The Ascent of a Politician

On the inside looking out, can Jesse Ventura win as a responsible renegade?

Jesse Ventura shenanigans have been a staple of Minnesota politics ever since the ex-wrestler-turned-talk-show radio host announced his improbable candidacy for governor and then "shocked the world" by winning the race in November 1998. Whether it was Jesse hoping to be reincarnated as a large brassiere; Jesse referring to the religiously devout as "weak-minded" and reporters as "jackals"; Jesse shilling for sleazebag Vince McMahon at wrestling matches and XFL football games; or Jesse opining that terrorists might be fixing to take him out; the bald gov with the bottomless chin dimple has been hell-bent on setting a new standard for lowbrow outrageousness.

For nearly three years, this political theater has been a Dada delight. Self-important pundits, struggling to adopt the proper perspective, transformed themselves into befuddled straight men or bad standup comedians, while the once-bored and alienated electorate gasped and chortled on cue. Jesse was a hit, consistently racking up high approval ratings. Credit goes to the star of the show, who--as a man renowned for making a reckless ruckus--rendered a deftly calibrated performance.

"You notice a pattern," says Minnesota House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, a Republican angling to succeed Ventura as governor come November. "Once he gets into trouble, he lays low for a couple of months, and the outrage has traditionally blown over. So, he might kick and scream for a while, but his personality has been a great strength for him in terms of his blunt, although sometimes inappropriate, approach."

In short, Ventura was crude and lewd but ultimately shrewd. The dominant impression created by his intemperate antics was not that he was oversexed or hated religion, but that, by ignoring the rules and speaking his mind, he was, above all, not a politician.

In the recent budget battle with the state legislature, however, the gov seems to have lost his brute finesse and his ability to immunize himself from politics through intimidation. On the evening of February 21, when the legislature's revisor of statutes attempted to deliver Ventura a budget bill passed by the House and Senate earlier that same day, she discovered that the governor, relying perhaps on his experience as an ex-Navy SEAL, had vanished into thin air. Neither he nor any of his staff officially authorized to receive the bill could be found at his capitol office or St. Paul residence. When the revisor went out to Ventura's home in Maple Grove, she was turned away by the state police.

The dodge played like a penny-ante political maneuver, the sort of cute government gambit that gets people exasperated with their elected officials. Suddenly, the man who made his refreshingly fearsome reputation by striding into the spotlight and speaking from the gut was snaring headlines for engaging in a duck-and-cover operation to thwart a bureaucratic messenger.

One yearned for Jesse the talk-show host, circa 1998, who would have lambasted Jesse the governor for this February folly. Reee-DIC-ulous, one can imagine him saying, his disgust propelling him into full bobblehead mode. These politicians need to stop screwing around, get together, and get this thing done. Instead, on WCCO-AM's (1130) "Lunch With the Governor," Ventura played the innocent (never his most convincing role), claiming that no one had informed him the budget bill was on the way and that he had merely gone about his normal routine the previous evening. This alibi was so flimsy that, while he was on the air, members of his staff were conceding that they had been avoiding receipt of the bill so they could have an extra 24 hours to study it.

Later in the program, Ventura couldn't resist responding to criticism from his nemesis, KSTP-AM (1500) talk-show host Jason Lewis, who'd belittled him for running away. "We're talking about working in government. Until you've actually done it, you've only observed it and you really don't know what you're talking about," the governor sneered. When the quintessential anti-politician starts defending himself solely on the basis of his time in public office, you know he's in trouble.

And make no mistake: Jesse is in jeopardy. A snap poll taken by the St. Paul Pioneer Press in late February showed that the public preferred the legislature's budget bill, with no tax increases, by two-to-one over Ventura's budget plan, which relies on more taxes. This came on the heels of an early February poll in the Star Tribune revealing that the governor's approval rating had fallen below 50 percent for the first time since he took office. More ominously, just 29 percent of those polled by the Strib believe Ventura should be reelected, theoretically denying him a plurality in a three-way race. Even among those who said they voted for Ventura in 1998, a majority believed "someone new deserves a chance."

 

One of the more compelling views on why support for Ventura has unraveled comes from David Schultz, a professor in the graduate school of public administration at Hamline University in St. Paul. It was Schultz and his students who, in reference to the governor, first coined the term "politainer": "Somebody whose identity as an entertainer and a politician can't be separated."

"I have argued that Ventura's popularity stemmed from three factors," Schultz says. "First, his persona--this wrestler-like character that he plays, which results in very high name recognition. Second,

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