Minnesota’s third-party governor hopeful is the most “vibes-only” candidate ever

Cory Hepola, running under Andrew Yang’s Forward Party banner, wants voters to “reframe” their minds about what a politician can be — while going light on what a politician should actually do.

Screenshot/YouTube/Cory Hepola
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“So, I’ve been thinking ... ” Minnesota third-party gubernatorial candidate Cory Hepola mused recently in a mid-afternoon tweet, more than a week after he announced his run for office. “I know some [people] on this app want me to detail every policy, right away.”

Hepola, a longtime TV and radio host across the Twin Cities, is perhaps Minnesota’s highest profile third-party candidate since Jesse Ventura “shocked the world” with his improbable independent run in 1998. He has the backing of Andrew Yang’s Forward Party, which recently set its sights on Minnesota as its first local operation, and he often speaks in that same technocratic cadence that Yang used to achieve cult admiration. He also enjoys the kind of name recognition and familiarity that can be invaluable in a race, thanks to his years on local airwaves and TV screens.

But in the time since announcing his intent to oust sitting Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, Hepola’s campaign has been conspicuously light on actual specifics about what he’d do if elected. Reputation as a solid local journalist notwithstanding, Hepola’s first week as an officially declared candidate seemed to rely more on his notoriety as a media figure than on any concrete vision for the state. His gauzy campaign announcement video played up his Minnesota roots, name-dropped some of the state’s most famous exports, and emphasized the “purple”-ness of his independent bid for office. But there was little emphasis on what he’d actually do as governor.

“I understand,” Hepola continued, addressing head-on the building narrative around his nascent campaign. “But that’s old thinking and why most are frustrated [with] politics. We need to reframe our minds on how an elected official should serve, raising our expectations.”

“Stay curious!” he added.

This deliberate focus on campaigning in poetry has dogged Hepola since he entered the race in early March. It took nearly two weeks after his announcement for his campaign to add an “issues” page to his website. Now that it’s up, the page is hardly inspired. Each item — things like universal basic income, cryptocurrency, ranked choice voting — has been given a stock photo and a single paragraph of explanation. All are short on details and Minnesota-specificity.

According to Hepola’s campaign manager Bill Denney, a more detailed policy roll-out is scheduled to launch soon. First we’ll hear about “education and election reform,” Denney tells Mic. “Local property taxes and campaign finance reform will follow shortly thereafter.” But the fact that the campaign’s pivot toward addressing concrete policy priorities happened weeks after Hepola’s candidacy announcement has created a distinct impression that Hepola is more interested in self-aggrandizing metaphors than actually running a serious campaign for office.

The campaign is trying to argue that this absence is deliberate — an attempt not to get too far ahead of itself while doing the due diligence to accurately reflect what voters want. “‘Reframing our minds’ and ‘raising expectations’ is simply our way of messaging to the public that it’s a leader’s job to serve the people, and our campaign reflects that through a diligent and collaborative approach,” Denney says.

Collaboration is one thing. But Hepola seems eager to bypass policy and instead focus on vibes — specifically, the “disruptive” ones that have increasingly come to be associated with burgeoning libertarian personalities like Yang as well as alternative economic tools, like cryptocurrency and a UBI.

“Too many politicians these days are in the business of projecting policies taken straight out of their party’s pre-ordained talking points. In short, they talk but don’t listen,” Denney tells Mic, in response to a question about Hepola’s lack of policy specifics. “Cory is humble enough to know that he doesn’t have all the correct answers right now. So, we are on a journey to collect as much information, insight, and input from as many Minnesotans as we can who are closely involved in these issues. We are talking to experts and community leaders, and crafting our policies to reflect the true desires and needs of Minnesotans rather than telling them what they should want.”

The plea is clear: Never mind that the candidate has no details, nor a clear plan for what he wants to actually do. He’s “on a journey,” man. He is “humble.” He knows you deserve better, even if he doesn’t quite know how he wants to get you there.

That sort of tech-bro startup language makes a degree of sense, given Hepola’s recent endorsement from Yang’s Forward Party — which used language identical to other Forward Party endorsements in touting Hepola’s commitment to crypto and a “human-centered economy.” The national Forward Party did not, however, say how it came to the decision to endorse Hepola. Notably, though, Denney’s brother John is the chairman of their nascent Minnesota chapter.

“We’ve both been involved in third-party politics for a decade and a half,” Denney explains, when I ask directly whether he’s related to the Forward Party executive. “We both believe the third-party landscape has grown stale over the past decade,” he adds. (In 2014, John Denney ran as the Independence Party of America candidate for the Minnesota’s 6th congressional district. He won just over 5% of the vote.)

Denny thinks Yang’s Forward Party is the “next best chance to accomplish our ultimate goal of a European-style multiparty government in this country.” And he maintains that Hepola is a great vector for it in Minnesota. “With Andrew Yang’s national reach and Cory’s statewide connections and name recognition, we think we have a real shot at making some serious noise this election cycle” he says, acknowledging nonetheless that it will be a “long build.”

Legitimate and worthwhile concerns over the stifling rigidity of America’s two-party system notwithstanding, Minnesota Democrats aren’t so much worried that Hepola’s campaign will succeed, as they are that it will siphon enough votes away from Walz, the Democrat currently in office, to hand the election to one of the nine Republicans vying to unseat him.

“The current field of Republican candidates for governor is the most extreme that Minnesota has seen in decades, making Hepola’s spoiler campaign even more irresponsible,” state Democratic Party chair Ken Martin said in a statement. “A vote for Cory Hepola is a vote to help the GOP cut taxes for the rich, defund public schools, and force their anti-choice agenda on Minnesotans.”

“Three out of the last four Minnesota gubernatorial elections have been decided by single digits,” Martin added. “Two of them were decided by 1% or less.”

Hepola’s campaign has dismissed allegations that he could play spoiler for Republicans, criticizing them as a “scare tactic” derived from the “elitist mentality” of the two major parties.

“Breaking that pattern takes courage, and it starts with you,” Hepola’s campaign wrote in a blog post “debunking” the “myth” that he would be a spoiler in the general election. “The freedom and power of choice lie within the hands of the voter.” Like much of his run so far, the blog post leans heavily on emotion, decrying the electoral “system” while offering little in the way of specifics as to how the campaign sees a straight path to victory.

“Cory has no plans to drop out,” Denney tells me, when I ask whether there could be a point at which the campaign recognizes a potential numerical dead end. “Furthermore, he will never endorse one of the other major-party candidates. To do so would be to give credence to the very system that we are running against.”

For a campaign whose whole launch seems predicated on vibes above all else, that defiant obstinance makes perfect sense.