Students For Liberty Tri-State Deputy Director Jacob Linker had the opportunity to have an over the phone conversation with former Minnesota Congressman Tim Penny.
If one were to be told that a Democratic Congressman went on to join the libertarian Cato Institute as a Fellow after leaving office, such a person might find it believable. Beto O’Rourke spoke at Cato in 2012 on the Drug War prior to being elected to the House of Representative. Democrats can have quite a bit of overlap with libertarians on issues such as civil liberties, immigration, or drug policy for example. But Fiscal Policy Studies? Former Minnesota Congressman Tim Penny was just such a unique figure however, and his record is by far one of the least talked about stories of independent-minded politics that the politically-engaged ought to know more about.
First elected in 1982 in a traditionally republican-leaning part of Minnesota, Penny would go on to serve six-terms in the house. A testament to how well-liked Penny was by his constituents, Penny was the only non-Republican to ever be elected to multiple terms in the district in the history of Minnesota. Though knowledgeable on a breadth of issues, the issue Tim Penny was and is most well-known for was his strength on the budget and deficit. Penny chaired the Democratic Budget Group, a caucus within the Democratic Party of fiscally conservative Democrats, chaired the Porkbusters Coalition, and co-sponsored the 1993 Kasich-Penny Budget Proposal which would later become the basis for the late-90s budget surplus.
After leaving office Penny’s political, policy, and private activities have been comparably remarkable. Penny joined the Cato Institute as a Fellow in Fiscal Policy Studies in 1995, served as an informal advisor to Third-Party Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, and was the Independence Party of Minnesota’s 2002 Gubernatorial Candidate where he received 15% of the vote. He’s been a Co-Chair with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and was part of President Bush’s bipartisan commission on Social Security. Since 2007, Penny has headed the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, where he’s said that he has been happy to have the opportunity to continue to serve the geographic area that that he represented while in Congress.
The congressman and I had a conversation about a variety of issues, but most of our discussion had to do with the politics of the state of Minnesota, independent politics, and the national mood.
Despite his district being largely republican-leaning since statehood in 1858, Tim won in 1982 as a Democrat. His affinity with the Democratic Party was a due to a mixture of old-school family partisan loyalty and the biggest Minnesotan names in national politics in his early years being Democrats. Penny’s father was a railroad-union worker and his mother was a strong supporter of John F Kennedy. The biggest names in national politics at the time Penny was first becoming politically engaged were Minnesota Democrats – Hubert Humphry, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, and Orville Freeman – and that influenced Congressman Penny’s partisan leanings.
One can notice however that the Congressman was a Democrat in party loyalty for reasons that weren’t particularly ideological. In Congress, this translated to a streak of political independence. On issues pertaining to the budget and small businesses, Penny would often break with his party. As the Democratic Party shifted left over time, the Independent-minded Penny increasingly was increasingly out of step with his party. Once out of office this resulted in Penny advising Governor Ventura who he’d described as “somewhat libertarian” and was effective in garnering support from usually uninterested voters who were tired of politics as usual. Penny praised Ventura’s cabinet as being “extremely competent” and Ventura’s policy agenda and performance as being well-received by Minnesotans. When Ventura opted not to run for reelection in 2002, Penny saw a need for somebody to step up and move the state forward via a continuation of the centrist message. His having gotten 15% is fairly successful by third-party standards, but in his own words the congressman said that he allowed his opponents and their associated interest groups to define him and his campaign – resulting in the election of Tim Pawlenty.
That independent candidates fare so effectively in Minnesota is no coincidence according to Penny. The state legislature routinely swings between parties and there are a large number of independent swing voters. The state has long had an affinity for third-party candidates – Roosevelt in 1912, Perot winning 25% in 1992, and Ventura’s 1998 bids being big examples that stuck out. The large number of swing and independent-minded voters in Minnesota means that when there’s a compelling third option, Minnesotans will vote for it.
Nationally, the congressman believes that for a third-party movement or candidacy to be successful it needs to have an issue or theme around which people can rally and be led by a figure that people can identify with and relate to. In the Reform Party Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot had strong celebrity factors that contributed to their success and the same goes for Donald Trump’s 2016 bid as well. If a third-party candidate can cement their status as an outsider coming in to shake up the system and coalesce disaffected independents with partisans dissatisfied with their party’s nominee, a third-party bid can be somewhat successful.
In 2008 Congressman Penny supported John McCain and in 2016 he supported John Kasich. This had to do with his strong personal relationships with the two candidates, their moderate temperaments, and independent mindsets. When I asked why so many Kasich supporters, including Governor Weld himself, went on to support the Johnson-Weld ticket in 2016, the Congressman referred back to Kasich’s independent tendencies and Kasich’s fiscal responsibility.
The last question I asked the Congressman was what other current national officeholders he respects. The names he put forward were Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE), Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE). It’s a bipartisan list filled with officeholders who have been thoughtful and policy and the role of government as well as independent streaks. Should we be surprised?