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Jesse Ventura - former wrestler and actor, street-smart braggart and self-made man - certainly has enlivened the political landscape. Minnesota is settling into a love-hate relationship with its charismatic, cigar-smoking governor.

Story by JEANNE MALMGREN | Photography by BILL SERNE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 1999


Ventura is a softie for kids. Here, he answers a girl who asked the governor why he is bald.
ST. PAUL, MINN. -- Jesse Ventura, chief executive of the state of Minnesota and self-proclaimed Non-Morning Person, is starting his workday earlier than he would prefer.

At 7:20 a.m. he comes out a side door of the governor's mansion, a two-story brick Tudor behind iron gates.

"How are you this morning, governor?" an aide asks as Ventura ducks into the back seat of his official vehicle, a rooster red Lincoln Navigator.

"A little tired," comes the answer, in a low growl.

Ventura, 47, does not smile. Nor does he bother with small talk. In half an hour he'll be speaking to a breakfast gathering of school superintendents from all over the state. He needs to cram.

While Ventura scribbles on a yellow legal pad, his driver, a plainclothes state patrol officer, steers the Navigator onto the interstate. Another officer drives ahead of them in an unmarked car.

The man who used to guard the Rolling Stones now has bodyguards of his own.

It's 34 degrees, a raw spring morning, but Ventura wears no topcoat, no hat on his shaven head. In a former life as a professional wrestler, he used to go to work in spandex tights and pink feather boas. Today he has on a double-breasted navy suit.

At the back door of a suburban Radisson Hotel, Ventura unfolds his 6-foot-4 frame from the car and strides into the building, flanked by his guards. They arrive at the ballroom a couple of minutes early and wait in the doorway.

Ventura is more awake now, almost chatty.

"Didja see the game last night?" he asks his aide. "They were terrible without Garnett."

"They" are Ventura's beloved Minnesota Timberwolves, the Twin Cities' professional basketball team. Kevin Garnett is their star forward, sidelined by the flu.

As people walk by Ventura, they do a double take. Many break into grins. It's not every day you see a governor up close, especially one the size of a linebacker.

A woman approaches Ventura.

"Hi, Jesse! Can I just shake your hand?" she gushes. "I'm really proud of you."

Ventura extends a bear paw of a hand and smiles down at her. Inside the ballroom, applause swells and 800 Minnesotans rise to their feet to welcome their governor.

The day is off to a good start.

 • • •

Bottoms up! Eartha Kitt performs a handstand on Jesse Ventura's desk during a visit to the Minnesota Capitol. The guv was delighted.

The Era of Jesse is now five months old, and Minnesota is settling into a love-hate relationship with its charismatic, cigar-smoking governor.

Every time Ventura makes national headlines -- the "feud" with native son Garrison Keillor, his objection to the timing of a newspaper story about the University of Minnesota's cheating scandal, his request for a handgun permit -- something like a collective cringe ripples across Minnesota

On the other hand, never has so much national attention been focused on the Gopher State. Never has a Minnesota governor so enlivened the political landscape.

To quote Ventura, from the last line of his inaugural address: Hooo-yah! Like Jeb Bush in Florida, Jesse Ventura had little political experience (one term as a suburban mayor) when friends talked him into running for governor.

After the election, Ventura's campaign committee reorganized into a non-profit company that licenses items such as the Jesse Ventura action figures. They sell for $19.95 on the jesseventura.org Web site.
Plenty of Minnesotans had heard the name Jesse Ventura, though. He was a celebrity from his wrestling days, his roles in action movies such as Predator and Demolition Man, and as a Twin Cities talk radio host. It also helped that he was plainspoken and practical -- cherished Midwestern values -- but never boring.

Here was a candidate who rappelled from the ceiling of Minneapolis' Target Center during an NBA playoff game, whose TV commercials featured a Jesse Ventura action figure fighting Evil Special Interest Man, whose radio spots were set to the theme from Shaft.

The weekend before the election, Ventura starred in a TV ad wearing nothing but boxers and a wink.

Does politics get any more fun than that?

Although Ventura owns a 32-acre horse farm, a Porsche, a lake cabin and four personal watercraft, his blue-collar roots still show. Throughout the campaign, he never hid the fact that he completed only one year of community college or that he once belonged to a motorcycle gang called the Mongols.

