Ventura Known For Caution As Well As Color
By Bill Wareham, Special to Stateline
ST. PAUL -- Everyone in America, it seems, is by now familiar with Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Or, at least they know the Ventura who showed up for his inaugural gala in a fringed leather jacket and wraparound sunglasses, with ears full of jewelry and a bikers' do-rag covering his shaved head. This is the same Ventura who, even in a suit, continues to provoke outrage, whether it's offending church-goers in a Playboy interview, chastising single mothers on the state Capitol steps or joking about the alleged Irish propensity for drink with David Letterman.
Yet, while Ventura lives up to his billing as the bad boy of politics, this rebel has a moderate side that rarely makes headlines, at least not nationally.
Indeed, his governance has been nothing short of tame, even cautious. Typical of his style, he backed a plan to return to taxpayers only part of the largest budget surplus in state history, despite blustery campaign rhetoric suggesting he'd return every cent.
His cabinet provides similar insight. No Hulk Hogans or Arnold Schwarzeneggers. Instead, Ventura has surrounded himself with a well-regarded, if sedate, group of public servants drawn from the Democratic, Republican and Reform parties, plus several from the private sector with little history of political activism.
Ventura, who is currently in the midst of a 10-day trade trip to Japan, hardly seemed destined for politics. He was born James Janos in 1951, the son of a laborer and a nurse. His most notable early leadership role came as captain of his high school swim team.
After graduation in 1969, he followed his older brother into the Navy SEALs, the elite group of unconventional warfare experts. He fought in the Vietnam War as U.S. efforts were winding down, although details of his service are sketchy because Ventura says almost nothing about his military experiences.
When Ventura left the Navy, he spent several months riding with a motorcycle gang in southern California, then returned to Minnesota. He tried community college, but left for the world of wrestling, where he made his biggest mark before his election.
Medical problems forced Ventura from the ring, but his skill at riling crowds led to a successful career as a ringside announcer, and later a talk radio host on several Minneapolis-St. Paul radio stations.
Ventura's first foray into politics came in 1990, when he ran for mayor of Brooklyn Park, a Minneapolis suburb of 56,000 people. He became involved in city politics through his opposition to a storm sewer project he felt threatened the environment in his neighborhood. Frustrated by the lack of attention to his concerns, he ran for office as an independent.
Foreshadowing his gubernatorial victory, he beat the 18-year incumbent by turning out thousands of citizens who didn't typically vote in elections. Ventura did not run for re-election in 1994.
He entered the governor's race in 1998 at the urging of Dean Barkley, a Reform Party activist who was largely responsible for the party's credibility in state politics.
Barkley was the party's candidate for a U.S. House seat in 1992 and Senate races in 1994 and 1996. Though he finished a distant third, he garnered more than 5 percent of the vote in each contest, enough to qualify Reform Party candidates for public funding under Minnesota's liberal campaign finance laws.
Ventura turned his instant name recognition, common man roots and gruff charisma to maximum advantage against two career politicians, Democrat Hubert Humphrey III, the state attorney general, and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican.
In perhaps the biggest miscalculation of the race, Humphrey's campaign insisted on including Ventura in all debates, figuring his hybrid libertarian/social liberal/fiscal conservative posture would draw voters disproportionately from Coleman's base.
Instead, the move gave Ventura instant free exposure, creating an opportunity to both entertain the electorate and show them he was a credible candidate. Ventura even managed to spin what would be missteps for other politicians, such as admitting support for legalized prostitution, to his advantage.
He wasn't pushing for such a policy, he said, just being honest about his opinions, unlike traditional politicians.
Ventura's campaign also squeezed the most out of a limited budget. Ad man Bill Hillsman, the mastermind behind Sen. Paul Wellstone's media campaign a few years earlier, turned out ads so quirky that, even though the campaign could only afford to air them a few times, they got repeated exposure through news reports about them.
One commercial featured children playing with a Ventura action figure taking on an "evil" lobbyist. Another showed Ventura posed as Rodin's "Thinker."
New voters, especially young people, responded to this most unusual campaign by turning out in droves. Some polling places were overwhelmed by new voters taking advantage of a Minnesota law that permits election day registration and temporarily ran out of ballots. Ventura was elected with 37 percent of the vote.
Ventura has yet to make a substantial mark on state government. Though he has presided over some of the most extensive tax relief in state history, that is largely due to inheriting large surpluses.
The most radical reform on this Reform Party member's agenda is pushing for a one-house legislature, a move Ventura says will reduce the back-room politicking that takes place in conference committees.
Ventura has hinted lately at larger reforms, outlining what he calls his "Big Plan." So far, though, the plan is long on platitudes (i.e., providing the best public education) and short on details.
Despite his obvious media appeal, Ventura's relations with Minnesota reporters have turned frosty. He has complained loudly when local editorial writers have criticized, among other things, his book deal and his return to the wrestling ring.
He grants few interviews to members of the Capitol press corps, limits the topics of those he does consent to and tightly controls his public availabilities. He does, however, make his views known through a weekly hour-long radio show produced by his office and broadcast throughout the state.
Relations with the national media have been more cordial.
As the highest Reform Party officeholder, Ventura has become a force on the national political scene, frequently turning up on network talk shows to discuss the possibilities for the party's presidential nomination.