ELECTION '98/Jim Cullen
Jesse 'The Body' Slams Minnesota Politics
Populist Wrestler Redefines 'The Third Way'

The smart guys in the news media on the coasts laughed when Minnesota voters elected Jesse "The Body" Ventura as governor. They dredged up the old file shots of Ventura from his days as a professional wrestler, but the 47-year-old Reform Party wonder, former mayor of a Minneapolis suburb and radio talk show host who galvanized young and blue-collar voters with his theme of "Retaliate in '98" did not shrink from his colorful past.

After the returns showed he was indeed winning the race, the gravel-voiced Ventura reportedly shouted to 1,000 supporters at a racetrack clubhouse on election night, "They are not going to take the people lightly again."

Yes, Ventura had to back up on his promise to refund the state's $4 billion surplus to the taxpayers, finding the money already has been spent. And he decided not to rappel into the Capitol from a helicopter, as he promised before the election. But his fans probably can live with those disappointments. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune quoted one of his supporters, John Markert, a 46-year-old banker, as saying, "He won't get much done, but he's going to shake up politics ... I think it's going to force the Republicans and the Democrats to look at what's wrong."

Ventura, who was born James George Janos and grew up in blue-collar Minneapolis, spent time riding with a motorcycle club in California after his honorable discharge as a Vietnam-era Navy Seal. He changed his name because he liked the California sound of "Jesse Ventura." He once worked as a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones and frequently noted during the campaign that he was the only candidate with a union card (Screen Actors Guild, from bit parts in movies, including Predator). Now he has set about the serious work of setting up an administration and submitting a state budget proposal when he takes office on January 4.

Ventura shocked nearly everybody, possibly including himself, when he won the three-way race against Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat-Farmer-Laborite Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III by a vote of 37 to 34 to 29 percent, respectively. He attracted a huge surge of new voters, many of them young people, who showed up at the polls to take advantage of the Minnesota law that allows voters to register to vote as late as election day.

Turnout for the Minnesota election was 61 percent, about 8 points higher than the normal turnout for a mid-term election in Minnesota. And while some suggested that Ventura scuttled Humphrey's election, exit polls showed that he actually might have kept the office out of Republican hands, as 39% of the Ventura voters otherwise would have supported Coleman, 30% would have supported Humphrey, and 28% of Ventura voters said they would not have turned out if he were not on the ballot.

Ventura ran as someone who was not a career politician, who spoke the language of working folks and would say whatever was on his mind. A vote for Jesse was a poke in the eye and a chair over the head of the establishment while the referee wasn't looking.

Ventura's positions may be described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal with a libertarian streak. He's pro-choice on abortion and supports domestic partnership benefits for gay couples. He's open to the legalization of drugs and prostitution. But he's no progressive. He attacks "big government," and calls for unspecified tax cuts to refund all budget surplus to the taxpayers. He claims that class sizes can be reduced without providing any additional money to schools through "more efficient use of funds." His popularity among college students came despite his opposition to state aid for college students (he says they should work their way through college). He also opposes state subsidies for day care and "socialized medicine."

"I don't think [outgoing Republican Gov.] Arne Carlson and I are that far apart politically,'' Ventura told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, suggesting that he would stay with Carlson's moderate course for the foreseeable future. But he also has consulted with moderate former DFL U.S. Rep. Tim Penny and Dick Lamm, the former three-term Democratic governor of Colorado who challenged Ross Perot for the presidential nomination of the Reform Party in 1996. Ventura named as his transition director a former aide to Penny.

"I will do the best job I am capable of doing,'' Ventura promised. He said he is not anti-government, and knows he will have to compromise with the Legislature, which has a Republican House and DFL Senate, to get anything done. To keep in touch with the people, he suggested he might do regular radio call-in shows from the Governor's Office.

But when asked by the Associated Press what he has to say to the lobbyists looking to make a connection, Ventura replied, "Nothing."

MINNESOTA MADE Ventura's race possible because it provides matching funds for candidates who get more than 5% of the vote. Because Ventura was getting much more than that in the polls, he was able to get a bank to loan him $300,000 so he could run TV ads in the last two weeks of the campaign. Ventura hired Bill Hillsman, who created the humorous and highly effective ads that helped U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone upset Rudy Boschwitz in 1990.

