Where Are They Now?: Dean Barkley

In Minnesota, Barkley founded the Independence Party, ran for the U.S. Senate three times, and led Jesse Ventura’s successful gubernatorial campaign—but how would he like to be remembered?
Dean Barkley
Dean Barkley

Courtesy of the U.S. Senate Historical Office

During the 1990s, Dean Barkley was a tireless public-office aspirant and public servant in Minnesota. He founded the Independence Party, ran for the U.S. Senate three times as its candidate, led Jesse Ventura’s successful gubernatorial campaign in 1998 and co-chaired the subsequent transition committee, and accepted Ventura’s appointment to become the director of the state’s Office of Strategic and Long Range Planning.

Barkley rose to national prominence after U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone died 20 years ago in an airplane crash on Oct. 25, 2002, just 11 days before the U.S. Senate election. Ventura tapped him again, this time to be Wellstone’s replacement. Barkley learned about his appointment only a couple hours before Ventura publicly revealed it, and he had to rush home to throw on a suit for the announcement. Former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman narrowly beat Walter Mondale for the seat, and Barkley served only two months, which was the remainder of Wellstone’s term, in one the shortest Senate tenures in American history. For most of that time, the Senate wasn’t in session.

Yet Barkley, today a 72-year-old semi-retired estate planner and political adviser for Independent candidates, has vivid memories of his brief time in Washington. The Senate was nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and Republican Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) desperately appealed to Barkley, an Independent, to caucus with his party. In a phone call, Barkley told Lott that he would caucus with neither party, and he enjoyed Lott’s exasperated silence that followed. Later he guided legislation that established a memorial for Wellstone. And in a meeting with President George W. Bush, after they exchanged stories of their university rugby experiences, Barkley agreed to support the Homeland Security bill if Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson would end his opposition to waivers that would allow Minnesota to carry out its state welfare reform.

When the Senate adjourned for the end-of-year holidays and Barkley still had a few weeks to go in his term, he went back to his office one last time, put his feet up on the desk, and smoked a cigar. “What am I supposed to do now?” he wondered.

After he left Washington, Barkley advised in the campaign of Kinky Friedman (an Independent candidate for Texas governor in 2006), ran one more time for the Senate in 2008, and unsuccessfully campaigned for a seat on the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2012 because, he says, he was bored. He went back to his law practice and suffered a couple of strokes that have slowed him down but not stopped him.

Today, he says he believes politics have degenerated since the days of his own involvement. “Both parties are bought and paid for,” he says. He hopes he is remembered for trying to return honesty to the political arena.

Minnesota Monthly catches up with memorable personalities, events, and milestones. Want an update on someone or something specific? Email your idea to editor Amy Nelson, anelson@greenspring.com