Minnesota maverick

The Reform Party's Jesse Ventura -- ex-Navy Seal and former professional wrestler -- is riding a wave of populist anger to become a contender in the governor's race.


Micah Sifry
October 31, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

MINNEAPOLIS --No matter the result of next week's Minnesota gubernatorial race, a 47-year-old former Navy Seal, 11-year professional wrestler ("The Body"), actor ("Predator"), talk-radio host and maverick mayor of a Minneapolis suburb named Jesse Ventura has emerged as the surprise wild card of this fall's election season. Ventura is running as the candidate of Ross Perot's Reform Party, and with a bravura style that blends attacks on "career politicians" and high taxes with support for smaller public school classes, he has shocked the political establishment of this staid Midwestern state.

A week and a half ago, the Star Tribune/KMSP-TV Minnesota Poll found support for Ventura among likely voters had doubled in the last month, from 10 to 21 percent, while the front-running Democratic candidate, Minnesota Attorney General Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III (son of the former vice president and a state icon), had crashed 14 points to 35 percent. Republican nominee Norm Coleman, the New York-born mayor of St. Paul, was in a close second at 34 percent. But the attention has suddenly shifted to Ventura, a Minnesota native and imposing 6-foot-4-inch presence on any stage.

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Across the nation, the political circus in Washington is disgusting the public and likely to lead to a low turnout on Election Day. But this is a race to watch, because it's the most visible election in the country in which voters have a chance to thumb their noses at both parties. And Ventura is smartly playing off the Monica/impeachment slugfest, reminding voters, "We've got a lot of problems that government should be dealing with, but for the next nine months the focus will be on despicable behavior by career politicians. If this isn't the right time for a third party, then when?"

Up until now, Ventura's campaign has been based entirely on the efforts of volunteers and fueled largely by his strong appearances in several candidate debates, where he has been more likely to show up in a T-shirt and cowboy boots than in a suit and tie. But with his rapid rise in the polls he has been able to borrow some $300,000 against public financing that his campaign will qualify for after the election, and he has hired veteran political adman Bill Hillsman to produce a series of radio and TV ads for the last 10 days before the election. It seems as if anything is possible.

Hillsman created the award-winning ads that helped propel Paul Wellstone, a little-known university professor and progressive Democrat, to an upset election to the U.S. Senate in 1990. He sees a lot of similarities between Wellstone and Ventura. "The true swing vote[s] for Wellstone's campaign in 1990 were political independents -- the people who voted for Perot in 1992," he says. "If they don't have a horse in the race, they stay home. Until 1990, they flew beneath the radar of both parties. Paul was very well received by those people. They really liked his style. And Jesse they like for many of the same reasons."

Indeed, on some issues, Ventura is as liberal -- or more so -- than Wellstone, the Senate's most left-wing member, as an interview two weeks ago in the lobby of a Radisson Hotel outside Minneapolis revealed. Ventura wants more funding for public schools to reduce class sizes, one of his top two issues. A vocal critic of government subsidies to corporations, he blames the corrupting influence of campaign contributions. His solution: "I want socialism to come into campaign finance. If you've achieved major-party status, I think you should be given a block of money from the government and that is all you can spend to get elected. That way you'll have a fair system and it won't come down to who sells their soul to rock 'n' roll, if you get what I mean." He backs the medical use of marijuana and has an open mind about decriminalizing drugs. "Addiction should be treated medically, not criminally," he says. A Vietnam veteran, he opposed the draft "because it protected the wealthy" and says flag-burning should be allowed under the First Amendment. He opposes vouchers for private schools, a favorite of the Christian right, and he even backs same-sex marriage, an issue that proved too hot for even Wellstone to touch.

