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St. Paul, Minn. — Not many people in Minnesota openly predicted a victory for candidate Jesse Ventura four years ago. And those few that did probably managed to fit into the Canterbury Downs racetrack on election night to hear Ventura deliver his improbable victory speech to an electrified crowd.
"Now it's 1998 and the American dream lives on in Minnesota 'cause we shocked the world!" he said.
Ventura, by his own admission, had little natural support for making the complicated transition to chief executive. But he moved swiftly to appoint well-regarded Democrats, Republicans, and independents to staff his administration, and he crafted a state budget three weeks before the document was due to the Legislature.
It didn't take long, however, before Minnesotans got another taste of things to come. The controversy over his outside earnings would begin when he announced a book deal even before his inauguration. And shortly after the swearing-in, Ventura displayed the curious brand of diplomacy that would mark his other confrontations.
During a meeting with Minnesota college students, Ventura questioned why one, in particular -- a single mother -- deserved government assistance to get through school.
"I've spent my whole life getting government assistance for me, too. Thank you," Ventura said.
"Well you know what? We are the future. We are the future," the woman replied.
Two weeks later, the entire nation got a breath of Ventura's fresh air when he appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. There, Ventura poked fun at the stereotype of the drunken Irishman.
"Whoever designed the streets must have been drunk. Because in Minneapolis, you know if you're on 32nd St., 36th St., is four blocks away. In St. Paul, there's no rhyme nor reason; it's not numerical; it's not alphabetical. You know, I think it was those Irish guys. You know what they like to do," he said.
Despite the controversies, Ventura enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts at the Capitol. Ventura inherited a surplus of $4 billion, including proceeds from the state's tobacco lawsuit settlement. He cut taxes, boosted K-12 spending, secured funding for light-rail transit, established health care endowments with the tobacco money, and presided over the state's first-ever sales tax rebate. And he vowed not to let the naysayers diminish his appetite for eccentricity. He wasn't kidding.
In August, Ventura returned to the wrestling ring for a one-time guest-refereeing stint during the WWF's SummerSlam in Minneapolis. While Minnesota's political establishment winced, Ventura offered no apologies.
"There's a lot of media saying that I'm a disgrace for being here. But I'll tell you this, I'm proud I'm a wrestler," he told the crowd.
Ventura would apologize -- sort of -- for his next stunt: the infamous Playboy interview. During the rambling discussion, Ventura managed to offend the overweight and the suicidal. And in almost the same breath, he publicly fantasized about life as an oversized brassiere. But he drew the most scorn for calling religion a "sham and a crutch for weak-minded people." He later tried to explain the comments, but never offered a complete apology.
The Playboy interview further strained Ventura's relationship with the national Reform Party, and in early 2000 the governor left the party for good, complaining that it was being overtaken by forces loyal to conservative pundit Pat Buchanan. Ventura revived the Minnesota Independence Party and carried that banner into his second legislative session.
This time around, however, lawmakers sensed vulnerability. In particular, Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum felt free to chastise the governor following his veto of a controversial abortion waiting-period bill.
"I think today he probably showed you that he's as much your typical politician from the worst sense of the word that you could imagine; not holding to campaign promises, not holding to an agreement, an understanding, that we had had, dishonoring that agreement, and bending to the wishes of a very small special interest group," he said.
Ventura's honeymoon was over. The session ground to a standstill that broke only with the unusual decision to split 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 gleefully cut automobile registration fees with his third. And he sent out a second round of rebate checks.
During the fall, he released another book. And shortly afterwards, his extracurricular activities reached a new height when he agreed to host 12 games for the new XFL football league. The reaction was quick.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe questioned whether Ventura had crossed an ethical line and he called for an opinion from the state Attorney General.
"I don't think that's the kind of image that we want projected on behalf of Minnesota. I don't think that reflects Minnesota's values. And so, yes, I think the governor ought to reconsider. But I doubt whether or not he will," Moe said.
Throughout the 2001 legislative session, while Ventura jetted from football game to football game, the debate about his moonlighting intensified, but never reached resolution. By the end of the season, however, the XFL's audience was non-existent, and the league folded. So had any vestiges of Ventura's political capital.
The legislative session dragged into overtime, coming within hours of a state government shutdown. But Venture emerged triumphant. In addition to a third set of rebate checks, lawmakers approved dramatic property tax reforms that Ventura hailed as the session wrapped up.
"The economic times were right; the will of the people was there; and we didn't give up when the going got tough. We swung hard and connected. This bill, ladies and gentlemen, is a home run," he said.
But the property tax reforms would haunt Ventura. Opponents claimed the relief would be short-lived and that moderate- and low-valued homeowners would soon see their gains erased. Educators complained the deal would short-change K-12 funding and drive local school districts to seek money directly from property owners. Both predictions appear to be coming true.
In October, Ventura faced the first state employees' strike in 20 years when nearly 30,000 workers walked the picket lines. The strike was over within a month, but taken together with years of accumulated controversy, a sagging economy, and his first-ever budget deficit, the governor's star was diminishing. His approval ratings sank. And during the 2002 legislative session, Democrats and Republicans found common cause to shut Ventura out of the process. The governor was disappointed.
"We weren't brought in as a player, even though we were available to be so. I would categorize the session as a -- oh, what words would I want to use -- not very courageous. In fact, not courageous at all," Ventura said.
But the governor wasted little time reflecting on the session. In June he was off to China, the capstone to a series of far-flung trade missions. When he returned, he complained bitterly that Twin Cities commercial television stations declined to cover the trip. And he was particularly piqued by reports that his son, Tyrel, had hosted late-night parties at the executive mansion that, at times, damaged state property.
"I don't like the fact that they're somehow portraying that the First Lady and I are somehow bad parents. I will tell you on the record that my son's behavior is exemplary. He's 22-years-old. He's a man. He's adult. He can consume alcohol if he wants to. I behaved far worse at his age," Ventura said.
It was the final battle in a long-standing war with the Minnesota media. Citing the need for more family privacy, Ventura announced days after returning from China that he would not seek re-election.
"You've got to have your heart and soul into these types of jobs. You've got to want to do it. And I view it as no different -- I did four years active duty in the Navy, at a federal level. I did four years active duty as a mayor, at a city level. Now I've done four years of active duty at a state level. That's 12 years of public service that I've given right now in my life," he said.
Ventura has kept a remarkably low profile since taking himself out of the governor's race. He surfaced to champion his hand-picked replacement, former Democratic Congressman Tim Penny.
In September, he made a quick trip to Cuba. And in a final stab at the media, Ventura named long-time associate Dean Barkley to fill the Senate seat vacated by the death of DFLer Paul Wellstone. Ventura justified the appointment by claiming the media was systematically neglecting the third-party movement.
"Since you people are out to destroy the third-party movement -- you the media -- you're participants in it. Then I have to do anything and everything I can for what I believe is the third-party movement and that the third-party movement should continue and that it takes citizens like us to keep the fight up, because certainly we get no help from you, the media," Ventura said.
Speculation abounds that Ventura will now land a national talk-show of his own -- perhaps with MSNBC. He's so far refused to comment on his future. But having adroitly moved from Navy SEAL to pro-wrestler, to movie star to suburban mayor to radio host to Minnesota governor, there's little doubt Ventura will quickly re-invent himself.