In the Spotlight

News & Features

Who'll get the youth vote?
By Tom Scheck
Minnesota Public Radio
June 24, 2002


A large number of voters who elected Jesse Ventura for governor in 1998 either voted for the first time or returned to the polls after becoming disenchanted with politics. Ventura appealed to voters to shake up government by putting a political outsider in office. People who typically scoffed at politics turned out in high numbers, electing Ventura. Ventura's decision to leave politics after his first term then begs the question, will the voters who turned out to the polls in '98 continue to vote - or will they leave politics after voting for the man they thought would shake up the political establishment?

Ventura voter Mike Birrenbach
Mike Birrenbach of St. Paul says he decided to vote for Jesse Ventura at the last minute. He isn't sure if he'll vote again with Ventura out of the race. Listen to his comments.
(MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)

Gov. Jesse Ventura captured lightning in the bottle when he caught the attention of disenfranchised voters and got them to vote for him in 1998. Election officials say they were overwhelmed with young voters who were backing Ventura. Curtis Englestead was among those who swelled the polling lines at the University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis.

"Actually, I was a big fan of all-star wrestling a long time ago," Englestead said with a laugh. "But I think actually I'm kind of excited that someone who isn't so political is running. He is definitely the main reason I turned out to vote," he said at the time.

Others said Ventura prompted them to vote for the first time in decades. Election workers said it was common to see voters show up at the wrong polling place. They also said voters were confused on how to vote. Politicians and their strategists are still trying to figure out how they can attract those voters this time around.

A group of young voters who say they weren't politically involved and apathetic about politics before 1998 gathered recently around a table outside the Spy House Coffee shop in Minneapolis. Software developer Neal Levine, 28, says he became a "rogue volunteer" for Ventura after he saw him speak in February of 1998. He said Ventura's attraction was that he was unconventional and a "refreshing change" from traditional politicians.

Ventura voter Neal Levine
Neal Levine says he became a Ventura supporter in 1998 and lobbied everyone in his apartment building to vote for Ventura. Listen to his comments.
(MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)

"I was working on everybody. I was twisting everybody's arms and putting up posters up around the building. We all lived in the same buidling and I was trying to get everybody out to vote," Levine says.

Levine's lobbying campaign and Ventura's victory prompted Levine to become more politically active. He now regularly volunteers for Independence Party candidates.

Levine and several of those at the table say they were happy with Ventura's job as governor. Others say he was too loud, brash and combative. All said they would have voted for him again, because they don't like traditional politicians.

Construction worker Mike Gandolfo, 27, says he doesn't keep up with politics but will likely return to the polls this year.

"I feel I need to vote. Whether or not the person I vote for wins isn't the fact of the matter," Gandolfo says. "It's just a matter of casting my vote so if I'm going to have to make a choice of the lesser of two evils. I'll go third party just to help their percentages, rather than waste away on my vote. With Jesse not running, I guess it's a copout, but it makes a little more work for me."

Ventura voter Mike Gandolfo
Mike Gandolfo says he'll vote and remain active even without Ventura in the race. Listen to his comments.
(MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)

Construction worker Mike Birrenbach, 35, says he wasn't happy with Ventura's term as governor but would have voted for him again. He says he may not vote now that Ventura's out of the race. Birrenbach says he wants to see a candidate who energizes him.

"To vote for somebody is to say politically that you support them, so I'm not going to do that unless there is somebody that I actually do support. If they can't provide me with somebody that I support, then I don't see a point in voting," says Birrenbach.

University of Minnesota political science professor Lisa Disch says there may be many people who share Birrenbach's feelings. She says DFLer Roger Moe and Republican Tim Pawlenty will have a difficult time attracting the young, disenfranchised voters who chose Ventura in '98.

Disch expects many Ventura supporters who either voted for the first time or returned to the polls will not show up this year. She says the governor failed to keep the attention of the disaffected voters.

"He did not keep them engaged with the everyday work of politics that goes on between the act of voting," she says. "When we talk about where are Jesse's voters or where will they go - they aren't a block. They aren't people who were given a sustained sense of political purpose, and so I think many of them will simply stay home."

Disch says it's possible that some independent-minded voters may choose Green Party candidate Ken Pentel, or whomever receives the Independence Party endorsement. Former DFL Congressman Tim Penny, Children's Families and Learning Commissioner Christine Jax, and state Planning Director Dean Barkley are all thinking about running as Independence Party candidates.

More from MPR
  • 'Jesse's people' may return to election sidelines
  • Campaign 2002