The Ascent of a Politician

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

After one unsuccessful attempt, the legislature voted to override Ventura's veto last week, meaning that their budget will become state law. Jesse's response was to announce that he would immediately enact the legislature's cuts. The message: It's a bad budget, so let's implement it right away.

 

A couple of days before his veto, Ventura mused that if Minnesotans didn't want to pony up for the tax increases necessary to deal with the state's post-9/11 economy, he wasn't sure he wanted to be governor. Among more than a dozen lobbyists, legislators, and capitol staffers interviewed for this story, the sentiment is evenly divided between those who think he will run for reelection, those who think he won't, and those who think he still hasn't decided.

Ventura is on record as saying he won't run if the house and senate vote to put the issue of a unicameral Legislature before the voters, a move that would allow the electorate to wipe out approximately half the politicians at the capitol. "Not everyone believed him when he said that, but, of course, I did," says Jim Erickson, the lobbyist in charge of mustering support for the unicameral ballot issue. "I can certainly see other reasons why he wouldn't run.

"The happiness of his family will play a role," Erickson adds, a reference to Ventura's wife Terry, who is known to be unhappy with the fishbowl existence of public life. "Whether the legislature will really try and solve this budget problem this session will play a role. I think if he forced the legislature to deal with the long-term fiscal issues, it would be very easy for him to say, 'I've done my job and I don't need to do it anymore.' But if the legislature doesn't act, I think he is a fighter who won't settle for half a loaf and he'll want to run again to finish his agenda."

It is remarkable how much the agenda Erickson references differs from the one Ventura campaigned on during his first run for governor. In 1998 Jesse abetted his charismatic status as a renegade politainer with two substantive policy pledges: He promised to veto any tax increases. And he claimed to be steadfast in his support of public education. Now, among this year's chief gubernatorial rivals, he is the leading proponent of tax increases and the most vociferous critic of public-education spending. Politically, this would seem to leave Jesse vulnerable to a double whammy. He has reneged on his pledges and, worse, both flip-flops put him at odds with a majority of voters.

Ventura and the Republicans go out of their way to blame the fallout from 9/11 as the precipitating factor in the state's current budget woes. But months before Osama bin Laden became a household epithet, the Republicans and the governor ignored signs of a national recession and banded together to pass legislation that resulted in tax cuts and rebates, coupled with a sweeping tax-reform program that placed the responsibility for K-12 education funding more firmly in the hands of the state. Already before the rebate checks could be mailed out, hundreds of school districts were crying the financial blues.

"Just before Jesse called the special session last summer, he said that we could do it all: provide an additional $2 billion in new tax cuts and not jeopardize the commitment to schools or anything else," says Wayne Cox, the executive director of Minnesota Citizens for Tax Justice. "Now the schools are hurting. If your kid has to walk two miles to school where he took the bus before, or if you're a family with two or three kids with extracurricular activities and the fees have doubled or quadrupled, you have Jesse to thank."

During the last legislative session, Senator Moe, a DFLer, presciently cautioned Ventura and the Republicans to hold back on the cuts/rebates/reform combination platter until the projected budget surpluses actually came through. "I have no doubt that a significant majority of Minnesotans get it that there is a relationship between the tax bill that passed and the inadequate funding of school aids," he says now. And if they don't get it, you can bet Moe will remind them during his campaign for governor this fall.

 

On the ropes. Down for the count. In a sleeper hold. Insert your own wrestling cliché here to describe Ventura's political predicament. But before calling the match, consider that the governor's poll numbers look bad only when another opponent isn't in the ring. Put any flesh-and-blood candidate against him--be it Moe, Pawlenty, Sen. Becky Loury, State Auditor Judy Dutcher, or businessman Brian Sullivan--and potential voters conclude that they'd look nearly as inappropriate in the governor's office as they would in tights and a feather boa. According to the numbers, it's still Jesse's race to lose.

"The Republicans will attack him on taxes and economy, and the Democrats will attack him on education and labor issues. Look, they aren't exactly brain surgeons and their game plan is usually pretty self-evident," says Bill Hillsman, CEO of North Woods Advertising, who handled the media campaign for Ventura in 1998 and will probably do so again if Jesse decides to run. "I'm one who never believes in polls, especially where Jesse is concerned, but I think you'd be crazy not to consider him the solid favorite--even if his [approval rating] drops to 35 percent. It's a choice: Which brand of toothpaste do you want?"

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