Parting Shot

Leslie Davis: Don't call him a gadfly
Michael Dvorak

It's a little after 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, June 18, right around the time Gov. Jesse Ventura is announcing on live radio that he won't seek reelection in November. But Leslie Davis doesn't know that yet. At the moment, Davis is seated in a northeast Minneapolis café, with a raft of faxed papers, a dub of a video tape, and a dog-eared copy of his self-published screed, Always Cheat: The Philosophy of Jesse Ventura. He is explaining that his book, and the aforementioned source documents, expose Ventura "as a liar and a fraud" and will surely drive him from office.

If only, that is, someone will pay attention.

"There's been a little bit of a media blackout on me," Davis complains, a thick strain of his native Brooklyn in his voice. "They don't want to let Leslie the Gadfly, Leslie the Perennial Candidate bring down the cash cow, Ventura." Davis, the 65-year-old founder and president of the one-man activist organization Earth Protector, suggests that "environmental champion" might be a more appropriate descriptor. But he is stuck with gadfly and perennial candidate, the journalistic shorthand that arose from his copious filing of lawsuits, his public dust-ups with political foes and fellow environmentalists, and, of course, his semi-regular campaigns for public office. (Davis was a candidate for governor until last month, when he finally grew sick of being ignored and withdrew.)

He is hoping that Always Cheat will be spared that ignominy. The book has been on the shelves for a month now. He has sent copies to everyone he can think of, from the reviewers at the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press to Larry King and the New York Times. In advance of Ventura's trade junket to China, Davis even shipped four copies by express mail to a Chinese news agency. That cost $32, a fair chunk of change for Davis, who scrapes by on social security and contributions and loans from his diminishing ranks of benefactors.

And yet no one, it seems, shares Davis's appetite for revisiting a sordid and largely overlooked episode of political skullduggery that played out in the early days of Ventura's 1998 gubernatorial campaign.

Which is a shame.

Davis can be hyperbolic. He excoriates Ventura as a "whoremaster"--a reference to the governor's admission that he had visited brothels in his youth. At one point in his book, he characterizes Ventura administration spokesman John Wodele and chief of staff Steven Bosacker as "as sick a pair as one could find anywhere on the planet." Such eccentricities aside, Davis has assembled a surprisingly compelling case that Ventura and his former campaign chair, Dean Barkley, along with a host of other power players and public officials, ought to have been subjected to greater scrutiny for their respective roles in the Bill Dahn affair.

In the summer of '98, Dahn, aficionados of Minnesota political esoterica will recall, was the first candidate for governor to register under the banner of the Reform Party. A disabled former auto-body-shop worker and self-described "half-breed--half German, half Indian," Dahn was no one's idea of a bankable candidate. His run for office, he said, was driven by a desire to "expose government corruption" he claims to have uncovered in the course of an acrimonious dispute over insulation work performed on his St. Paul home under the auspices of a government program. The fervor of Dahn's complaints ultimately prompted St. Paul city officials to seek and receive a restraining order.

Crackpot or not, Ventura and Barkley viewed Dahn's candidacy as an inconvenience. For one thing, they worried that if Ventura were opposed in the Reform Party primary, he would lose his paying job as a radio host because of Federal Communications Commission rules that could have forced his employers to give equal airtime to his opponents. So, on July 19, 1998, Ventura and Barkley paid Dahn a visit at his home. In a videotaped recording of the meeting (which Davis obtained from Dahn), Ventura is seen instructing Dahn how to reregister as a Republican candidate. Later, Barkley would pony up the $600 registration fee. Later yet, he would go to bat for Dahn on his house-related beefs. In the course of his research, Davis compiled assorted documents in which Barkley advocates for Dahn with various government agencies in an effort to resolve Dahn's problems with his house.

All this, Davis alleges, amounted to a clear-cut violation of Minnesota's Fair Campaign Practices Act, which states that a person "may not reward or promise to reward another in any manner to induce the person to be or refrain from or cease being a candidate."

At the time, the "switcheroo," as Davis dubs it, was the cause of a minor political skirmish. Dick Franson, another perennial candidate for higher office and current U.S. Senate hopeful, filed a complaint with Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner. The state Republican Party soon followed suit. Gaertner ordered an investigation. A report was returned to her in September, but Gaertner sat on the matter for three more months. Then, in December of 1998 (after the election), Gaertner declared herself to have a conflict of interest because her then-boyfriend and now husband, John Wodele, had applied for work in the Ventura administration. She referred the matter to the Office of the Anoka County Attorney, which quietly issued a finding on December 28 that there was no probable cause for further investigation.

Davis contends that Gaertner should have declared herself in conflict earlier because of Wodele's established relationship with Barkley; he makes a more convoluted claim that Anoka prosecutors dismissed the complaint as part of a political payback scheme that culminated with the appointment of former Anoka County Attorney Charlie Weaver as the public safety commissioner. Weaver was not county attorney at the time, but Davis contends that Weaver was still connected to the office. Davis concedes he has little evidence to establish this component of the alleged cover-up. But, he asks, why else would Ventura turn over such a plum job to a law-and-order Republican with whom he seemed to have little in common?

Those named in Davis's book are not much inclined to respond to his myriad allegations. Neither Ventura nor Wodele, the governor's spokesman, responded to City Pages' requests for interviews. Gaertner says only, "I haven't read the book, and I don't intend to. I've got other books on my reading list." Dean Barkley is also entirely dismissive. "I have not bothered to make comments on his book since his book is not worth commenting on," he says. "It belongs in the fairy-tale section of the bookstore."

Dick Franson, who filed the initial complaint with Gaertner over the Dahn affair, begs to differ. "Dahn wasn't a good candidate, and I think if he had been a better candidate somebody might have done something about it," Franson opines. "But it shouldn't matter. The law was broken, all the way down the line."

Dahn has embarked on another campaign for governor, this time registering under the banner of Ventura's Independence Party. Dahn says he regrets his refusal to give a statement to Ramsey County investigators when they first looked into the matter. Of Barkley and Ventura, he says now, "They conned me. They chumped me."

Davis, meanwhile, is not sure what effect Ventura's decision not to seek reelection will have on his book's fortunes. He is coy about sales, saying only that he has been disappointed.

And with Ventura bowing out, what is the point of digging into a back-room deal that likely had zero effect on the outcome of the election? After all, no one--with the exception of Bill Dahn--believes a primary challenge in '98 would have hurt Ventura.

"That's irrelevant," responds Davis. "If you rob a gas station, and you come back and return the money, you still have to answer for that. Dahn was a victim of these bullies. They roll up to his house in a Porsche, and made him all these promises to change parties. And that was not right."

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