Working class hero?

Jesse Ventura will have to reconcile his millionaire libertarian views with his blue-collar support.


Micah L. Sifry
January 12, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)


ST. PAUL, Minn. -- While the rest of the country is simultaneously obsessed and outraged by the impeachment spectacle in Washington, the mood here in the Twin Cities is buoyant and optimistic. Jesse Ventura's astounding victory -- the state had the highest voter turnout in the country on Nov. 4 -- has uncorked a sense of possibility, especially among the working stiffs and ordinary folk one usually does not see clamoring to take part in the political process.

Hundreds of those average Minnesotans came to the Capitol Rotunda Monday to witness Ventura's swearing-in, many of them waiting hours in the subzero cold for a chance to meet the new governor and shake his hand. There was a bus driver from the east side of St. Paul, a 29-year-old single father, who said he was excited about the Reform Party because "we need something new." There was a middle-aged car dealer in a sweat shirt who voted for Ventura because "he's real people." A 17-year-old in a leather jacket with his cap down over his eyes, who said he "used to go to Champlain High School," where Ventura is a volunteer football coach, shyly admitted that it was pretty unusual for someone like him to come to the state Capitol, but he wanted to be there to help the governor. There were lots of families with young children in tow. People were dressed as if they were going to a hockey game, not an inauguration.

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Ventura gave the kind of inaugural speech his crowd loves -- unscripted. He made only two promises: to be brutally honest and to do his best. The only specific commitment he made was to increase voter turnout -- which topped 60 percent this November, almost double the national average -- to hit "no less than 70" in the next election. The next day, a columnist in the St. Paul Pioneer Press gave the speech a D because it was full of "Jesse Speak and Ventura clichis, Champlain Park football metaphors and tried-and-true sound bites from the election campaign." He urged the governor to "buy a pencil." Once again, the media elite was missing the point: Ventura didn't win by talking about substance; he won because he connected with two groups perennially alienated from American politics: young people and the working class.

A hundred years ago, this wasn't the case. America had a vibrant political system that regularly drew more than 80 percent of the voters to the polls. Today, money and two-party collusion are invisible barriers that keep the political system closed. The reason it is so rare to see a candidate like Ventura is that most of the time, candidates have to be rich, or kowtow to a lot of wealthy people, in order to finance a viable campaign. Or if a candidate without means works up the ladder by dint of loyalty to one of the major parties, he or she almost invariably owes too much to institutional power brokers to speak or act freely. Talented politicians like Ronald Reagan and President Clinton succeed because they manage to convince voters that they are different (remember "the man from Hope"?), but the public -- especially the non-voting majority -- is good at sniffing out the phonies, and is disillusioned about the whole process.

Ventura has broken through that disillusionment, and he is stirring hopes that have been long ground down, especially among people who used to be loyal to Minnesota's Democratic Farmer Labor Party. The middle-aged shuttle van driver who picked me up at the airport was a typical and enthusiastic Ventura voter. "I don't know what he'll do. But he's going to tell all those Bible-thumpers on the right and the tree-huggers on the left to vote for their own, and he'll unite all the disaffected voters in the middle in a new party. I'm a lifetime DFL-er, from the 'L,' but I'm sick of union heads who negotiate contracts that sell out the workers, and I've had it with these professional politicians. We don't have workers running for office anymore, just people who never worked a real 40-hour week in their lives."

After the inaugural I headed up to Anoka County, a blue-collar suburb north of Minneapolis that came out in huge numbers for Ventura, to find out why. Everyone I talked to about Anoka -- union leaders, progressive organizers, DFL House candidates, campaign managers, Reform Party activists, election registrars -- pointed to Ventura's popularity among blue-collar workers. All the counties where he won a clear majority of the vote, neat little bedroom suburbs that ring the Twin Cities to the north and west, are full of moderate-income families, with a high percentage of union members. By comparison, he fared poorly in the richer, Republican suburbs and in the yuppified sections of the metro area.