But make no mistake. On taxation and most social spending issues, Ventura is no progressive. His No. 1 issue is "taxes, taxes, taxes," and he's scoring with voters who agree with his call for the state to return all of its current $4 billion budget surplus back to the taxpayers. He's also pledged to veto any tax increases in the future, convinced that the budget is full of wasteful spending protected by incumbents who are more interested in getting reelected than serving the public. "I believe people should come from the private sector, go into government to serve and then get out and go back to the private sector rather than become professional politicians," he says. The only gun control he supports is good marksmanship: "You put two rounds into the same hole at 25 feet," he says.

If the time I spent with Ventura is any indication, he's hitting a chord among working people, including many who might be called "unlikely voters" because they've become discouraged by the Democratic-Republican same-old, same-old. During the course of our two-hour conversation, every hotel janitor and repairman who happened by our secluded table in an indoor courtyard stopped to pump Ventura's hand and promise to vote for him. Hotel guests leaned over the balconies above us to eavesdrop. A young woman who was actually an avid Nation reader told me, "He's the only one who really answers the questions at the debates." Or, as a letter-writer to the local paper put it, "Jesse speaks English." The other candidates "speak politician."

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Rarely does a third party recruit a standard-bearer with such high name recognition. And it's even rarer for that candidate to be included in so many major debates. That only happened in Minnesota because state Democratic leaders convinced themselves the camouflage-clad muscleman would draw votes only from the Republican column, and they insisted on his inclusion. But after Ventura won a recent three-way debate in Hibbing, a rural town in the working-class Iron Range section of the state, with a standing ovation, the Democrats hastily started canceling appearances with him.

But with Ventura's jump in the polls has come newfound scrutiny from the press, which may slow his rise. He had a couple of rough days in the last week, dealing with front-page stories that he favored the legalization of prostitution. In fact, all he had done was tell a reporter that, consistent with his libertarian approach to victimless crimes, he thought Amsterdam's red-light district might be a model worth studying. "They don't have a problem in Nevada," where prostitution is legal, he argued. Naturally, Coleman and Humphrey were quick to condemn his comments as "outrageous" and "risky." And Ventura suddenly found himself having to engage in the kind of defensive rhetoric that he previously delighted in skewering his opponents for.

Nevertheless, a new poll by the Pioneer Press, KARE-TV and Minnesota Public Radio, taken Oct. 23-25, found that Ventura continued to inch upward, to 23 percent of likely voters, while Humphrey and Coleman each sagged slightly and remained in a dead heat, at 34 to 33 percent. And Ventura's favorable ratings moved up as well.

If Ventura wins, the national Reform Party will be quick to claim credit for his breakthrough. But in truth, Ventura's success should not be taken as proof that Ross Perot's star is back on the rise. The Reform Party of Minnesota, which was originally called the Independence Party, was actually founded well before Perot decided to create a third party. Ventura told me he hasn't gotten any support from the national Reform Party. "In fact," he said, "I'm going to lead the charge when I win of changing our name back to the Independence Party. I want to break off from the national Reform Party. They're carrying an agenda I disagree with. They have only focused on Ross Perot and the national level -- all their other elections are just cannon fodder."

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Ventura is lucky to be facing two lackluster opponents. "Every time Humphrey opens his mouth, it's plain that he just doesn't have it. People are saying, 'He's not his Dad,'" reports one veteran of Democratic politics in the state. "And Coleman is very slick and corporate and evasive on everything. There's kind of a vacuum out there." Ventura has a real chance to fill that vacuum. Whether he does will depend on how many of Minnesota's usually sober-minded voters decide to take a chance on him, and whether he pulls enough "unlikely" voters to the polls -- or whether the state decides he is too outspoken and risky a potential governor.

One possible harbinger: When Ventura ran successfully for mayor of Brooklyn Park in 1990, voter turnout increased 10-fold, from 2,500 to 20,000. If something like that happens again, Jesse Ventura could be Minnesota's next governor.


Micah Sifry

Micah L. Sifry's book "Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America" is available in paperback. He is also the co-editor of "The Iraq War Reader."

MORE FROM Micah Sifry

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