Only last fall, America’s foremost political mavericks, John McCain, Ralph Nader, and Pat Buchanan, came calling at the state capital to size up this phenomenon, perhaps hoping to absorb some of his magic or learn how to win voters with blunt talk. Even Al Gore cozied up to him. Ventura was the third-party candidate who won control of the ship of state and changed Minnesota’s fortunes while handsomely boosting his own. Moreover, despite a softening economy and occasional bout of foot-in-mouth disease, Ventura is rich in popularity, the hard currency of democratic politics. Popularity can get a long shot elected, as with Ventura’s upset victory in 1998, and it can also protect an embattled president, as with Bill Clinton. When asked a few months ago about his state approval rating, Ventura said the number’s 71 percent and I like it.
But having people like you isn’t the same as being effective. Getting things done requires a vision, tenacity, and the ability to forge careful alliances, especially for a party of one, like Ventura. His record so far should give Jesse-wannabes pause and make the rest of us wonder whether a third-party politician, even one with Ventura’s star power, can do much to move the electorate or the political status quo. Ventura may well run for reelection next year, but unless he learns to convert popularity into political muscle, he could be a political novelty item: the guy who discovered the value of public office for bolstering a waning entertainment career.
Ventura isn’t the first American celebrity to enter the ring of politics, of course. His career trajectory is faintly reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s. Like Reagan, the affable optimist, Ventura is an accomplished performer whose on-camera persona—the roughhousing truth-teller—engenders both bemusement and a deep trust among many voters. The difference is that Reagan came to the presidency with extensive political experience, a fully formed vision based on anti-communism and faith in free markets, and a sizeable party apparatus to help enact it. By contrast, Ventura’s government experience was limited to a brief stint as mayor of a small Minneapolis suburb. He was elected on the slogans and cavils of a radio talk-show host—give back the surplus, don’t tax my jet skis—and scant understanding of the nuances of government.
During his first legislative session in 1999, with the Republican House and Democratic Senate still stunned by his upset, Ventura pushed through a budget largely prepared by his predecessor, a moderate Republican who had not sought reelection. On his own initiative, Ventura focused attention on the need for improved mass transit in the sprawling, increasingly congested Twin Cities.
In the 2000 session, though, Ventura exposed his political inexperience by throwing his substantial political capital into a quixotic crusade for unicameralism, an issue that provoked about as much interest with voters as returning to the gold standard. Ventura traveled by bus in wide loops around the state, trying to incite the citizens to demand the chance to vote for a one-house legislature in place of the two-house arrangement that has prevailed since Minnesota earned statehood in 1858. The current arrangement struck him as redundant, and he hated conference committees between the two houses. Having small groups of legislators cut critical deals at late-night sessions struck him as suspicious, even anti-democratic.
Bands played in the small towns he visited. An admiring barber buffed his bald dome. Schoolchildren lined the streets, eager to see one of Minnesota’s few true celebrities. But phones didn’t ring back in the state capitol. The idea of a unicameral legislature was too obscure to capture public support; it couldn’t even get a floor vote in the Senate. While the campaign for a single chamber didn’t leave much of an impression on the voters, it had one significant result: It infuriated many of the legislators Ventura needed as allies to pass the rest of his agenda.
Rather than trade horses or make amends, Ventura blasted lawmakers as gutless cowards (unrepentant legislators had buttons made) and pledged to get even. His political bark proved more menacing than his bite, however, and cynics at the capitol speculated that Ventura didn’t care about a unicameral legislature; he merely wanted some issue with which to flog the legislature. His attempts at party-building have been no more effective. He stumped for 28 legislative candidates of the Independence Party of Minnesota, so named when Ventura clashed with the Perot faction of the national Reform Party and seceded. A few of the fledgling party’s candidates took second in their races, but overall they averaged only 8 percent of the vote.
Teddy Roosevelt said, Speak softly and carry a big stick,”’ said Democratic Sen. John Hottinger, an assistant majority leader in the Minnesota Senate. Well, our governor spoke loudly and carried a little stick. The lonesome governor has since recruited one veteran legislator. Sen. Bob Lessard, an iconoclastic fishing guide from a district close to the Canadian border, was a conservative Democrat for two decades, flirted with the Republicans, and now is an Independence Party caucus of one. Told of a proposal to require open caucus meetings, he joked, Does that mean I have to invite the press every time I talk to myself?”
In the last year, though, the governor has made some progress in defining and pressing his agenda and has slowly translated his underlying convictions—citizens should take personal responsibility for their actions, government should be lean and efficient—into policy initiatives. He’s pushing for a merger of the state’s economic development and employment agencies, for example, reasoning that business needs and training programs should be more closely aligned for the sake of efficiency and limiting redundancy.
