The Ascent of a Politician

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

he benefited tremendously from the billions in surplus money held by the state. He was able to mail rebate checks to people every year, and everybody likes a Santa Claus. The third factor was that he was able to effectively voice the anti-government feeling that many people had.

"Well, two of those factors are gone. The surplus is now a deficit. And September 11 changed attitudes so that it is now very hard, if not impossible, to run against government. In 1998 Ventura used his confrontational personality to say he was going to clean up government, like it was one of his wrestling opponents; he was good, government was evil, and he was going to vanquish it. But now, with everything that has happened, he has boxed himself into a bad situation."

In other words, after years of championing himself as the guerrilla commando who had invaded the bowels of government on a search-and-destroy mission, Ventura is discovering that the 9/11 terrorists booby-trapped the operation by deepening the recession and calling our physical safety into question. Suddenly, a little dose of Big Brother doesn't sound all bad to people.

"If he wants to run for a second term, I think Ventura's best role is to continue to be the straight talker--that is still one of his most powerful skills," Schultz concludes. "But at the same time he has to give people the sense that he can be a good administrator and manager inside government, somebody who can be trusted to make the right choices in tough times."

In the past couple of weeks, Ventura has been acting like Schultz is one of his political consultants. The radio response to Jason Lewis, an avowedly right-wing conservative who is particularly adept at raising Jesse's testosterone level, was one early sign that the governor would no longer cast government as the enemy. Now the commando is hell-bent on protecting government, in the form of higher taxes, so it can help save the people from the terrorists--and their nasty fellow travelers in the legislature who would wreak havoc on the budget.

No kidding. More than once while explaining his veto of the budget bill, Ventura shamelessly invoked the specter of another terrorist assault, as if the international campaign against bin Laden's crew should or could be specifically a Minnesota issue. And at least once, he questioned the patriotism of legislators who had ignored his budget proposal and come up with their own.

 

By playing up the terrorism angle, Ventura has obscured the fact that the legislature's budget plan is motivated, at least in part, by personal grudges and political convenience. Put simply, the governor's adversaries have a few scores to settle and they smell blood.

"Maybe we are a little more willing to take him on," allows Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum. "The governor is a wonderful entertainer and he has made a killing the last three years making somebody else the villain--whether it is the house, the senate, or the legislature not acting together. He's been hitting on Democrats, hitting on Republicans, school districts, counties--a political life he's been given by dishing it out to others. Now he needs those others, whether it is counties or cities or legislators, to help solve this budget deficit. And it is tough to rebuild those relationships once you've been dumping on those folks for a significant amount of time."

Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe--like Pawlenty, a legislative leader running for governor--echoes Sviggum's sentiments: "What happened, in my judgment, is that the governor frittered away a lot of public goodwill, ironically not so much by his policies but by his attitude. The legislative process is a very human process, and you get to the point where you wonder why you should put up with that kind of abuse."

It is a good guess that Ventura didn't expect the political hardball that's being played at the capitol this session. After submitting his budget proposal, he practically taunted the legislature to come up with an alternative if they didn't like it, and--knowing that the house and senate have spent the past three years bickering--to make it snappy. But with Moe and Pawlenty both positioning themselves for November, the house and the senate rammed home a compromise budget in just 18 days that pointedly avoided further taxes and cut less out of education than Ventura proposed. In an unsuccessful attempt to make ends meet, their plan used the entire budget reserve, and didn't fully address either the shortfall in the 2002-03 budget or the huge deficits projected for the 2004-05 biennium. But it did go out of its way to substantially cut Ventura's staff and government agencies.

"This is the epitome of gamesmanship," rails Dean Barkley, who first convinced Ventura to run for governor and, as the state's director of planning, remains one of his closest allies. "I think the desire to take Ventura out has caused both parties to abandon their principles and avoid the tough decisions that need to be made."

Citing the double-digit percent cuts in the Departments of Administration, Planning, and Finance, Barkley says that the legislature would "love for the governor to have to be the defender of the state bureaucracy." "That's why they picked on it," he says. "But to cut their budget and not say what services will have to be eliminated--how chicken can you get? If you want to lay off prison guards and eliminate parks, at least have the guts to say so."

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