s attractive. The question is, how to express that vision correctly. There’s an excitement to that.”