I drove up to the county to talk to some locals. Rev. Jerry O'Neill, pastor of a working-class Lutheran church in Anoka, told me over coffee and blueberry cream cheese muffins that he thought Ventura had reached deep into the working class, past the "winners with good jobs" and the "respectables who may not have good jobs but compensate by seeking respect in their community and church," touching the "survivors who just get by and the hard-living, rootless folks who have completely given up on trying to be successful or live by conventional norms." O'Neill observed that this was a tough community to minister to -- "We in the clergy aspire to a middle-class, white-collar mentality and when I came here 15 years ago I had to prove to my congregation that I wasn't uppity" -- and he criticized politicians for "not relating to and serving with working-class people."

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"I think Jesse Ventura stirred up the hard-living people and the survivors," O'Neill said, "rekindling their faith in the American dream and giving them a new sense of empowerment. He showed them what it means to work at yourself. It's not an appeal to abstract principles or programs as much as down-to-earth issues -- which leaves all sorts of questions. And I love his response: 'What harm can I do in four years?' It's almost as if he's done it already and now he can enjoy the ride. That's got me a little worried since we want to know what his agenda will be. But freeing people to believe that the political system can work is great. And I think he'll force the political system to address the needs of working people."

Ventura is a millionaire who drives a Porsche and boasts about owning five Waverunners. He sloughs off press criticism that he is "too obsessed with making money" (he's cashing in on his celebrity with a $500,000 book deal and he has complained that his wife ought to get a salary for performing her first lady duties) by saying, "I'm a capitalist -- I've been obsessed with earning a living and going out and working hard all my life." Still, the working people of Minnesota are solidly behind him: He's living their dream.

The day after my trip to Anoka, I met with Gov. Ventura at the Capitol and asked him if he knew why he had done so well in the blue-collar suburbs. "I don't know, I don't know," he said. "All we did was go off of past numbers" -- places where Ross Perot had done well and Dean Barkley, a co-founder of the Minnesota Reform Party, had run well in two Senate campaigns -- "and said these are counties we can take and take strongly." Ventura's campaign strategists targeted most of their on-the-ground efforts and advertising there. Ventura's honest answer, and his insistence that as the state's top executive he now has to govern "for all of Minnesota," suggests that he may not understand the full nature of his appeal. Or given his libertarian, entrepreneurial leanings, he may not feel comfortable with the implications of leading a working-class movement. (On the other hand, when he spotted the headline on one of my earlier articles that I had handed him -- "Can an anti-establishment, working-class populist go all the way?" -- he read it aloud and answered in his deep voice, "Oh yeah!")

Ventura seems far more at ease casting himself as the guardian of the hopes of a new generation. In his inaugural remarks, he talked a lot about young people. In the name of "these new young people, this generation that came on board, and yes, might well have elected me," he called on the state's politicians to "put down the partisan party politics and look at the bigger picture. We cannot fail, we must not fail, because if we do, we could lose this generation, and we dare not let that happen." His first public appearance the next day was before an overflow crowd of students at the University of Minnesota campus, where he repeated his promise to reduce class size in secondary schools and stressed the importance of students becoming more self-reliant. "If you're smart enough to be [in college], you ought to be smart enough to figure out how to pay for it."

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Comments like those have some observers here likening Ventura to Reagan, which may yet turn out to be an accurate comparison. I asked him if he worried about suggestions coming from some quarters that he seemed heartless. "Heartless? You mean, people standing on their own two feet is heartless? People not looking at the government as their parent is heartless? I would say to them, pick up the Constitution of the United States and tell me where it says that welfare is a right."

Do you think there should be no social safety net? I asked. "Absolutely not, absolutely not," he responded. But some people are nervous about you, I said, because they're not hearing that commitment to a safety net. "Well, I'm just giving them a bigger message. Why do you think I'm lecturing this new generation of young people? ... I can be an influence on them to not be dependent on government. I can't change the world, but I can certainly influence a generation that voted for me in some manner."

It would be silly to try to predict where this will all lead. No doubt the halo surrounding Ventura will fade as his administration starts to stake out its policies and the neophyte politician makes some inevitable missteps. The Reform Party will grow and try to run a slate of legislative candidates in 2000, at which point it will be possible to say for sure if Minnesota has a full-blown multiparty system. By then it will also be clearer how Reformers in government reconcile their libertarian, fiscally conservative, working-class and anti-elitist impulses.

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Outside the temperature is minus 17. But inside, a long-frozen part of the body politic has begun to thaw out. Things can only get more interesting if the warming trends continue.


Micah L. Sifry

MORE FROM Micah L. Sifry

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