Casting herself as the "New Girl" because of her resemblance to a popular television actress, Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Hannah Nicollet is a former software developer hoping that voters take a chance on her despite a complete lack of political experience.
"There was a time when we hired people who did other things," Nicollet said Thursday, after she and fellow Independence Party candidates unveiled a new, unconventional TV ad that's modeled after a movie preview.
Mark Jenkins, the IP's state chairman, said the ad buy was about $7,000, minuscule by the standards of most statewide campaigns, and not likely to be widely seen. Nicollet has also struggled to make a dent in the gubernatorial race: A Star Tribune poll from early September found her support at just 1 percent, and as of a recent fundraising deadline she had just $11,000 in campaign funds.
The IP has enjoyed major party status in Minnesota for 20 years, after U.S. Senate candidate Dean Barkley won just over 5 percent of the vote in 1994. It later became the political home of former Gov. Jesse Ventura, and since then the party's candidates for governor have made themselves a factor in successive races. Tim Penny, a former DFL congressman, won 16 percent of the vote as an IP candidate, and in 2010 former Republican operative Tom Horner got about 12 percent.
If no statewide Independence Party candidate gets at least 5 percent of the vote this year, it would lose its major party status, which brings with it a guaranteed ballot line and the possibility of public campaign subsidies.
"Getting to 5 percent is absolutely doable, absolutely reasonable," Jenkins said Thursday.
That responsibility could fall mostly on Nicollet's shoulders. Steve Carlson, who won the IP primary for U.S. Senate, is considerably further to the right than most IP supporters, and estranged from the party's leaders. The candidates for attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor are running in races that are low-profile to begin with.
Nicollet, a 40-year-old Roseville resident, has never run for office. But she's a longtime believer in third-party politics, having volunteered as a teenager for the 1992 presidential campaign of Texas billionaire Ross Perot. Both her major-party opponents, Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican challenger Jeff Johnson, are political veterans: Dayton is a former U.S. senator now seeking a second term as governor, while Johnson is a former state legislator and current Hennepin County commissioner.
Asked her qualifications to be governor, Nicollet cited her previous career as a COBOL programmer.
"I was very successful. I negotiated a 50 percent wage increase when I was still working," said Nicollet, who is now raising two young children. "I was really proud of my career, and competent at it, and I really do feel it applies."
Like most IP supporters, Nicollet describes herself as socially moderate and fiscally conservative. But she said she sees several areas where state spending should be boosted, citing transportation and child protection services.
"I'd like to cut back on the budget but we'd have to invest in some necessities first," she said.
The "New Girl" nickname is a reference to Nicollet's noticeable resemblance to the actress and singer Zooey Deschanel, who stars in the Fox sitcom of the same name. In the IP ad, Nicollet's four fellow IP candidates also assume identities: lieutenant governor candidate Tim Gieseke is "the Intellect," attorney general candidate Brandan Borgos is "the Advocate," auditor candidate Pat Dean is "the Whistleblower" and secretary of state candidate Bob Helland is "the Guardian."
"Together they are the Independents — coming November 4 to a State Capitol near you," the ad's narrator intones.
Jenkins said the candidates felt they had to get creative to get noticed. He conceded that actually winning a statewide race looks like a long shot.
"I'm just hoping for a couple lightning strikes, and that in January I'll be at an inauguration or two," he said.
Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049