The other political side of Jesse Ventura: As a member of the reform party, he pulled out of the organization, saying the national party was “dysfunctional.” But as governor of Minnesota, how is he doing?
JESSE VENTURA: And the American dream lives on in Minnesota.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Until the last hours of the campaign, few people expected Jesse Ventura to become governor, so few knew what to expect when he did.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Jesse Ventura, former Navy Seal with a carefully cultivated bad guy image in wrestling, got a running start in the less overt combat of state government. He won praise for enlisting advisors and a cabinet of well- regarded leaders from the Democratic, Republican, and his own reform party. He told David Letterman it was proof of widespread goodwill among Minnesotans, after his stunning defeat of the far- better-known major party contenders.
JESSE VENTURA: And I think it really acted as circling the wagons, where Minnesotans said, “hey, we’re going to make sure that he’s successful,” and I’ve had people come on board… And I mean, Michael O’Keefe, my head of human services, has a degree in nuclear physics.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Really?
JESSE VENTURA: Yes.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Well, that’ll come in handy. (Laughter)
JESSE VENTURA: well, government is like physics, you know– for every action, there’s a reaction.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: From all accounts, the reaction to Ventura’s early pronouncements was positive. Many people said they liked his candor, his seeming lack of political IOU’S. For example, even though college students voted for him in droves, the newly elected governor rejected their calls for more financial aid, coming out to the capitol steps to meet these demonstrators.
JESSE VENTURA: Then maybe your professors better take a pay cut. (Boos) No? Why not? Who put me through college? You earn it! You earn it.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The idea of personal responsibility became an early mantra for Governor Ventura. He even took on a single mother at this rally.
JESSE VENTURA: A single parent? I don’t want to seem hard-core but why did you become a parent? (Boos) Wait a minute. You’re asking government to make up for mistakes. Is that government’s job, to make up for people’s mistakes?
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ventura brought that same message into the capital’s legislative chamber, in his first state-of-the-state address.
JESSE VENTURA: I stand before you as governor willing to say what too many politicians at all levels of government have been scared to say: The free ride is over.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: His tough talk on social programs echoed the sentiments of many republicans and conservatives in the legislature. But Ventura’s first budget contained plenty that Democrats have long sought: A new light rail system in the twin cities, more money for public schools, and a rejection of vouchers that would allow children to attend private schools, an idea championed by Ventura’s Republican predecessor.
JESSE VENTURA: It is my goal to erase the word “voucher” from the vocabulary by investing in public education and expecting local school boards to deliver results. (Applause)
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: By steering a middle course, the governor’s ideas largely prevailed in the legislature, according to political science Professor Steven Schier.
STEVEN SCHIER: We have a democratically dominated state senate and a Republican majority in the state house. Jesse’s proposals tended to be in between, and there was a natural point of convergence between the House and Senate negotiators, which ended up being fairly close to where the governor had begun in the first place, and the governor I think was viewed as a success with the legislature with the result of those activities, and his public popularity in the first six months as measured by most state polls, was extremely high.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Topping the legislative success, the state also dispensed money from Minnesota’s large budget surplus to every taxpayer, an average rebate of $700 per household. That rocketed Ventura’s popularity last summer to an unprecedented 73% approval rating. But not for long.
STEVEN SCHIER: Once the session ended, however, the governor seemed to think that many of his official duties were now in the past, and that he could make some money as a wrestling referee, take a national media tour with a book that he had just written.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He called religion “a sham for the weak-minded,” a group in which he also included overweight and suicidal people; he said it felt good “to be king, because no one can tell you what to do,” and revealed that he’d like to be reincarnated as a size 38-D bra. Among those expressing outrage was Republican activist Darrell McKigney.
DARRELL McKIGNEY: He makes an idiot and an ass out of all the people of Minnesota. Based on these latest comments, if the governor wants to come back as a brassiere, and God chooses to do that for him, God’s not going to have to give him a brain upgrade to do it.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Roger Moe, the State Senate Majority Leader, also came out to condemn the “Playboy” interview.
ROGER MOE, State Senate Majority Leader: The governor was quotes as saying the best thing there’s no one in the state that can tell me what to do.. Governor, every citizen in this state has a right to tell you what to do.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In response, Ventura angrily accused the local media of blowing his comments out of proportion.
JESSE VENTURA: That interview has nothing to do with how I govern, nothing whatsoever. Judge me by my policies. Judge me by my commissioners, and judge me by the work that we’re trying to do — not a feeding frenzy of media so that you can get ratings and make money.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The governor insisted that he had a right to his private opinions, quite apart from his public duties. But his October approval ratings dropped 20 to 30 points from their summer highs, showing many Minnesotans disagreed.
MAN ON STREET: He should be inspiring people and making the state look good. Instead, he badmouths people, insults people, and has a crass attitude toward anyone who has got problems, or is weaker than he is as a governor and a wrestler. And I don’t like how he commercializes the office, and makes money from it. I think it’s unethical.
MAN: Everything I’ve hard him say has not been… Good, you know, hasn’t been right.
MAN: I personally don’t think he’s taken much time to be governor. He’s more interested in being a celebrity.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Ventura did cut back on media appearances and focused more on state business. In November, he led a trade delegation to Japan that seemed all business, including a deal to export more Minnesota pork to this market.
STEVEN SCHIER: His trip to Japan — trade mission trip was apparently successful and produced no major gaffes, despite of the fact that all of the state media followed him around, looking for a verbal explosion from the governor. None was forthcoming.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Members of Ventura’s cabinet say that in contrast to his public persona, they’ve always seen that serious side of Jesse Ventura, a CEO who is a keen listener, who defers to the expertise of his cabinet. Sheryl Ramstad Hvass, a Republican, is commissioner of corrections.
SHERYL RAMSTAND HVASS: Anyone who works with the governor feels like they get his undivided attention. I’ve found him to be a very straight shooter. When the governor tells you his view or discusses with you and agrees upon a position, he’s not going to sway with the political winds.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That willingness to speak his mind continues to endear Ventura to many Minnesotans.
WOMAN: I think that overall, Jesse’s doing a good job. He could be a little bit more careful in some of the things he says, but he speaks his mind.
WOMAN: I think Jesse Ventura has raised some important issues that bring those issues to a point where we can discuss them, but I think he’s a little too eccentric for our state.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Eccentric or not, Ventura seems to have rebounded. His ratings, according to the “Star Tribune” poll, moved up to 68%. The governor now embarks on his next challenge: A ballot initiative to eliminate one house of the state legislature, a move that he says will make government more efficient.