here for PDF format
of the Meeting With Tim Penny
Civic Caucus, 8301 Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, October 21,
Verne Johnson, chair; Chuck Clay, Jim Hetland, Clarence Shallbetter, Paul
Gilje (by phone), and Tim Penny, guest
Introduction and background on Tim Penny—Verne
introduced our guest for the day, Tim Penny, senior fellow, Humphrey
Institute, former DFL state senator, former DFL congressman, and former
Independence Party candidate for Governor.
for office early—Penny
said he ran for State Senate in 1976, right out of college. He doesn’t
recommend that to other young people. When he talks to them today, he
recommends that they put their roots down before running for office. It
broadens their horizons and makes the job a public service, not a
career. The DFL Party in Waseca County was moribund when he ran in
1976. Anyone would be sacrificed. He beat the odds and was elected.
Then he ran for
Congress in 1982, with the expectation he’d be another in a long line of
defeated DFL candidates. But some circumstances helped get him elected,
11 percent unemployment, high interest rates, an exploding Reagan budget
deficit, and support from educators and public employees. He said he was
in the right place at the right time. He defeated an entrenched
Republican incumbent, Tom Hagedorn, a family farmer, who outspent Penny
3-to-1. Hagedorn had real life experience in the district. Penny said
that admittedly he was a full-time politician.
observations on what has changed in the last 25 years—Penny
said he would make four observations about how politics has changed and
then outline his proposals.
Political parties now are coalitions of interest groups—He
said his friend Vin Weber wants the parties strengthened. That would be
fine if it were 25 years ago, but today the parties are coalitions of
interest groups, not broad-based. He would have no problem with parties
paying a more central role if they were broad based. He doubts the
parties will return to such a role. We need to get people involved, but
he doesn’t think that involvement will come through the party.
Penny said he was a
Democrat and an independent thinker, conservative on finance, and not an
extremist on social issues. Today you won’t get the nomination unless you
are willing to say that you will follow the interest groups’ agenda
Thirty years ago in
about 120 or more people attended the DFL county convention. A couple of
years ago only 30-35 people attended. A narrow group of people are
defining what the party is. It is true we saw a brief upturn in
political party interest a couple of years ago, people who wanted to
defeat Bush. But he thinks that is an exception.
Dominance of money in the process—Penny
met recently with a challenger for a Congressional seat. The candidate is
facing a GOP incumbent with $1 million already in the bank. The more the
challenger raises the greater the ability of the incumbent to raise still
Jesse Ventura was an
exception to the rule. He won in 1998 because all he had to prove was
that he wasn’t just a dumb wrestler. He didn’t need to spend money to get
known. He already was known. And he wasn’t thought of by the press as
being a politician. He got a “free ride” from the press in that regard.
In Congress 97 percent
of the incumbents are re-elected. The public is so disengaged that all
you see are the campaign ads.
Proliferation of special interest groups—There
are 4,000 PACs at the national level, but that is a small portion of the
total number of interest groups with lobbyists. About 40,000 interest
groups are in
Few groups have a broad-based agenda. Common Cause is broad-based. Penny
is part of the Concord Coalition that is concerned with budgeting, and
budgeting affects all interests.
Penny is writing a
book, which he hopes to have published before the 2006 elections, which he
is titling “Politictionary”, to help the voter understand what is going
on. One chapter will be titled something like “The National Abortion
Right-to-Life Rifle Gun Control Association.” Special interest groups
have such an influence now that members of Congress are voting up to 100
percent with the groups that support their party.
To illustrate the
impact of groups, Penny contrasted the votes of
two Senators, Coleman and
record is 90 to 100 percent consistent with the Chamber of Commerce, about
0 to 10 percent consistent with the AFL-CIO, and about 0-10 percent
consistent with the ACLU. Dayton’s record almost perfectly mirrors that
of Coleman, 0-10 percent consistent with the Chamber, 90-100 percent
consistent with the AFL-CIO, and 90-100 percent consistent with the
ACLU. Coleman and Dayton are like polar opposites, even though they come
from the same state.
