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MPR’s Michael Khoo presents highlights of four years with Governor Jesse Ventura, and Minnesota's brief experiment with three-party government.

In 1998, Ventura took Minnesota and the nation by surprise, delivering an upset victory that few political observers had predicted….and very little that followed was predictable, either. The Ventura years were marked by some notable policy successes. But they're likely to be most remembered for the governor's frequent flamboyance, his occasional outbursts, and his constant celebrity.

This is one of a two-part series.

Click links below for other report in series:


2002 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Series - Large Market Radio category


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MICHAEL KHOO: Not many 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.

JESSE VENTURA: Now it's 1998, and the American dream lives on in Minnesota because we shock the world.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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?

JESSE VENTURA: And I've done nothing, and you know what? I've spent my whole life. I've spent my whole life getting government assistance for me too.

SPEAKER 1: We are the future.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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.

DAVID LETTERMAN: Have you been to Saint Paul?


DAVID LETTERMAN: Whoever designed the streets must have been drunk.


Because in Minneapolis, if you're on 32nd Street Street, 36th Street is 4 blocks away. In St Paul, there's no rhyme nor reason. It's not numerical. It's not alphabetical, and I think it was those Irish guys what they like to do.


JESSE VENTURA: Am I in trouble now?

DAVID LETTERMAN: You're really in trouble now.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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 summer slam in Minneapolis. While Minnesota's political establishment winced, Ventura offered no apologies.

JESSE VENTURA: 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. I'm proud I was a wrestler, and I'm proud to be here tonight.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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, quote, "sham and a crutch for weak-minded people." He later tried to explain the comments, but never offered a complete apology.

JESSE VENTURA: And again, I haven't started any wars as religion.

SPEAKER 2: The same religion.

JESSE VENTURA: No, I'm not saying anything. I asked a question. I said, I haven't started any wars throughout time has religion.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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.

STEVE SVIGGUM: 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 and understanding that we had dishonoring that agreement and bending to the wishes of a very small special interest group. 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,

ROGER MOE: 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.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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 nonexistent, 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 Ventura 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.

JESSE VENTURA: 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 we connected. This bill, ladies and gentlemen, is a home run.

MICHAEL KHOO: But the property tax reforms would haunt Ventura. Opponents claim the relief would be short-lived and that moderate- and low-valued homeowners would soon see their gains erased. Educators complain the deal would shortchange K-12 funding and drive local school districts to seek money directly from property owners. Both predictions appear to be coming true.

ALL: Where is Jesse? Where is Jesse?

MICHAEL KHOO: And in October, Ventura faced the first state employee strike in 20 years when nearly 30,000 workers walked the picket lines.

SPEAKER 3: What do we want?

ALL: A fair contract.

SPEAKER 3: And when do it?

ALL: Now.

MICHAEL KHOO: The strike was over within a month. But taken together with years of accumulated controversy, the 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.

JESSE VENTURA: 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.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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.

JESSE VENTURA: 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 an adult. He can consume alcohol if he wants to. I behaved far worse at his age.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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.

JESSE VENTURA: 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.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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.

JESSE VENTURA: 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.

MICHAEL KHOO: 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 reinvent himself. I'm Michael Khoo, Minnesota Public Radio.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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