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Promise of Ventura Era Disappears Into Oblivion

Politics: The Minnesota governor was often his own worst enemy. Many are disappointed in him.


ST. PAUL, Minn. — On Gov. Jesse Ventura's inauguration day, the resplendent Capitol rotunda here became a theater of populism not seen at such a level since the election of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long in 1928.

A young mother in her "My governor can beat up your governor" T-shirt stood near a man who worked the night shift at a gas station, who was standing not far from an unemployed truck driver, who was looking across the room at Ventura's movie pal Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Not everyone there that day had voted for the former pro wrestler. But nearly everyone seemed downright tickled that a loud-mouthed muscleman who favored pink feather boas and effeminate sunglasses in the ring had rolled state politics onto its back.

Three and a half years later, that crazy magic is so far gone that when Ventura announced this week he would not seek reelection, many Minnesotans thought it was one of the wisest decisions he has made as governor.

Patrick Passe was the unemployed truck driver at the Capitol on Jan. 4, 1999, there with his wife and infant daughter. He's employed now, has a second baby girl and is a political observer so astute that he can name Ventura-backed bills and tell you how far they got in the state Legislature--not very far, usually.

On inauguration day, Passe, then 38, who had voted Republican for 20 straight years, had this to say: "They had their chance. Now it's his."

This is how Passe feels now: "I was hoping to get an outsider in there," he said this week. "He wasn't really an outsider. He turned out to be mostly personality, and his personality got in the way of any effectiveness. I'm disappointed."

Ventura was elected in a fascinating upset. A Reform Party candidate whose only political experience was as the mayor of a Minneapolis suburb, he refused to hold his tongue or read from a script as he spoke to mostly young, disenchanted voters. Show up on election day, he implored them at college campuses and on what was then a groundbreaking political Web site, and show career politicians that you really are fed up with their ways.

They did just that. Sixty percent of voters turned out in Minnesota on Nov. 3, 1998, the highest figure of any state. About 15% of them were people who, under state law, were allowed to register and vote the same day, many of them males under 30. Ventura defeated two established politicians--Norm Coleman, the Republican mayor of St. Paul, and Hubert H. Humphrey III, the Democratic state attorney general and son of the late vice president--by taking 37% of the vote.

His inauguration party lasted several days, cost a maximum of $20 to attend and featured a teenage blues-rocker.

Although he enjoyed what appeared from the outside to be a two-year honeymoon, Ventura began upsetting people here right away, including many who shared his views.

He bolted the Reform Party for the Independence Party. He set up what analysts agree has been a well-oiled administration, but he handed almost all the important posts not to fellow independents but to more experienced Democrat and Republican operatives.

Not a single independent candidate has been elected to statewide office since, and many onetime supporters think his inability to fulfill his own dream--a viable third party--has been Ventura's greatest failure.

He derided organized religion. He made millions moonlighting as an author, a football commentator and a pro wrestling referee.

He seemed to leap at the chance to go on high-profile national television programs but handed out press passes to local reporters that read "Official Jackal."

And what began to make it all come apart, some here say, was that while he beat up on others endlessly and with apparent glee, the hulking former Navy SEAL couldn't take a verbal punch himself.

"He really has quite thin skin," said Alan Frechtman of Minnesota Public Radio, who works with humorist Garrison Keillor.

On his weekly show "A Prairie Home Companion," Keillor provoked Ventura mercilessly with such lines as, "You couldn't pour water out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel."

Instead of playing along, however, Ventura ridiculed perhaps the last man Minnesotans like to see ridiculed, the folksy, bespectacled and beloved Keillor.

"Garrison was actually light-hearted," Frechtman said. "But the governor didn't see it that way. I think if he would have played along, a lot more people would have found him endearing."

The more Ventura complained and hit back, the more people piled on. And they too started taking off their gloves.

At a rock show this week benefiting local groups that favor abortion rights, it was difficult to find anyone with a nice word for Ventura, even though he has been an outspoken advocate of abortion rights.

Michelle Shaw was at the show during a visit to her hometown. The 31-year-old grade school teacher moved to Arizona last year, "but I was here for most of the pain," she said of Ventura's tenure. "The rest I heard about. When I move back next May, this place will be Jesse-free."

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