Ventura has also emerged as a fiscal conservative, with proposals for big tax cuts, property-tax reform, and state spending that grows no faster than inflation. His property tax proposal, which has found considerable legislative support, would greatly increase the state’s role in funding K-12 education. That would reduce school districts’ reliance on local property taxes and help equalize funding among districts by making a school’s support more dependent on the state’s overall budget and less on the size and values of local property. Meanwhile, Ventura’s plan would reduce current state payments to cities and towns, a complex subsidy system that obscures the true cost of local services.
To his credit, Ventura has advocated these proposals and other risky positions with the same colorful language that so endeared him to voters in 1998 and that is refreshing for everyone tired of watching politicians locked in perpetual spin mode. Ventura has, for example, harshly criticized the state’s educational system as a financial black hole which takes all the money the state can give and still asks for more. Minnesota’s public education system may not be as bad as those of other states, but it does tend to soak up whatever money is available and deliver it to salaries of the most senior teachers, without producing notable improvement in the performance of failing kids or higher rewards for effective teachers. Ventura has also blasted big donors, which is fair since politics has become too much the province of people of wealth and privilege, leaving many Americans—including the blue-collar men who feel Ventura speaks for them—feeling mistrustful and excluded.
But if Ventura’s ideas are now bolder, that still doesn’t mean they are fully thought through. Salary increases in the school system have tended to crowd out other important educational priorities, and Ventura seems deeply concerned about the issue. But he hasn’t advocated the most dramatic solutions, such as instituting merit-pay systems and ending educational tenure. In past years, Ventura’s commitment to ideas—even good ones—has also been conspicuously shallow. He’d announce an idea, make a superficial effort on its behalf, and blame someone else when it failed. Last year, for example, he proposed a new mechanism to fund the state’s substantial transportation needs. Legislators rejected it, and Ventura didn’t include it in this year’s priorities. Let legislators figure out how to pay for more roads and bridges, he said.
This year, Ventura has pushed his budget and tax proposals more aggressively in speeches and op-ed pieces and has won some support from editorial writers. But as a one-man show with a thin skin, few natural allies in the legislature, and limited political expertise among his staff, it’s tough for Ventura to carry his agenda very far.
Of course, the realpolitik of outsider politics has created some of his problems. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have an interest in Ventura’s success, which would improve his prospect of reelection next year. Ultimately, Ventura may have to settle for the Ross Perot effect, pushing major parties to tackle difficult issues, then vanishing once the issues are subsumed.
Whether he builds a party or not, though, the heaviest anchor on Jesse Ventura, and his best ideas, has always been Jesse Ventura. The governor’s piques regularly divert media attention from his main agenda. His straight talk can be refreshing, but he seems to regularly alienate the people he will need to change anything. This year has brought a flap over badges labeled official jackal which he briefly required capitol reporters to wear. Then, in a meeting with an outdoors columnist who has criticized Ventura’s commitment to conservation, the governor insulted hunters and combat veterans with a bit of braggadocio meant to explain why he doesn’t hunt. Until you’ve hunted man,” said the former Navy SEAL, you haven’t hunted yet, because you need to hunt something that can shoot back at you to really classify yourself as a hunter.”
In many ways, Ventura continues the same bad-boy, outsider shtick that served him well in professional wrestling and talk radio. When a high-school student asked him a few months back what he’d learned from his years with the World Wrestling Federation, Ventura ticked off lessons valuable to any performer, including a politician: name recognition, the ability to perform in front of a camera, the ability to ad-lib on a live mike. Then he mentioned a curious aspect of the WWF’s pay scheme: If you don’t draw people, you don’t get paid. The more people you draw, the more you get paid.
But politics is about more than drawing a crowd. Often, Ventura’s efforts seem as evanescent as photo ops. Last year, for example, he appeared before a congressional committee, gulped a glass of milk for the cameras and appealed for a dairy-price-support formula that would be fairer to Midwestern dairy farmers. Congress didn’t bite; now Ventura is telling farmers that they need to figure out how to take care of themselves. Asked last January about thousands of workers being laid off in the state’s iron ore mines, he answered, Maybe I should go on Leno again, as if the only thing a governor could contribute is an appeal for help on national television.
As happened after his famous Playboy interview, where Ventura insulted organized religion and confessed his wish to be reincarnated as a super-sized brassiere, Minnesota’s governor has slipped in the polls, from a 71 percent approval rating in January to 57 percent in April. That could change. Minnesotans still seem to genuinely like this outsized, sometimes outlandish, outsider. But the slippage might well serve as a warning that if Ventura wants to stay popular, he’ll have to produce the way other politicians do: by governing.