One of Ventura's ads showed two kids playing with the "Jesse Ventura action figure" who battles with the "special interest" man. In another ad Ventura wore nothing but boxer shorts, sitting in the position of Rodin's "Thinker," while the narrator talks about Jesse "The Mind" Ventura's positions. It ends with a close-up of Jesse's face as he winks at the camera.

State laws also limited the major party candidates to expenditures of $2 million each, so they could not drown out Ventura's ads (although their parties and allied political action committees were able to spend more). Ventura spent an estimated $500,000.

Ventura's support was concentrated among younger, blue-collar voters, especially men. He got 46 percent of the 18- to 29-year-olds and led among all age groups under 60. (Humphrey won the over-60 group) and among all income groups under $100,000 year (Coleman won the rich). Humphey led in the polls until the last few weeks of the campaign. The polls measured the likely voters, which underestimated the new voters who turned out for Ventura.

Ventura had no get-out-the-vote apparatus, but the drives mounted by the major parties and the unions probably turned out lots of people who voted for Ventura at the top of the ticket and who voted their party affiliation or union-endorsed candidates for the lower end of the ballot.

The conventional wisdom was that Ventura would draw votes away from Coleman, which is why Humphrey insisted that Ventura be included in all the debates. But Ventura drew support from both major party candidates. And as neither of the major party campaigns treated him as a serious threat, nor did any of the political pundits.

Humphrey, the attorney general for 16 years and son of the late Vice President, is well-liked in Minnesota and he recently beat the tobacco companies in a big lawsuit, but he attracted little excitement.

Coleman is mayor of St. Paul, where he has a reputation as a basher of the city workers unions, whose retiree health benefits he tried to slash. Coleman was a protege of Humphrey and worked in the attorney general's office before he was elected mayor as a DFLer. Then Coleman switched parties and started courting the right wing. Because of his party switch, Coleman is widely seen as an opportunist. But he is good-looking, polished and young and the Republicans grabbed on to him as their ticket to keep control of the governorship.

Micah Sifry in the online magazine Salon wrote, "Ventura's election, rooted in a majority of ballots cast by political independents, leaned distinctly to the left. He won a full one-third of Democrats voting, compared to 28 percent of the Republicans. And he got 44 percent of self-identified liberals, compared to just 29 percent of conservatives. What this shows is that the Republican Coleman held on to more of his base, mainly by bashing gays and harping on his pro-life position, while Humphrey experienced a near total meltdown in the face of Ventura's working-class populism. If anything, Ventura is Ross Perot with a happy face: sane, funny, self-deprecating, grounded in the reality of average people's lives (not a secluded billionaire surrounded by sycophants), a patriot but not a anti-foreigner demogague, a real libertarian who never tried to buy a politician or get a government subsidy (unlike Perot, who was a big donor to Nixon and other Washington insiders), focused not on the painful politics of belt-tightening but on the good-times of a budget surplus."

One political leader who takes Ventura very seriously and respectfully, Sifry noted, is Paul Wellstone, the progressive senior senator from Minnesota, who has also run and won two populist campaigns for office. (Not to mention that he is also a longtime wrestler, albeit of the amateur college variety.)

"What I most appreciate about his campaign and victory is the downright anti-establishment part of it," Wellstone told Sifry. "The message was 'look, you gatekeepers who supposedly decide who can run, and who is viable and who is serious and who can win--we're going to take you on.' I like that. I also appreciate the political reform part [of Ventura's message], which was very much for real." When Sifry told Wellstone liberals like Los Angeles writer Robert Scheer wanted to "spank" Minnesota, Wellstone replied "That's ridiculous. That's a huge mistake. That's the same elitism that looks down on people, and gets liberals into big trouble that they deserve to be in."

Wellstone added that he was looking forward to sitting down with Ventura's staff and working together on areas of agreement, such as opposition to corporate welfare, support for public schools and environmentalism. But Wellstone said he looked forward to a "vigorous debate" in areas where they disagree.

"In the meantime," Sifry wrote, "the genie is out of the bottle--and the two major parties are going to have a hell of a time stuffing it back in."

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