Independence Party selects PR exec Horner for gov

Published 9:30 am Monday, May 10, 2010

The Minnesota Independence Party backed a former Republican strategist for governor on Saturday, hoping to send a candidate to the governor’s office for the first time since ex pro wrestler Jesse Ventura won a dozen years ago.

Public relations executive Tom Horner beat out at least four other candidates seeking the endorsement at the party’s convention in Bloomington, including publisher Rob Hahn, retired business executive John Uldrich, former health administrator Jim Koepke and party activist Chris Pfeifer. Horner won with 68.2 percent support from delegates on the first ballot.

Horner, 59, earned applause from the crowd as he talked about overhauling government operations and education and fixing the state’s deficit with a mix of cuts and raising taxes.

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“I’m willing to make these tough choices, and if that means I’m a one-time governor, then so be it,” he said.

But the path isn’t clear for Horner, who spent seven years working for former Republican U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and only recently switched to the Independence Party. Hahn and Uldrich also plan to run in the primary election without the party’s endorsement.

Hahn, a 41-year-old publisher and author, called Horner a “recovering Republican.”

“I don’t bring any political baggage from my past life,” Hahn said.

Past elections have proven that the Independence Party’s choice matters.

Even though the party is much smaller than Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican parties, its candidate has received more than the margin of victory between Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his Democratic rivals in the last two elections. And an Independence Party candidate has held the governor’s office more recently than Democrats with Ventura’s 1998 upset.

“It’s really about building the party,” Independence Party chairman Jack Uldrich said, adding that this year’s convention is the largest he has seen in the last decade.

Uldrich said the profiles of the party’s candidates have risen in the last few years, citing 2008 U.S. Senate candidate Dean Barkley who won 15 percent of the votes under the Independence Party banner.

But the party has struggled to elect candidates since Ventura. Delegates hope they’ve found a winner in Horner.

“He is the real deal,” said delegate Bruce Anderson, 46, of Crystal. “You only have to spend a few minutes with him to be impressed. I think he could really win it this year.”

Horner, a Minneapolis native, worked as Durenberger’s press secretary and eventually his chief of staff. He left Washington in the 1980s to start his public relations firm Himle Horner Inc., which he said represents some high-profile players at the state Capitol, along with the Minnesota Vikings and health insurance companies including Blue Cross Blue Shield.

State Republican Party chairman Tony Sutton was quick to criticize Horner after his endorsement.

“After over thirty years as a political insider, Tom Horner is now running on the same failed Independence Party formula of higher taxes and more spending,” Sutton said in a statement.

After Horner kicked off his campaign this week, Democratic Party spokesman Donald McFarland said Horner would attract only conservative voters.

The governor’s race is open this year since Pawlenty is not seeking re-election after two terms.