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,

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."

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?"

And in that context, Hillsman asserts, Ventura remains the anti-politician. "Who else? Brian Sullivan, the rich guy? Roger Moe? People still think of Jesse as 'one of us,' certainly more than anyone else who's running. If they say, 'He wants to raise your taxes,' we say, 'Yeah, and you'd spend the entire rainy-day fund at the first sign of trouble.' It is going to be a pretty simple reelection campaign. Jesse is going to say exactly what he said before: If you think I'd do a good job, vote for me. If you don't, don't vote for me. And he'll be fine."

Hillsman's analysis notwithstanding, circumstances are not exactly the same this time around. In his initial run for governor, Ventura generated a prankster's zeal for blowing up the system. Retaliate in '98 was the bumper-sticker slogan, and anyone who caught the buzz as Jesse waded through crowded suburban bars the weekend before the election knows the unique magic of that campaign. Ventura churned out thousands of new voters, many of them young, politically apathetic males suddenly motivated by the prospect of civic mischief. Times were flush and politicians seemed deaf, boring, or simply corrupt, always quick to take your money. What does Jesse say to them now? Fight terrorism and pay more taxes? What will the campaign slogan be this time around? More retaliating to do in 2002? I'm still one of you in 2002? "Young males are probably our strongest supporters," Hillsman admits. "If we can get them out of bed."

In Ventura's first year dealing with the house and senate, his unprecedented, rule-breaking triumph intimidated legislators into treating him with kid gloves. His second year money was so plentiful that nobody had to get along; the surplus was divided into thirds, to be used however the house, the senate, and the governor wanted to spend it. In year three Ventura played divide and conquer, belatedly teaming with the Republicans to enact his tax-reform plan. Now, in his fourth session, the governor finds himself the odd man out. Although he still possesses a turbo-charged bully pulpit, he has been marginalized--forced to fight for just a small piece of his agenda.

Ironically, Ventura's budget proposal is more reasoned than the legislature's, and it would leave the government in better financial health. This from a man who four years ago was naively proclaiming to voters that he wanted to outlaw reassessments of property, a move that would have created financial chaos, but assuaged his ire at finding an assessor wandering around the grounds of his home. Jesse the candidate has always been about Jesse the person. Last time around, like a lot of voters, he was sick and tired of bureaucrats shoving their calculators into his lifestyle. So this fall, he must convince those same voters that his calculations are more responsible than his opponents'. He has to argue that the media, the DFLers, and the Republicans (not to mention the terrorists) are out to get him. And that, for better or worse, is a job for a politician.

 

Shrinking the HEAD
A local psychologist takes a crack at the governor

Editor's note:Jesse Ventura has a big head. Not just a big head--an enormous head, almost geological in scale. It hypnotizes with its size, like a great, wobbling Everest.

 

For even casual watchers of Ventura's cranium, though, the burning question remains: What goes on in those cavernous depths? No one can presume to know, of course; that would require rotating teams of bearded Swiss men, churning out dissertations round the clock. But, in the (vague) interest of science, we sent our reporters out to find a local psychologist to offer a unique insight into the mind of the Body.

 

Citing possible ethical implications, our winner asked that his name not be used. The veteran psychologist also took pains to point out that his remarks should not be construed as a diagnosis, but merely as observations of Ventura's (increasingly non grata) public persona.

 

CP: SO WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON JESSE VENTURA?

"When someone appears to be trying to demonstrate how competent they are, it's often the case that they don't feel competent. The job of a parent is to help kids grow up feeling competent. When that doesn't happen, sometimes as the youngster develops, he or she finds areas that can get them rewards. Those can be either good or bad rewards."

 

CP: AND THAT WOULD LEAD A CHILD TO ACT OUT?

"Right. That's part of the macho thing with Ventura. Perhaps he doesn't feel that he really is macho. He might be compensating for a lack of security, not feeling male enough or not feeling smart enough. The wrestling just fits those needs. The [World] Wrestling Federation showcases that kind of bravado.

 

"One school of thought is that if somebody is exaggerating a character trait, then perhaps the opposite is true--that they really feel small or anxious about being accepted. It's called 'reaction formation,' where a person does the opposite of what they're really experiencing.

 

"The Freudian psychoanalytic view might be that he feels sexually inadequate. A really wild speculation is that he has a small penis. So what? Well, imagine having such a large body with a small penis."

 

CP: HE'S ALWAYS CHOMPING ON A CIGAR. THAT'S PRETTY FREUDIAN, RIGHT?

"Well, that could indicate that there's something very satisfying to him about that kind of oral gratification. The Freudian view would be that he missed out on having a good breast [to suckle]."

 

CP: WHAT DID YOU MAKE OF THE "HUNTING MAN" EPISODE?

"Again, he's setting himself apart. He needs to make himself stand out. He believes it's unique in a positive way. It's really quite immature, even childish.

 

"He's a little like the class clown, always trying to get a laugh from his classmates. Then the other kids get reinforced from that. I guess maybe the press fills that authority role for him. When he gets in arguments with them, he's just like the class clown. He becomes the hero: 'Look, I can handle the press and other politicians don't know how.' It's a little grandiose."

 

CP: ONE OF THE TERMS THAT GETS TOSSED AROUND A LOT WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT THE GOVERNOR IS NARCISSISM.

"Narcissists usually aren't really aware of how they're affecting other people, or alienating them, so that could apply.

 

"You know, now he has friends he hunts and drinks beer with. But it'd be interesting to know what kind of friends he had growing up. My guess would be that he probably wasn't with the people who were always pushing and getting good grades. He was probably with the oddballs, the kids who liked to test limits, see how far they could push authorities. That idea of being a rebel--it's always an image, rather than a real sense of who you are."

 

CP: HAVE YOU NOTICED ANY CHANGES IN HIS BODY LANGUAGE OR IN THE WAY HE INTERACTS WITH PEOPLE?

"From watching him on television, it seems like he listens to people more. In the beginning, when he interrupted that university student when she stood up to ask a question, he didn't seem interested in listening. He's getting better at that. He may be getting advice from people around him about the kind of image he should project. Whether he can follow their instructions, that's another question.

 

CP: IS THIS JUST AN ENDLESSLY FASCINATING PSYCHE TO YOU?

"Well, I don't know. I'd easily get tired of being around him. I don't think I'd find him that interesting to talk to. He's always spinning stories about the military and things like that, and who knows what's true and what's not."

 

CP: THERE SURE WAS A LOT OF SPECULATION ABOUT THAT.

"I don't see why he can't just comment when he's being asked a somewhat detailed, but not overly detailed, question. Again, that goes back to this idea of provoking the authorities. I think he thinks mystery gives him an edge. He's interested in anything that gives him an edge.

 

"I wonder if he works out still. He looks like he's getting chunkier. It'd be really surprising if he's letting himself go."

 

CP: MAYBE IT'S HEALTHY, LIKE ACCEPTING THAT HE'S GETTING A LITTLE OLDER?

"I saw him on TV the other day, though, and he was wearing a SEALS cap. I wonder: Is he really wearing a military uniform because he doesn't want people to know who he is? The wrestling and the feather boas and all are part of the same thing."

 

CP: EXCEPT A FEATHER BOA IS A WOMAN'S ACCESSORY. KIND OF A FREUDIAN DRESS-UP THING?

"He would do almost anything if in his view it would challenge authority. It's very important for him to feel brave. He always has to be the hero. I wonder what his fantasies were as a kid, whether he wanted to be Superman or wanted to fly."

 

CP: HE WANTS TO BE A BRA.

"Well, that's just covering up what his real fantasies are. The question is, What is it that he's covering?"

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