Two snow-white Lincoln stretch limos, one presumably carting Donald Trump, rolled across the frozen parking lot of the Northland Inn in Brooklyn Park, Minn., the northern suburb of Minneapolis where Jesse Ventura made his first foray into politics as mayor. By the time word spread that potential-potential presidential candidate Trump had arrived there was already an air of friendly combat inside the lobby threatening to be as biting as the brutal January wind whipping outside.
"Russ Verney?" asked Dean Barkley, director of Minnesota Planning under Ventura, to a coven of national newsies (there were more than 70 news outlets there) in reference to the Reform Party's former national chairman. "He ought to find another job. He's not an official anything." Barkley, along with most of the folks who worked on Ventura's campaign, backed Jack Gargan's successful bid for party chairman last year to wrest control away from the Perot faction in Texas.
Barkley, dressed in a tan suit and a white mock turtleneck that seems to be some sort of recurring Team Jesse uniform, reserved most of his bemused spite toward the Commission on Presidential Debates. The CPD announced the day before that 2000 presidential candidates must be polling at 15 percent, "as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations" to be allowed into debates. "It's the same thing they tried to do to me in Minnesota," said Barkley -- a former Reform Party Congressional and U.S. Senate candidate. "It's the same ridiculous politics, but we're used to protesting outside on sidewalks if we have to."
But The Donald, who flew to Minnesota in January in his private jet, certainly isn't used to such grass-roots gestures. So the question hung in the lobby while the 600 members of the Metro North Chamber of Commerce ate dessert in a banquet room and waited for Trump to take the podium: Why was Trump coming here now? The standard reasoning was that he had been asked by the chamber, which smartly aligned with the Jesse Ventura Volunteer Committee to turn the whole day into Ventura's first post-victory fund-raiser. There was a table full of new Ventura merchandise -- including three new dolls ($22 each), "Citizen Jesse" videotapes ($10), "Jesse Ventura and Minnesota Music ... Rock On!" compact discs ($10), coffee mugs ($6) and key chains and refrigerator magnets ($4). Under a Minnesota campaign finance board ruling from last March, Ventura is allowed to sell these wares as long as a majority of the profits go to charity, but some can still be retained for the volunteer committee.
Trump also got into the marketing act, with a table full of copies of his new book, "The America We Deserve" (Renaissance books, $24.95) in a hallway surrounded, ironically, by the Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Laura Ingalls Wilder conference rooms. "And if you're trying to get people into your hotels and casinos and shine up your halo a bit," Barkley said, gesturing to the news babes and camera dorks, "this is the way to get them here."
Suffice to say there were no bombs dropped: Trump is still not running, and Ventura is still not endorsing anyone. Would Barkley support Trump if he ran? "Well, I have a good job here," he said, motioning to the black-with-green Ventura banner hanging on the wall. "But if he came to me and said he wanted me to work for Trump, I'd do it."
But other Ventura veterans, all of whom were relishing the attention, feel Trump is their best chance to get the Reform Party established nationally. "There's nothing wrong with the faction of the party that's with Perot," said Phil Madsen, who is the webmaster for the Ventura volunteer committee and director of Internet communications for the Trump exploratory committee. "But it will fade away, because they don't have anything to stand for. It's pure personality spite because they lost the chairmanship. They're just jealous."
Madsen, who has a ruddy complexion and glasses that make him resemble Radar O'Reilly, also sees Trump as a better fit for the Reform Party than Pat Buchanan. "To win the nomination, the first step is to get on the ballot in many states, and that takes money," said Madsen, noting that could take anywhere from $3 million to $7 million. "People are not taking Trump as seriously as they should. Trump has money and Buchanan doesn't."
Doug Friedline, Ventura's former campaign manager who is on the board of the charity organization Ventura for Minnesota, Inc., told me last month that the idea of working with the Trump committee has an obvious allure to him because Ventura's campaign was notoriously short on funds. "Well, Ventura and Barkley don't know that Trump's serious," he said in December. "But I'll tell you, if he runs, I'd like to be in because he doesn't do anything unless he figures he can win."
The Reform Party nominee will also have $12.6 million coming from the federal government, and the party itself has $2.5 million earmarked for a national convention. Trump has vowed to spend $100 million of his own should he run.
Of course, politics is all well and good, but so far, the Reform Party has thrived on outsized personalities and outrageous quotes. So when The Donald finally arrived to speak, it seemed altogether natural that the tough-guy visage that makes up the cover of his book was placed on a stand right next to him at the podium. There, Trump was truly in his element, if not necessarily presidential.
The Donald on the homeless: "I remember walking down Fifth Avenue in 1991 with a beautiful young woman named Marla, you may remember her, and we saw a bum with a change cup selling pencils. Marla said, 'Isn't that terrible, that poor man.' ... And I said, 'Yes, it is terrible, but right now, he's worth $900 million more than me.'" Here Trump paused for laughter. "Marla looked at me and said, 'You mean he's worth more than $900 million?'" After a somewhat audible groan and some chuckles, Trump made his strange and oblique point: He understands debt and how to get out of it. "When you're out of it," he said, "you sleep 10 minutes longer."
As for the other candidates: "I bet 90 percent of you in this room could do better than whoever won last night's debate. Those guys were pathetic. I'm different. I can say one guy is a member of the lucky-sperm club, and I'm someone who has actually made money himself."
In between Trump's speech and a post-game press conference, I asked Tom Snell, director of the Metro North Chamber of Commerce, why they invited Trump to come and speak. "Well, Democrats have their interest groups, like unions, and Republicans have theirs, like the religious right," he said. "When I found out five months ago that Trump might run, I wanted him right away, so that someone could address the small-businessmen and entrepreneurs that make up the chamber. Besides, none of the other candidates have gotten back to me."
"We sent 400 postcards, letters from children, encouraging him to come," Snell said with a straight face. "Friedline and Madsen helped too. And we called him about 50 times. But really, I think it was the pumpkin basket. Anoka County, Minn., is the pumpkin capital of the world, and we sent him a pumpkin basket with fruit and Minnesota wild rice," Snell said.
Of course, the real reason Trump came was because of the Minnesota governor, and soon the two were standing side by side, looking very earnest (Ventura scowling, Trump with his right eyebrow arched), ready to take on the media. Trump looked puffy and red-faced; Ventura was bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet. The first question came: How do you both feel about the CPD criteria for debates?
"Well, that's what they tried to do to me here," Ventura said. "Rest assured, if somebody was polling at 15 percent, they'd raise the requirement to 20 percent. I hope the people are as outraged as I am. The lobbyists are now running the debates."
"I just think it's disgraceful," Trump seconded.
Ventura turned testy when pressed about a hypothetical endorsement of Trump, or possibly appearing on the Reform Party ticket with him.
"He's not a candidate," Ventura snapped. "I don't put the cart before the horse. I am committed to running the state of Minnesota," Ventura said tersely.
While Ventura stopped short of endorsing Trump, he called a future endorsement of Buchanan "unlikely."
As this line of questioning continued, I turned to Barkley and asked him if he thought Trump could get the 5 percent of the vote required to keep the matching federal funding for the Reform Party to use in 2004. "Oh, for sure, and he would need to secure the money," Barkley said. "Trump is a double-digit. He could maybe even pull in 20 percent."
I raised the possibility that Trump's non-campaign was just a trial run for Ventura and his volunteers for a possible run in 2004. "We're all just interested in running the state right now," he said.