Saturday, December 28, 2002
WASHINGTON -- As Minnesota Sen. Dean Barkley lights a cigar in his temporary office on Capitol Hill, it's clear his coach is turning into a pumpkin.
The walls are bare, the drawers empty. About the only thing on his desk is a can of maple syrup, a goodbye present from the Senate's only other independent, Jim Jeffords of Vermont.
But Barkley can take satisfaction as he wraps up his two-month stint, completing the term of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. After being appointed by Gov. Jesse Ventura, the interim senator accomplished his three main goals: passage of a homeland security department, creation of a permanent Wellstone memorial, and continuation of Minnesota's welfare waiver.
"I'm quite proud of what I've been able to do," he said Friday in an interview.
Yet Barkley, 52, an easygoing rugby player who was Ventura's campaign chairman in 1998, said he's got a "sinking feeling" about Washington.
"I highly doubt I'll ever get back to this position the old-fashioned way," said Barkley, who came in third in his 1994 and 1996 Senate campaigns which were won by Republican Rod Grams and Wellstone, respectively.
"The trend in this town is all about money. Over half of the new members are millionaires."
"This is the only place in America where bribery is legal and sanctified, because it's political," he added, referring to campaign contributions. His solution is the same as Wellstone's: publicly financed elections.
Not that Barkley won't benefit monetarily from the experience. He said he's signed up with two speakers bureaus in town to give speeches at $12,500 each. And he's writing a book about his time in Washington, although he won't shop for a publisher until after his term ends Jan. 3.
"I've got to make money like everybody else," he said.
The lawyer and former car-wash owner is also talking to law firms in Washington and Minnesota, although his preference is to return home. He said he hopes to avoid lobbying.
Despite his dour assessment of Washington, Barkley said he liked the place on a personal level.
Other senators, from Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., were respectful and accepting of him, he said.
"I really enjoyed sitting on the Senate floor and going to the cloakroom and talking to senators and building relationships," he said. He also got a kick out of meeting President Bush in the Oval Office.
Barkley was a sought-out figure when he arrived in Washington just two days after the November elections. Everybody from Bush to Senate leaders to journalists wanted a piece of him.
Both parties in the evenly divided Senate courted him to join their caucus. In the end, Barkley decided to stay an independent, which kept the Senate in Democratic hands, at least temporarily, and he maintained and used the leverage his unique position provided.
When the Senate was debating a Republican bill to create a Homeland Security Department, Barkley would not commit to voting for it until the Bush administration committed to a Minnesota welfare waiver -- even though he had planned to vote for it all along.
Barkley said his toughest task was delivering a eulogy from the Senate floor for Wellstone, who was killed in a plane crash Oct. 25 with his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, and five others.
"I get to the Senate floor for the first time and there's his desk with the black shroud and the flowers on it," Barkley said. "The image of his shrouded desk is one I'll never forget."
One of Barkley's top priorities was paying homage to Wellstone through a "living memorial," and he was able to deliver. Barkley won passage of a bill authorizing $10 million toward the creation of an immigrant community center in St. Paul, Minn., in honor of Paul and Sheila Wellstone.
The late senator had championed immigrant causes, especially on behalf of the Hmong, a Laotian ethnic group that settled in Minnesota.
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