The first chapter of
Penny’s book will concern the importance of voters being informed. Sadly,
he said, the parties are counting on voters being ignorant on the issues.
Decline of common interest groups—The
Citizens League, thankfully, is on the way back, but there was a dry spell
that occurred at the same time that special interest groups were growing
in importance. Penny sees some hope in the younger generation,
particularly on local issues. He sees the younger voters turning to
individual candidates, not parties.
Problem of gerrymandering?—Asked
why gerrymandering isn’t in his top four problem areas, Penny said to wait
until we hear his four solutions. Gerrymandering isn’t as bad in
Minnesota as in many other states. The courts have largely handed our
Republicans and Democrats are not excited about changing the way
boundaries are established. The minority party wishes it has more seats,
but it likes its guaranteed seats rather than putting all seats at risk.
Proposals for change—Penny
listed his suggestions for improving the system:
disclosure of campaign money, in real time—His
proposal extends beyond direct contributions of individuals. We can’t
permit money to be hidden behind special interest groups. The source of
the money from the interest groups must also be made known.
With today’s computers
it is possible for the source of the money to be made public concurrent
with when it is deposited. Then opponents and investigative reporters can
see what is happening immediately.
Reverse the order of the primaries and the endorsement convention in
our endorsements precede the primary election. We need to move to the
Iowa pattern, with an early primary, followed by party endorsement. The
party conventions can end up ratifying the voters’ choices in the primary.
He’d favor a June primary. Then the major candidates will be
known early and can campaign right to the general election. Now the
candidates in each party square off against each other all summer before
the primary election in September.
Provide for non-partisan reapportionment—Penny
favors a commission of retired judges.
Establish a unicameral Legislature—You
can’t change the two-house system at the federal level, but compelling
reasons exist for changing the system at the state level:
a two-house system, each can blame the other.
Removes the need for conference committees—The
conference committees hide accountability and also make it much easier to
add extraneous items, such as “pork” to legislation.
Enhances understandability of the process to the average voter--
The complexity of the bicameral legislature
confuses the average voter and increases the power of interest groups and
their lobbyists. Early in the session a legislator may try to reassure a
voter that a concern is being addressed. But late in the session, when
everything is tied up in conference committees, mainly the interest
groups and their lobbyists have impact on what is happening. The
average voter has no idea how to make an impact at that time.
Discussion with Penny—During
the discussion session with Penny the following points were made:
problem of negativity—Verne
said that our position paper asserts that our democracy is in serious
trouble. Penny acknowledged an ebb and flow and that we’ve had some bad
times in the past, too. But he said there is so much negativity today.
That’s the compelling reason for action. It is the poisonous atmosphere.
Campaigning is much more negative today than in the past. A candidate
doesn’t have to attack an opponent personally. The special interest
groups will take care of that. As a consequence voters are turned off by
the entire system. We don’t have a way to bring people together, a
function that used to be performed by the political parties.
Because of the
dominance of money in politics, negative ads are pervasive. With
interest groups paying for the negative ads, the average person has no
idea of the specific individuals who are providing the contributions for
the ads. Because the ads are so pervasive, the average voter is
overwhelmed by negativity.
Comments on the Gunyou concerns—Verne
noted that John Gunyou has wondered whether our draft paints compelling
case for grave danger. It doesn’t seem to identify the values that are
threatened or the motivation for people to care, much less feel an sense
of urgency for betterment. Clarence elaborated on the problem by noting
that a whole generation of people are turned off and don’t want to be part
of the system.
Penny agrees that the
problems need to be framed so that people see how they are affected
personally. He said people want real choices in voting. They don’t want
incumbent protection. Those need to be the arguments for changing
reapportionment, for example. People can learn that competitive
districts will produce better elected officials. Penny believes he was a
better congressman because he was a Democrat in a mainly GOP area. He had
to explain himself to the voters.
