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Ventura Will Leave the Ring


Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura came to office four years ago as a gruff, take-no-guff anti-politician, a professional wrestler who was determined to bring straight talk and common sense to governing. On Tuesday, he threw in the towel.

Worn down after a bruising legislative session, fed up with his struggles to balance the budget--and incensed by what he saw as media "jackals" prying into his personal life--Ventura said he will not seek reelection in November.

The announcement marked an abrupt political exit for the flamboyant politician, who had made his name (actually, his pseudonym--he was born James Janos) as a caustic talk radio announcer and a trash-talking professional wrestler in pink tights and feather boa.

After his surprise victory in 1998--propelled by record turnout, especially among young men and first-time voters--Ventura sparked so much excitement that he was frequently mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 564 words Type of Material: Correction
Jesse Ventura--In a June 19 story on Jesse Ventura in Section A, the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs was incorrectly identified as the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Political Affairs.

Known by his wrestling nickname, "The Body," he also had to be the only state executive in the nation who inspired action figure toys and T-shirts emblazoned with "My Governor Can Beat Up Your Governor." (Even today, Ventura souvenirs remain hot sellers. One fan Web site reports that its online store is temporarily closed because "our entire supply of Jesse Ventura Bobbleheads sold out in two days.")

Ventura, 50, achieved a number of his goals as governor, such as launching a light-rail transportation project and overhauling the tax code. With his knack for in-your-face, polls-be-damned comments, he also dominated political discourse in the state.

But his popularity--and his enthusiasm for public life--dimmed in the past year, as Minnesota's economy sagged and as the budget crisis turned into a nasty and protracted political battle.

Ventura also chafed at the relentless media coverage of his family--including, most recently, reports this week that his son had thrown wild parties that left the governor's mansion trashed.

"His heart was not in it," said Dean Barkley, who chaired Ventura's 1998 campaign and now serves the governor as director of planning. "I think he just got tired of being the person battling the political system."

Added political scientist Craig Grau: "He never built a party that could compete in legislative elections. So there was no one there to support him."

From the start, Ventura made it clear he was going to be a different kind of governor. He told reporters early on that he expected to work on state business from 9 to 5 on weekdays, leaving plenty of time for his own ventures. Those activities ended up attracting almost as much media attention as his policies. Ventura took tremendous flak for working as a television commentator for the now-defunct XFL football league, for moonlighting as a referee at professional wrestling matches and for spending state money on his book tour.

He was skewered as well for mysteriously disappearing from the state for two days just as it became clear that the Minnesota Twins were in danger of being eliminated. (It turned out he was in Los Angeles, shooting a film with Dana Carvey; the Twins are still playing in Minnesota.)

A recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll found that Ventura's approval rating, which once peaked above 70%, had fallen to 43%.

Observers said it was not so much Ventura's antics that did him in as his inability to end the partisan bickering of politics as usual.

"We elected someone to make a difference and he didn't really make much of a difference," said Cedric Scofield, who worked on Ventura's 1998 campaign but split with him when the governor left the Reform Party to form the Independence Party.

Political analyst Harry Boyte suggested that Ventura galvanized support during his campaign and in his first few years in office with a populist call for citizens to get involved in civic affairs, to stick their necks out to make a difference. But that call to action faded this past year as Ventura struggled with the budget deficit and other statehouse fights.

All that was left of the old populist Ventura was his gleeful bashing of the very "career politicians" he had to work with in the Legislature. The legislators certainly resented the rhetoric. And some analysts suggested it was starting to wear thin among voters as well.

"People saw with the budget fight this session that bashing politicians feels good, but it doesn't make for effective government, especially in times of crisis and turmoil," said Boyte, a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Political Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

"A lot of [Ventura's political alienation this session] was that legislators simply got tired of being considered crass politicians and having the dictates come down from the mountains of the governor's office," added Bill Morris, a political scientist at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

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