“They just wanted to intimidate me,” Helmberger said. “What did I do to them?” She recovered from the threat in time to sell Ventura-themed St. Patrick’s Day cards last week, but she knows that Ventura for Minnesota Inc. would like to eradicate her cottage industry. The match-up between “The Body” and a self-described “little old lady” from Minnesota may be surreal, but it has brought to the fore a bigger issue: the selling of Jesse Ventura.
What began as an idealistic stab at populist politics has turned into a marketing free-for-all. The merchandising of Minnesota’s governor, which helped finance his Reform Party campaign, hardly abated after the election, despite early promises from Ventura that the cashing-in would subside after he took office. There are now two organizations — Ventura for Minnesota Inc. and the Ventura Volunteer Committee — selling Ventura T-shirts, key chains and, yes, action figures, around the world. It is clear that the people who negotiated Ventura’s victory intend to capitalize on their candidate’s star quality to subsidize future political campaigns, but the ethical boundaries remain fuzzy.
During the course of the campaign, Ventura’s crew became adept at grass-roots marketing and garnering free media attention. Post-election, the stakes are a little higher. Ventura himself unabashedly inked a book deal with Villard Books, for a $500,000 advance, immediately after his victory. He partied like a rock star with Warren Zevon at his inaugural ball, which filled the Target Center arena — Target Stores being a key Minnesota institution, which coincidentally also sell official Ventura merchandise — amid unanswered questions about corporate sponsorship. Ventura continues to book appearances on late-night talk shows, recently trading barbs with David Letterman about personal income. He rationalizes all this self-promotion by saying, “I’m not doing anything I haven’t done before in my career.”
The difference now, of course, is that he is Gov. Ventura. Since 1992, Jesse “The Body” Ventura has been registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which states that the nickname is for “entertainment purposes, namely, personal appearances by an individual to promote professional wrestling.” But who owns the governor? The ethical questions that dogged former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had to slither away from his own book deal in 1995, haven’t so far plagued Ventura. With Gingrich, the uproar came from a feeling he was capitalizing on his political fame to profit personally. With Ventura, it may be that Minnesotans feel Jesse was famous before they voted him in.
But some remain uneasy with the money grubbing. Frank Sorauf, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Minnesota, said Ventura has shirked usual political standards. “The beauty of Jesse Ventura, because he is virtuous himself and a self-proclaimed honest man, is that he can take money from anybody and it won’t corrupt him,” Sorauf said sardonically. By personally profiting while in office, or even raising political money off his pop-culture status, Sorauf believes, Ventura degrades the perceived populism of his victory and further taints politics. “At least Bill Clinton did not sell a bumper sticker that said, ‘I slept in the Lincoln Bedroom,’” Sorauf said.
Ventura relies on two different entities to hawk his image. One is Ventura for Minnesota Inc., a nonprofit corporation made up of three Minnesota companies licensed to sell post-campaign merchandise. Its board of directors consists of campaign manager Doug Friedline, Terry Ventura (wife of the governor) and campaign chair Dean Barkley. According to Friedline, the product has sold well in two months at Target, and the official Jesse Ventura Web site is pushing three different Ventura action figures as “Governor,” “Navy SEAL” and “Coach,” to be shipped in April.
The Minnesota campaign finance board determined this month that Ventura for Minnesota Inc. is not a political entity, and therefore does not need to follow campaign finance laws, as long as profits are not used for any campaign. Indeed, Friedline has maintained all along that the nonprofit exists to serve as a charitable organization, though no charitable donations have yet been made. Ventura for Minnesota can also finance “constituent services,” covering the governor’s expenses where the state governor’s budget fails to do so. What exactly may fall under this category is unclear to both the state board and Ventura for Minnesota, though get-out-the-vote events in schools are one possibility. “Truth is, nobody’s clear on it,” said Gary Goldsmith, assistant director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. “We’ll see what comes up in the future.” Also, Ventura for Minnesota serves to keep Ventura in the spotlight to positive effect. “It might enhance his name, certainly,” said Goldsmith. “Any donation will bear the name of this company, and that may affect his chances in any future races.”