Possibilities of instant runoff voting (IRV)—Penny
likes the concept very much. With IRV, a voter indicates a first and
second choice, with the second choice votes coming into play if the top
candidate receives less than 50 percent of the vote. Penny said he likes
the system because it leaves the voters in charge. Moreover, it requires
candidates to appeal to a broader segment of the voting population. Penny
himself was third in a three-way race for Governor two years ago. He
said that late in the election many voters who had Penny as a first choice
went to the other two candidates, leaving him with less apparent strength
than he really had. If those voters could have listed him as their first
choice and had a second choice, too, then they would have stuck with him
for the entire election.
4. Do the budget-related issues create an
urgency for change in the structure?—Paul
noted that Penny himself is a leader, in the Concord Coalition, and in
other contexts, for promoting responsibility in financial issues. Penny
was asked whether structural changes might produce better decisions by
elected officials on such urgent matters as Social Security, Medicaid, and
that the problem with Social Security is that it mixes the retirement
part, which is an investment for the retiree, with disability and
survivors benefits, which should be handled separately, by insurance.
shouldn’t be automatic or all people over 65. You need catastrophic
coverage for everyone and also coverage for the poor, but there’s no need
for everyone who reaches 65 to move off the private insurance they have
5. Adding discipline to the Congressional
could by law or rule, not by a constitutional amendment, prohibit adding a
benefit that isn’t covered by a payment mechanism, thereby ending the
credit-card mentality that is present now. A "pay-go" law that the nation
had from the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush through the
Clinton administration provided a cap on defense and domestic spending and
required that the effect of new entitlements or tax cuts be offset by cuts
in other spending. That law helped bring the budget into balance. But
the in 2001 President George Bush and the Republican Congress chose not to
renew the "pay-go" law.
6. Continuation of third parties?—Penny
said he has left the Democratic Party and won’t be going back. He’s in
the Independence Party. He’d rather have third parties out there, with
instant runoff voting (IRV), than having only a two-party system. With
such an approach, more voters will be able to choose candidates they truly
support rather than picking the lesser of two evils. A group known as
"Fair vote Minnesota" is working for IRV in this state.
7. Allowing only resident voters to contribute
noted that others have suggested to us that contributions be prohibited
from sources outside the geographic area where the candidate lives and
that only contributions from individuals would be allowed. Penny agrees
with that principle but is somewhat concerned about whether it would
perpetuate single party dominance in some locations. But he’d expand the
basic concept. He would prohibit any national group, including unions,
from making contributions. If a national group wants to influence
legislation, let the members of the group within a state, as individuals,
make the contributions for campaign expenditures in that state, and stand
responsible for them.
8. News media not doing its job—The
media have fallen into the “noise is news” trap. They get caught up in
reporting a protest, regardless of its validity, instead of trying to help
people understand what is really going on. The media have standard
respondents—such as the chairs of the major parties—to call for
commentary. You’re not going to get the story that way. You need to call
others who can state actually what is happening. He suggested we need a
fact check on media coverage, much as the Annenberg School for
Communications provides fact check on political ads.
9. Contrasts in special legislative sessions—Penny
noted the contrasts between the 1971 and 2005 special sessions in
Minnesota. It wasn’t
necessary to shut down government in 1971, even though the issues then
were much bigger. There was a commitment to reach an agreement. He
recommended the differences in the two special sessions be brought up when
Wendell Anderson meets with the Caucus.
10. Possible other resource persons—Penny
believes that his running mate on the Independence ticket two years ago,
Martha Robertson Meyer, State Senator Shiela Kiscaden, Judi Dutcher, Steve
Schier of Carleton College and Chris Gilbert of Gustavus Adolphus College
would provide good insight for the Caucus.
E. Thanks to Penny—Verne
thanked Penny for his outstanding work with us this morning.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting
years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to
provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee
Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland,
John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.
Click Here to
see a biographical statement of each.