Jewish World Review June 20, 2002 / 10 Tamuz, 5762
John H. Fund
A genuine American success story, Mr. Ventura was swept into the governor's mansion when, four years ago 37% of state voters decided they'd had enough of blow-dried politicians who produced little beyond platitudes. Voters laughed when Mr. Ventura ran campy ads portraying a Jesse action figure battling "Evil Special Interest Man." They cheered when he proclaimed "I'll fight to get those Democrats and Republicans to return the $4 billion in excess taxes they took from you. That's $1,000 for every person in Minnesota."
At first the bond between Mr. Ventura and Minnesota voters grew stronger when he appointed talented managers and succeeded in pushing through modest tax rebates. But three years later, Mr. Ventura sounded more like a traditional tax-and-spend politician. In January he called for $2 billion in tax increases to close a budget gap. The proposed hikes included increases in gasoline and cigarette taxes along with an extension of the sales tax to more items. The legislature eventually plugged the budget gap with a combination of spending cuts and accounting gimmicks but, to Mr. Ventura's embarrassment, no tax increases.
For all his anti-big-government rhetoric, Mr. Ventura was never willing to make truly tough budget decisions. The state budget has grown by 33% during his years in office, easily outstripping inflation. The Tax Foundation reports that despite his modest tax cuts, state revenue is still growing faster than personal income in Minnesota. In other words, government is still gaining ground at the expense of taxpayers.
Mr. Ventura alienated voters on matters of style as well as substance. He decided that the governor's office was a great platform to extend and further promote the Ventura franchise. He wrote two best-selling books, something few would begrudge him. But then he became an announcer for the raunchy XFL football network, a short-lived venture that nonetheless netted the governor more than $2 million for brief Sunday duties. When confronted with criticism over his failure to disclose his money-making activities fully, the governor threatened not to run for another term if he "got a better offer."
He didn't, but decided not to run anyway, lest voters refuse to offer him another term. Only 29% of voters in a St. Paul Pioneer Press poll this spring said they would vote to re-elect him. In a three-way race that still would have left him in contention, but not nearly the sure thing he had expected it to be.
Mitch Pearlstein, president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, said Mr. Ventura's outsized personality often got in the way. In a notorious Playboy interview, he said religious people were using their faith as a "crutch." This year he was the only governor in the nation to refuse to sign a proclamation commemorating a National Day of Prayer.
He also began sounding more like the politicians he once railed against. When he announced his package of tax increases, he said, "I've been accused of breaking a campaign promise that I would never raise taxes. Well . . . in a time of war and in defense of our country, I will break any campaign promises." But talk-show host Jason Lewis accused him of phony patriotism. "What do reasonable reductions in, say, the Offices of Tourism and Trade--which Jesse cited in his veto message--have to do with the real commander-in-chief's war effort?" Mr. Lewis asks. "Under Jesse, war really became an excuse for the health of the state."
All that said, American politics will be duller for Mr. Ventura's retirement. Only someone with his brazen self-confidence could spend Saturday morning at a governors meeting, conferring privately with the president, then pop up on TV screens that night as a guest at a World Wrestling Federation match. Gov. Ventura stepped into the ring wearing the same suit in which he had met the president and proceeded to call a wrestling executive a "scumbag" as he promoted a high-fee appearance he would make at another WWF event a few weeks later.
He had two personas while he was governor. He usually adopted the patriotic, dependable personality of James Janos, the name he grew up with. But always lurking nearby was the acerbic, outrageous and ego-driven Jesse Ventura, his WWF stage name. In the end, voters got tired of trying to keep up with both of their governors. Like all good showmen, Jesse Ventura then decided it was time to close out his act.
But don't count him out. He knows America is the land in which people reinvent themselves and recover from adversity. Emulating his close friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also hopes to someday enter politics, Jesse Ventura may well be lighting a cigar somewhere tonight, laughing and saying "I'll be back."
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