In the Spotlight

News & Features
The Ventura chronicles
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
June 18, 2002


Ventura's decision not to run again sent shockwaves through the state's political circles and beyond. Ventura's decision brings to a close another chapter in a colorful life that included stints in the U.S. Navy, as a pro-wrestler, action movie star, and suburban mayor.

In July 1999, Ventura caused a sensation when he agreed to referee a WWF wrestling match. He appeared at a news conference with then-WWF-star Chyna.
(MPR file photo)

Four years ago, candidate Ventura was something of a novelty in Minnesota's political world: a renegade candidate who provided some sort of comic relief to the famous names battling for the governor's mansion. Almost no one gave him any real chance for victory. But on Nov. 3, 1998, he stepped forward triumphant.

"Now it's 1998 and the American dream lives on in Minnesota 'cause we shocked the world," Ventura declared.

Ventura seemed to relish his new responsibilities, cobbling together a state budget three weeks before the document was due to the Legislature.

During the session, he steered a course between the DFL-controlled Senate and the GOP-controlled House. In the end, the session concluded with a $1 billion boost to K-12 education, funding for light-rail transit, significant income tax cuts, and the state's first ever sales tax rebate -- a mechanism for returning a budget surplus to Minnesota taxpayers.

That first year was also marked by controversy. During an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman," Ventura referred to the Irish as "drunkards." And then - in August 1999 - came SummerSlam.

Ventura appeared at the World Wrestling Federation event as a guest referee -- and spent 20 minutes in what turned out to be a fairly tame performance by wrestling standards.

The governor's moonlighting included 12 broadcasts for the XFL that drew fire from the political establishment. But ratings dropped precipitously and the league ended after only one season.
(MPR file photo)

But just months later, Playboy magazine released the now infamous Ventura interview, which was anything but tame. During the course of a rambling conversation, the governor managed to offend overweight Americans, those who contemplate suicide, and, of course, organized religion, which he called a "sham and a crutch for weak-minded people."

He later attempted to douse the flames of controversy, but never quite issued a complete apology. He did say he didn't think all religious people were intellectually deficient.

"No. Or if they are, they seek religion to - that makes them better people. So if they are weak-minded, it helps them," he said.

His popularity sagged during the Playboy "rhubarb," as he began to call it. But it bounced back soon, and national commentators were once again seeking his input on the 2000 presidential election. Ventura stayed neutral -- with one exception.

He turned his back on his own Reform Party after conservative pundit Pat Buchanan positioned himself to take the party's nomination.

"I can't stay within a national party that, you know, that could well have Pat Buchanan as its presidential nominee. And now the latest word I hear, he's getting support from David Duke. Well, I can't be part of that. And I won't be part of that," Ventura said.

The state's two largest unions walked off the job in October 2001 after contraction negotiations broke down, many union leaders felt the governor was less than sympathetic.

Ventura soon reconstituted the Independence Party of Minnesota and carried that banner into the 2000 legislative session, where he became enmeshed in abortion politics.

In one of his more dramatic moments, Ventura agonized for days over what to do with legislation that required a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. Despite Republican claims that his administration had agreed to support the bill, Ventura ultimately delivered a veto.

"I have decided that it's wrong for government to assume a role in something that I have always believed was between a woman, her family, her doctor, and if she chooses, her clergy," Ventura said (Listen).

The 2000 session also saw a new level of government gridlock that produced the unlikely outcome of splitting the state's budget surplus three-ways. The House, the Senate, and the governor were given a portion to spend as each saw fit. Ventura eagerly used his share to cut automobile registration fees. And of course, there was another tax rebate. The next session opened with the predictable budget surplus. But there was bigger news on the horizon: the upcoming XFL football league.

The governor's moonlighting included 12 broadcasts for the XFL that drew fire from the political establishment. But ratings dropped precipitously and the league ended after only one season.

And that year in the Legislature, Ventura scored what might be his biggest victory. After months of wrangling, a special session, and a near government shutdown, lawmakers approved a property tax overhaul that was at the core of the governor's proposed budget. And, of course, a 3RD sales tax rebate. Ventura positively beamed as the session wrapped up.

During a trip to Japan in November 1999, Ventura compared himself to sumo superstars.
(MPR file photo)

"The economic times were right," he said. "The will of the people was there. And we didn't give up when the going got tough. We swung hard and we connected. This bill, ladies and gentlemen, is a home run."

But criticisms were mounting, too. Educators felt they didn't receive enough new cash to meet their expanding budgets, and many Democrats felt the tax cuts were unfairly tilted towards upper-value homes.

While those issues were being debated, a new crisis emerged. The state's two largest unions walked off the job in October after contraction negotiations broke down, many union leaders felt the governor was less than sympathetic.

By now, many were predicting the governor was vulnerable. An economic forecast released last fall showed the state facing a nearly $2 billion projected deficit, nearly twice what anyone had predicted.

There would be no rebate this year. In response, Ventura offered to cut spending, increase targeted taxes, and draw down the state reserves. But Republicans and DFLers, after spending three years teaming up with Ventura to shut the other party out, stumbled onto a different strategy.

The House and Senate locked arms -- as best they could -- and left the governor on the sidelines. Abandoning the centerpieces of Ventura's budget, they approved -- despite his vetoes -- a plan to make modest cuts, deplete state reserves, and delay certain education and health and human services payments until the next budget. The governor was clearly disappointed.

"We weren't brought in as a player, even though we were available to be so. I would categorize the session as... not very courageous. In fact, not courageous at all," he said.

Although Ventura has six more months in office, it's not clear how he'll be able to use them as a lame duck. The cap to his four years may have already come last week, when he led the largest ever state-level trade delegation to China.

The governor, and most business participants, called the excursion an unqualified success. "These are not vacations. They are important for the state of Minnesota and you can't measure their importance, how they're going to be. I hope you believe like I do, you won't judge these 'til five years from now, six years from now, maybe ten, even, that the ultimate results will come out from these type of trade missions," he said.

The trade mission comes on top of previous trips to Canada, Mexico, Germany, and Japan. And although time is slipping, there may be room for one more. Ventura says he's contemplating one last hurrah this fall. Destination: Cuba.

More from MPR
  • Ventura not running for second term
  • The Body's Politics A chronicle of Ventura's term as governor.
  • Campaign 2002