DULUTH - The political pairing of Ray "Skip" Sandman and the state Independence Party came together over coffee at a roadside restaurant in Hinckley.
What started as an introductory get-together yielded a match which will carry into the 8th Congressional District race. Sandman, 64, is making his second bid for the office after running as a Green Party candidate during the 2014 8th District race.
"He contacted us in early January and said that he was interested in joining the party," said Phil Fuehrer, chairman of the Independence Party of Minnesota based in St. Paul. "I'm not terribly interested in poaching folks from other third parties, but if he felt the fit was not there then, sure, I'm more than happy to welcome him on board."
Sandman garnered 4.3 percent of the vote in 2014, or close to 11,500 votes, in a race won by retiring three-time incumbent Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby. Sandman skipped the 2016 race after receiving an artificial heart valve. When he announced his candidacy last spring, he did so as an independent in search of a new party.
A Duluth resident and retired corrections worker, Sandman told the News Tribune he was appreciative but underwhelmed by the support he received from the Green Party.
"It seemed to me at the time the Green Party in Duluth kind of folded," Sandman said. "It was great to get the endorsement from the state, but when I needed help they were a little shy in coming out."
The differences between his two bids are already becoming evident. Sandman campaigned on less than $4,000 last time around, gaining most of his exposure at public candidate forums. This time, he said he's found a lot more structure within his party. He's already reached more than $6,000 in campaign contributions with a series of spaghetti-dinner-style fundraisers still to come.
A busier campaign was one of the things Fuehrer said he wanted to see from Sandman, whose current good health and willingness to put himself out there were topics of their get-together.
"He's already running a much more active campaign than he did in 2014," Fuehrer said. "He's more serious."
The old marriage between Sandman and the Green Party seemed a natural fit given his environmental activism and strong opposition to projects which might imperil major water sources. Sandman offered up the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine outside Aurora, Minn., as an example of his ongoing defense of the environment.
"My stand on PolyMet is their technology is not safe," Sandman said. "They're using 40-year-old technology and trying to buffalo the state of Minnesota into giving those permits."
But with his new tether to the Independence Party, Sandman has proven eager to tackle a broader palette of issues. A Vietnam veteran, Sandman last week called for a ban on assault rifles in the wake of the Florida school shooting which killed 17 and injured several more earlier this month. Sandman also sought other "common sense gun-reform" measures, including a federal buy-back program, a reduction in magazine capacities, the addition of longer waiting periods to purchase firearms, stronger background checks and psychological evaluations for new gun owners. Sandman said he favored current owners of assault rifles being grandfathered in, but not allowed to transfer ownership.
"I want to be clear," Sandman said in a news release, "I will support the ownership of guns that people already own. In no way am I proposing or implying that we confiscate anyone's guns."
The state Independence Party owes its roots to Ross Perot, whose 1992 third-party presidential campaign drew considerable support as it sought an end to the federal government operating on a budget deficit. The party does not have a national body, but remains a reform-based party in the states within which it operates - still seeking balanced budgets, along with such things as the decriminalization of marijuana, prison reform and curbing the militarization of police.
"This wasn't a decision I made lightly," Sandman said. "I studied the Independence Party. We're (each) independent and if I agree with them 70 percent of the time, I'll take it."
"We're on the same side when it comes to limiting hydrocarbon fracking, pro clean water and environmental protection," he said. "Ray takes a couple issues further than we do, but on balance I think based on the other planks we do have he still lines up quite well."
To date, professional wrestler Jesse Ventura remains the most notable member of the state Independence Party. He swept into the governor's office in 1998 as a member of Perot's Reform Party, riding a wave of his own dynamism and voter fatigue with the two-party status quo. He later switched to the state's Independence Party while in office. Sandman often says the reason he runs is to give voters an alternative to the major parties he views as beholden to special interests and flawed as a result.
Sandman's candidacy is joined in the election by Republican Pete Stauber of Hermantown and a crowded field of DFL candidates vying for endorsement, including Leah Phifer of Isanti, Joe Radinovich of Crosby, Michelle Lee of Moose Lake and Kirsten Hagen Kennedy of North Branch.
Fuehrer believes Nolan's retirement turned a crack in the door into a wider opening for Sandman.
"Victory is always the big hope," Fuehrer said. "Nolan's retirement gives folks a chance to really sit down and take a look at the race. If you're truly upset with partisan bickering - and the refusal of Republicans to work with Democrats, and Democrats to work with Republicans - that gives Sandman a chance."