The Jesse Years: rebate checks, petty bickering and a lot of squandered goodwill


Nobody thinks he’s really running for the Senate. Nobody thought he’d run for governor 10 years ago, either.

Few people took Jesse Ventura seriously when he began mulling a run for governor 10 years ago. His flirtations with the state’s highest office, broadcast throughout the state from his radio pulpit at KFAN (AM-1130), were generally dismissed as a publicity stunt by the former professional wrestler.

Even when Ventura made his candidacy official, filing with the Secretary of State’s office on the last possible day, few regarded it as a credible campaign. A Star Tribune poll in September of that year, less than two months before the general election, put the Reform Party candidate’s support at a paltry 10 percent. Meanwhile Democrat Skip Humphrey was humming along at 49 percent, with Republican Norm Coleman garnering support from 29 percent of those surveyed.

But after humiliating his constantly bickering opponents in a series of debates, and galvanizing thousands of unlikely voters with a barnstorming tour of the state in the final days of the campaign, Ventura emerged with the most unlikely triumph in the history of Minnesota politics. The final tally: 37 percent for Ventura, 34 percent for Coleman, and 28 percent for Humphrey.

A decade later, Ventura’s very-public flirtation with a U.S. Senate run is once again largely being treated as a ploy to generate publicity and sell books. Few figure he’ll ultimately give up his comfortable semi-retirement surfing in Baja California, Mexico to slog his way through what looks likely to be the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history.

But given Ventura’s history of upsetting electoral apple carts, and with the filing deadline less than three weeks away, it seems worth taking a hard look back at the four years when he served as the self-proclaimed “King” of Minnesota.

The Ventura years undoubtedly got off to a rollicking start. While most eyes were focused on the celebrity governor’s victory lap of national press appearances, he quietly put together a top-notch administration of seasoned professionals from across the political spectrum. Democrat Ted Mondale was tapped to lead the Metropolitan Council, while former Republican state legislator Charlie Weaver was put in charge of the Department of Public Safety. With Minnesota’s finances humming after years of surpluses during Gov. Arne Carlson’s eight-year tenure, seasoned professionals Pam Wheelock and Matt Smith were charged with overseeing the state’s bookkeeping.

Elwyn Tinklenberg, who was picked to head the Minnesota Department of Transportation, says there were no misgivings expressed by Ventura about his DFL affiliation, including recent work on the Humphrey campaign. “The only question about that was, ‘Can you work together with people from different perspectives,’” recalls Tinklenberg, who is currently running for Congress against incumbent Rep. Michele Bachmann. “I said ‘absolutely.’ That was the only time it came up.”

Steve Minn, who was tapped to head the newly merged Department of Commerce and Public Service during the first year of the Ventura administration, gives the former governor high marks for trusting the advice of the professionals at the top of his administration. “He knew what he didn’t know,” says Minn, a former member of the Minneapolis City Council. “He hired competent people in their areas of expertise and he relied on their judgment and took their advice.”

Ventura also established himself as a strong advocate of civil liberties and refused to kowtow to voters with the kinds of symbolic, feel-good proclamations that have become a hallmark of government at all levels. He vetoed a 24-hour waiting period for abortions during his first year in office and refused to sign a decree authorizing a national day of prayer. “Whatever the outcome — if it was different, if it was interesting, if it challenged the status quo — he was open-minded to it, which was a breath of fresh air,” says Minn.

But even as Ventura enjoyed a first-year honeymoon, with approval ratings higher than any governor in Minnesota’s history (73 percent) and $1.3 billion in “Jesse checks” fattening family’s bank accounts, there were signs of discord. The governor developed an early penchant for harboring petty – and often bizarre – grievances.

Shortly after taking office, for instance, he began harping on his belief that First Lady Terry Ventura should be paid by the state for her duties. As recounted in KSTP (Channel 5) reporter Tom Hauser’s book Inside the Ropes with Jesse Ventura, in an early meeting with farmers the overnor responded to concerns about dairy prices and grain markets with a diatribe about the unfairness of his wife’s lack of compensation. “What has jumped out at me is the sexist thing we have called the First Lady, who doesn’t get paid,” Ventura told the group. “Let’s say Mae [Schunk, his lieutenant governor] becomes the governor. Does that mean her husband has to leave his job to go do this other one for free?”

The early months of the Ventura administration were also marked by increasingly fractious relations between the governor and the Legislature, control of which was split between the Democrats and Republicans. Minn ultimately became a victim of this friction. His nomination to run the Department of Commerce and Public Service was scuttled by lawmakers, miffed that they hadn’t been consulted about the merger of the two state agencies. Ventura steadfastly stood by Minn even as it became clear that his nomination was doomed. “I couldn’t have asked for a more loyal or attentive employer,” Minn says.