The second key Ventura marketing enterprise is the Ventura Volunteer Committee, formerly known as Ventura for Governor, which is most definitely a campaign committee. Under the new ruling, the campaign entity can purchase any merchandise from Ventura for Minnesota and sell it specifically for campaign use. “The function of Ventura for Minnesota, as presented to us, was first, to protect the governor’s name and then to exist as a charitable organization,” Goldsmith says. “But the campaign committee can certainly sell this merchandise as well, and it’s very commercial.” Ventura defended the entrepreneurial strategy recently at the National Press Club, growling that it is more ethical to sell someone a T-shirt than to ask baldly for a political contribution.
Ventura, Friedline and Barkley thrive in these sorts of uncharted waters. Their gubernatorial campaign survived by selling black headbanger-esque shirts with electric green lettering that said, “Retaliate in ’98: Ventura for Governor.” All told, the Ventura for Governor entity spent about $600,000 (most of which was state money that came after the election); campaign treasurer Bob Maline estimated that nearly $150,000 came in T-shirt sales. Ventura’s two major opponents, Democrat Skip Humphrey and Republican Norm Coleman, each spent within a whisker of the state cap of $2.1 million, a figure that doesn’t include “soft” money, which bumped spending for each campaign up another couple of million. By contrast, Ventura for Governor adhered to the Reform Party policy of taking no PAC money and received no national party money.
In mid-January, I visited the Ventura for Governor “headquarters,” which shares the ground level of a north Minneapolis duplex with a hair salon, to witness the selling of Jesse Ventura firsthand. Friedline, a round, bald man with a walrus mustache and rimless bifocals, dropped a heavy stack of merchandise orders on the table. “It’s more than two months after the election,” Friedline said, “and we’re still filling 25 orders a day. We’re selling campaign stuff all over the country: Vermont, New York, Washington, Florida,” he said. Some come from as far as Egypt and Japan, with just a handful of orders actually originating in Minnesota. The Ventura Volunteer Committee had sold about $75,000 worth of merchandise after the election, Friedline explained, some of it left over from Ventura for Governor, but much of it new merchandise from Ventura for Minnesota.
After the Ventura victory, the campaign couldn’t keep up with orders — or with state laws requiring that names and addresses be collected for political donations exceeding $20. Furthermore, Minnesota campaign laws limiting corporate contributions made it virtually impossible to sell the T-shirts in retail stores. But it was clear that there was money to be made. Thus, Ventura for Minnesota was born.
But others have lined up to profit off Jesse too, with bootleg and parody merchandise still cropping up and Salon columnist Garrison Keillor sharpening his satirical skills — and fattening his wallet — in a new novel that couldn’t possibly be about Jesse Ventura. (Salon’s new Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper, has also just completed a Ventura biography, “Body Slam: The Jesse Ventura Story.”) For her part, Helmberger sold more than 300 St. Patrick’s Day cards featuring Ventura at $2 a pop — with nary a peep from Ventura for Minnesota. “I’m not terribly worried anymore,” she says, insisting that she is firmly within her First Amendment rights to lampoon a political figure. Helmberger has already conceived of Jesse cards for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even graduation season. “I’ll just keep going until the organization can prove that they can make me stop. Besides, it’s so fun because he’s popular. You couldn’t do this with any other governor.”
Indeed, Ventura remains popular. The most recent polls put Ventura’s approval rating at 72 percent, the highest ever for a Minnesota governor in his first month. Additionally, 74 percent polled approved of Ventura “as a person.”
And popularity is what Ventura for Minnesota is banking on. The relationship between the nonprofit organization selling the merchandise and the campaign committee reselling it, seems dicey at best, with Ventura’s people exploiting a technicality in campaign finance laws to establish a financial base for reelection. But at the same time, Ventura and his minions have no established political base pumping millions of dollars into a constituency, and the Minnesota Reform Party has no affiliation with the National Reform Party — which has hardly supported Ventura before or after the election. What is clear is that Ventura for Minnesota has been given the green light to continue to sell The Body.
While keeping his hand tight around the cult of Jesse, Friedline has admitted that he “has some people in mind” to run in 2000 for the Minnesota Senate seat, and he plans to be involved in seeking a Reform Party candidate for president. Ventura has insisted that he will finish his term as governor, while coyly indicating another campaign for something is possible. A state race is one thing, but could all of this lead to a legitimate presidential run?
Friedline won’t say, but he’s firm that he sees no ethics problems in any of this. “People have thought we are dumb and don’t know anything about politics, but they all underestimate us,” Friedline said. “April will be a big month for us, with the action figure coming out. Then we can rock ‘n’ roll.”