Dean of the Senate

Posted March 9, 2004 at 6:20pm

Don’t look for the Dean Barkley movie of the week any time soon, as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Senator has yet to entice a publisher to release the book about his 15 minutes of fame.

Barkley, a member of the Independence Party who served two months in the Senate following the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) in October 2002, has penned 17 chapters about his brief experience.

So far no one is biting, but Barkley doesn’t seem to mind.

He went from being the novelty Senator all of Capitol Hill was courting back to a Minnesota lawyer in a New York minute.

Far from being bitter about being a historical footnote, Barkley looks back on his time on Capitol Hill with fondness.

“I loved it,” Barkley said. “Those were the most interesting two months of my life.”

He agreed to be a caretaker Senator after being appointed by then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura (I) until the 2002 elections were held and newly minted Sen. Norm Coleman (R) was sworn in on Jan. 7, 2003.

Barkley said it was best that way. He accomplished what he set out to without staying in the “evil empire” of Washington, D.C., long enough to let it change him.

He had only eight legislative days in which to work, but in that time he was integral in moving along legislation to create the Department of Homeland Security, secured a welfare program waiver for his state that was a top Ventura priority, and saw a bill bearing his name become law, he said.

The Homeland Security legislation was stalled with Democrats protesting the Bush administration’s wish to bar the agency’s workers from joining federal employees’ unions. Barkley said he brokered a deal with then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) in which he agreed to caucus by himself — thus allowing Daschle to remain Majority Leader — in exchange for Daschle’s promise to bring the bill to the floor for a vote before the 107th Congress adjourned.

Daschle kept his word and the department was created, he said.

Barkley also can boast that as one of the shortest-serving Senators in history, he drafted legislation that was enacted in near-record time.

S.3156, the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center for Community Building Act, was signed by President Bush on Dec. 2, 2002, and is now known as PL 107-316.

It awarded a $10 million grant to Neighborhood House of St. Paul, Minn., to build a community center in the Wellstones’ names. Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, daughter Marcia and five others perished in the Oct. 25, 2002, plane crash near Eveleth, Minn.

Since leaving the Senate, Barkley, who helped draft Ventura into politics, has remained active in the third-party movement.

He traveled to California during the historical gubernatorial recall election last summer to advise Arianna Huffington’s brief Independent campaign.

Of course, all other candidates were overshadowed by now-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), and Huffington bowed out early.

“They were going after the same voters,” Barkley said. “She would have done much better without Arnold in the race.”

Barkley is no stranger to uphill battles.

He toiled for Democratic and independent candidates, including himself, who got trounced at the polls.

The 53-year-old attorney worked on former Sen. George McGovern’s (D-S.D.) failed 1972 presidential campaign and then-Rep. John Anderson’s (R-Ill.) 1980 independent presidential bid.

Barkley ran for U.S. Senate twice, garnering enough votes in 1996 to get his Reform Party designated a major party in Minnesota.

It was during that time that he teamed up with then-Brooklyn Park Mayor Ventura to propel Minnesota into the political spotlight.

The professional wrestler turned pol stunned the political establishment when he won the governor’s race in 1998.

He thanked his Svengali Barkley by appointing him state planning director.

Barkley and his like-minded Minnesotans broke from the national Reform Party in 2000. They are now known as the Minnesota Independence Party.

There is still a Minnesota Reform Party that is affiliated with the national party as well.

Back in the Minneapolis suburbs, where Barkley is rebuilding his law firm, he fulfilled his Independence Party obligation by hosting one of its caucuses last Tuesday.

The third-party movement in Minnesota is alive and well, he says.

“[We’re] still viable; we’re still going to be a thorn in people’s sides,” Barkley added.

The national movement is stalled, he admitted, saying it’s a movement in search of a leader.

So who could take the national mantle and run with it?

Ventura, for one; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), if he were willing to renounce the Republican Party; or possibly even presidential hopeful Ralph Nader, Barkley said.

The issues that launched Ross Perot in 1992 are back — deficit spending and the need for campaign finance reform, he said.

Even with enactment of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act there is too much money in politics and the two major parties are still beholden to special interests, he said.

The only way to truly integrate independent voices into politics is to move to a 100 percent publicly financed campaign system for all federal elections, Barkley said.

“I don’t think the two parties will change — it’s all about money. Until that cycle is broken, it’s not going to change,” he said.

For now, Barkley is staying out of the limelight. He has not backed any presidential candidate, though former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) sought his support before his presidential hopes flamed out.

“His candidacy was interesting,” Barkley said, but ultimately he declined the offer.

“I’m still trying to see who appeals to me,” he said about the presidential contenders.

Barkley was coy about whether he will again seek public office.

“Never say never,” he said. “That’s a big maybe” right now.

In the meantime, he has reunited with former law partner Steve Palmer and is doing some lobbying of the state Legislature.

He hopes to attract some Washington clients so he can “exercise his floor privileges” as a former Senator, he said.

Getting that book published would probably help remind his old colleagues that he was once, however briefly, one of them.