Ventura’s legislative agenda was further undermined by his acrimonious, and often juvenile, relationship with the local media. No perceived slight from the press was too petty to go to war over, in the governor’s view. He bizarrely attacked the Pioneer Press for breaking the University of Minnesota recruiting scandal on the eve of the NCAA baketball tournament – an investigation that ultimately earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize. He subsequently dubbed the St. Paul daily the “Pioneer Porn” for its supposed hypocrisy in accepting adult-entertainment ads while editorializing against Ventura’s performance in a garish World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) event at the Target Center. Though he frequently sat down for interviews with the likes of Jay Leno and Barbara Walters, Ventura routinely refused to answer questions from local reporters and tried to force them to wear credentials emblazoned with the title “media jackal.”

While some of the controversies surrounding Ventura’s tenure were undoubtedly ridiculous (was anyone truly offended by his description of St. Paul’s tangled streets as the work of drunken Irishmen?), the constant bickering with the media became a hindrance to effective governance. Wy Spano, director of the Center for Advocacy and Political Leadership at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, attributes this petulance in part to Ventura’s background in the highly scripted world of professional wrestling. “There’s nobody who says what you’re doing is wrong or what you’re saying is wrong,” Spano notes. “It’s a show. Jesse really didn’t like the idea that there were people sitting around the Capitol who had the opportunity to say things that weren’t nice.”

Spano also believes that Ventura’s penchant for capitalizing on his political notoriety to make money – the books, the WWE event, the XFL football commentary gig – eventually offended Minnesotans moralistic view of government. “That stuff really kind of stuck with people,” he says. “Wait a minute, you were supposed to worry abut Minnesota, not yourself.”

Sarah Janecek, publisher of Politics in Minnesota, also believes that Ventura’s desire for the national spotlight undermined his administration. “Jesse got so caught up in being a celebrity that he quit worrying about good governing,” she says. “It was way more important for him to show up on Letterman and joke about St. Paul’s streets. For Jesse it was a bully pulpit to national fame.”

Even Ventura’s defenders acknowledge that he squandered much of the unprecedented popularity he enjoyed at the start of his term with constant sideshows. “The XFL participation was not an important activity,” says Minn. “It wasn’t a huge revenue opportunity for him and in many ways it diminished the stature of the governor of Minnesota. He didn’t do anything wrong in the office, but it was an unfortunate exercise of his free time.”

Ultimately Ventura’s standing with the public suffered significantly. By the time he left office his approval ratings had sunk to 43 percent. Not egregious by most political standards, but a far cry from the heady days of 1999.

Few significant policy achievements stand out from the Ventura years. A notable exception was his ability to push through funding for the Hiawatha light rail line after years of stagnation on the project. The governor was an ardent supporter of public transit, visiting Denver to inspect the city’s light rail system and testifying at the Legislature on behalf of the project. “That absolutely would not have been there without him,” says Tinklenberg. “He just put his feet in concrete and said we’re not going to have anything else until I get this.”

Other far-sighted reforms supported by Ventura, however, were shot down by the Legislature. An attempt to raise the gas tax by five cents was thwarted largely by Republican opposition, while an attempt to broaden Minnesota’s sales tax and decrease volatility in the state budget went nowhere. Ventura’s effort to allow voters to decide on whether the state should switch to a unicameral legislature, an idea he spent a significant amount of political capital touting, also never came to fruition.

Financially the state’s good fortunes also took a dramatic turn for the worse, sabotaged in part by the economic malaise that followed the attacks of 9/11. The “Jesse checks” offered back to taxpayers during the first three years of his administration were replaced by a projected $1.95 billion deficit at the start of 2002. By the time he left office that figure had ballooned to $3 billion.

At the time, Ventura blamed the gloomy financial picture on irresponsible budget gimmicks utilized by legislators. “Had they adopted my budget [which in 2002 included large program cuts and tax increases to balance a shortfall], they wouldn’t have this problem,” Ventura told the Star Tribune. “It’s back in their lap and I get to skip out scot-free.”

John Gunyou, who served as finance commissioner during the Carlson administration, largely agrees with this assessment. He blames the economic mess primarily on the Legislature, led by House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, who opted for politically convenient short-term fixes rather than addressing systemic issues with the state’s finances. Of course both politicians were actively seeking to replace Ventura in the governor’s mansion.

“I’ll never forget Tim Pawlenty coming into office and complaining that he inherited this crisis, when as majority leader he created it,” says Gunyou, now the city manager of Minnetonka. “They took a manageable problem and created a crisis.”

Spano argues that Ventura’s most significant legacy, spurred by his constant disparagement of government, is an abiding distrust among citizens that’s been capitalized on by Pawlenty in order to raid the tax base. “He had some really competent people running various things, but it was the beginning of this period where the consensus in Minnesota changed,” Spano says. “In terms of our state economics, he basically made it sort of popular to denigrate the entire function of government. The whole enterprise was pretty much something that he didn’t really think much of.”

The popular consensus among political pundits is that a Ventura run for Senate would simply solidify Coleman’s grip on the election. Most believe that the incumbent’s got a solid base of roughly 40 percent that would be extremely difficult to budge. “Coleman got knocked off by Ventura once,” notes Janecek. “Coleman will never let that happen again.”

The most recent polling shows Ventura well behind Coleman and Democrat Al Franken, clocking in at 24 percent support in a three-way race. Of course the former governor started from much further back 10 years ago.