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A Year of Jesse
by Martin Kaste
January 3, 2000
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Jesse Ventura, a.k.a. Jim Janos and Jesse "the Body," took office as governor of Minnesota one year ago this week. Ventura was easily the biggest act in the world of Minnesota politics in 1999. But 12 months into his term, some of the hype has begun to fade, and Minnesotans inside and outside politics are beginning to think of him as just another elected official.

THE CROWD AT THE STATE CAPITOL on January 4, 1999 was reduced somewhat by a bitter cold-snap. Still, hundreds of Governor Ventura's fans braved the elements to see him sworn in, including at least one old Hollywood buddy.
Schwarzenegger: I'm so excited about Jesse Ventura being governor of this state, it's just so wonderful.
Moments after laying his hand on the Bible, Ventura acknowledged the apprehension some Minnesotans felt about their new governor.
Ventura: There's a lot of questions that go on. "Is Jesse Ventura up to governing? Can Jesse Ventura do the job?"
As the first few months went by, the governor seemed to answer those questions by picking some respected Republicans and Democrats to head the state agencies. Only one of Ventura's nominations caused a fuss; Al Horner, his choice to head the Department of Natural Resources. The news media revealed Horner's record of broken hunting and fishing regulations, and after almost a week of pressure, Horner withdrew his name. Ventura was furious.
Ventura: I don't believe it's fair to go back into someone's life; it's double jeopardy. He made a mistake, he paid a fine, shouldn't it have ended there?
The Horner affair soured Ventura's relationship with Minnesota reporters; a relationship that only got worse as the year progressed.

When it came to political ideology, Governor Ventura fulfilled his campaign promise to occupy the middle ground between the two big parties. In fact, Ventura was so middle of the road, he sometimes seemed to be two different politicians. His rhetoric was Republican, full of calls for personal self-reliance.

State college students demand more student aid at Capitol rally.

Photo: Bob Collins

Standing on the Capitol's front steps one morning, he got into an angry exchange with college students who wanted more state aid, and he cut them off with a burst of sarcasm.
Ventura: I've spent my whole life getting government assistance for me too. Thank you!
Woman: But we are the future! We are the future!
But while Ventura's words antagonized many on the left, he tended to side with the DFL in the Legislature. When it came to the most important question of the year - how to rebate the state's giant budget surplus - Ventura agreed with Senate DFL leader Roger Moe that there should be a limit on the size of rebate checks going to the wealthiest Minnesotans.
Ventura: As a person who at times in my career has been on the high end of the income, I could live with it, I could live with a cap on what I would get back.
Republicans, who'd hoped Ventura would be an ally on tax questions, were outraged. House Speaker Steve Sviggum accused Ventura of trying to use the tax rebates as a form of income redistribution to the needy.
Sviggum: I don't think that you can argue from a socialistic attitude that maybe Mr. Moe and Mr. Ventura are coming from, that the tax program ought to be about redistribution as well.
As the legislative session ended in May with last-minute brinksmanship and late-night negotiations, it was the Democrats' turn to feel betrayed. Ventura unexpectedly gave in to the Republicans on another tax issue; an across-the-board income tax-rate cut for the rich, as well as the middle class. After adjournment, Ventura surprised everyone by vetoing almost $110 million worth of projects and programs, enough to anger almost every legislator at the State Capitol, and remind both parties that neither one could count on having the governor in their corner.

With the legislative session over, Jesse "the Entertainer" reclaimed center stage from Jesse "the Politician." A guest appearance as a hands-on referee in the World Wrestling Federation's "Summerslam" brought accusations of undignified conduct and financial double-dipping.
Ventura: That's for your old man, you little bastard.
Ventura's autobiography came out in late spring, replete with bragging accounts of hard drinking, pot-smoking and sex with a prostitute. The reaction to the book paled in comparison to what happened in early October, when Playboy magazine published an interview in which Ventura called organized religion a "crutch for weak-minded people." The public outcry was the worst he'd seen, and he came close to apologizing. But he remained on the defensive.
Ventura: I haven't started any wars, has religion?
Reporter: Are you saying...
Ventura: No, I'm not saying anything, I asked a question. I said, "I have not started any wars throughout time, has religion?"
Ventura's explanations did little to placate anyone, and soon after he saw the first substantial dips in his popularity ratings.

The governor's solution to the crisis was to concentrate on being gubernatorial. He spent most of October outlining his four-part "Big Plan," a sort of mission statement for the rest of his term in office. Critics called the document long on generalities and short on specific legislative proposals. He also recovered somewhat with a trade mission to Japan, a ten-day exercise in bowing and state boosterism.

But even Japan wasn't far enough away for Ventura to escape speculation about his national political ambitions.
Reporter: We are very curious if you are running for presidential election next year.
Ventura: If I am running for president?
Reporter: Uh huh.
Ventura: Well I hope I don't disappoint the Japanese people but no, I am not.
Ventura has spent the entire year denying rumors that he wants to run for president in 2000. He's also remained relatively aloof from the Reform Party, despite the fact that he's their only elected official of any note. Still, Ventura's friends in the Minnesota party have been very active in the national party, trying to wrest control from Ross Perot and pushing Donald Trump to run as the anti-Perot, anti-Pat Buchanan candidate for president. At the time of the party's national convention in July, chairman Russ Verney expressed frustration with the Ventura people's growing influence.
Verney: It's not who is overshadowing the party. There's plenty of room for everyone who wants to do work to come in and join the party. There's no room for people who want to be anointed to come in and take over.
Later, after the Playboy interview came out, Verney called on Ventura to leave the party. Ever since, the two camps have been engaged in open warfare for control of the Reform Party.

The governor claims he's not that interested in the 2000 presidential campaign; he says he has his hands full running the state. And it does appear Ventura has a busy year ahead of him. His political enemies are saying privately that the fallout from the Playboy interview has proven that Ventura is not as invulnerable as he seemed a year ago, and they're feeling a little more emboldened to play political hardball when the legislative session starts in February.