He didn't try to clean up his sometimes less-than-perfect grammar, either. (He still doesn't.)

All the right stuff was on his resume: service to his country (as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam), volunteer high school football coach, the same wife for 22 years, two children who attended public schools.

Running on the Reform Party ticket, Ventura took no large campaign contributions. He promised voters he would return the state's $4-billion budget surplus to them, in the form of a rebate check for every Minnesotan.

In televised debates, he came across as sharp-thinking and straight-talking. His braggadocio, far from being obnoxious, seemed to charm many Minnesotans, especially those who considered politics a big yawn.

photo
HOO-YAH! The new governor partied in style during his inaugural celebration in January.
[AP file photo]
On Election Day first-time voters turned out by the thousands, registered at the polls (which is legal in Minnesota), and voted for "The Body."

Ventura and his running mate, schoolteacher Mae Schunk, won 37 percent of the vote. In a three-way race, that was enough.

Ventura, never one for underselling himself, boasted that his victory "shocked the world." At his inaugural ball, he partied in fringed leather, hoop earrings, pink sunglasses and a Jimi Hendrix T shirt. Hollywood pal Arnold Schwarzenegger attended his swearing-in.

And then it was time to get down to business.

"He's working hard," says Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier, "but his learning curve is vertical."

Political analysts have called Ventura everything from "an affable dunce" to "Minnesota's pet rock." They predict he'll eventually tire of being governor, maybe even resign.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, counters Ventura. Say what you want about me. I'm the one sitting in the governor's office. The people gave me this power and I intend to use it.

"I'd love it if they elected me Minnesota dictator," he says, with a wink. "Then I could do whatever I want."

He certainly says whatever he wants.

Last month, after the Colorado high school shootings, Ventura opined that the tragedy might have been prevented if more people at the school had guns. After a chorus of criticism, Ventura retracted the statement.

He also made waves when he suggested that his wife, Terry, be paid $25,000 a year for her duties as first lady, and when he refused to sign a proclamation for a statewide day of prayer. (In his campaign literature Ventura described himself as an active churchgoer, but for this story he declined to discuss his religion.)

Ventura has become cautious -- and caustic -- about the media. When he chose the Lincoln Navigator as his official car, he joked about having it fitted with extra shock absorbers so he could run over reporters.

Last month, while touring a military training base, he said he had seen a sign marked P.O.W. Camp and crowed, "A good spot for the press!"

Meanwhile, there are signs that Jessemania may be waning. His approval rating, measured by public opinion polls, slipped from a high of 72 percent right after he took office to 57 percent in mid-April -- still higher than most governors, though. In March someone threw a pie at Ventura as he arrived at a middle school. There have been demonstrations on the Capitol steps; the governor showed up at one and verbally sparred with protesters.

"I said after the election that Minnesotans had decided to go on a four-year blind date with this man," says state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, a member of Minnesota's version of the Democratic Party, the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party. "Now they're finding out what that blind date is like."

Still, wherever Ventura goes, he's greeted by people snapping pictures, asking for his autograph, shouting, "Jess-EEEE!"

"Kids are the most fun," he says. "You'll have a bad day and then a group of kids will come in and I'll talk to them and things get better."

Doug Friedline, Ventura's former campaign manager, heads Ventura for Minnesota, a non-profit company that licenses the governor's image.

"We've had all sorts of proposals," he says. "People want to put his picture on everything. Fishing lures, nightshirts, women's underwear, you name it."

Proceeds go to charity, according to Friedline.

Tonight NBC airs The Jesse Ventura Story (see page F), a quickie made-for-TV movie that was rushed into production as soon as Ventura took office. There's also an unauthorized paperback biography, Body Slam, and Garrison Keillor's biting parody of Ventura, titled Me.

As usual, Ventura has the last word. On Wednesday he'll make his second appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, this time to plug his autobiography, just published by Random House/Villard.

The book covers everything from Ventura's losing his virginity at 16 to his preference in underwear: none. The title: I Ain't Got Time to Bleed: Re-working the Body Politic From the Bottom Up.

////////////////

Jesse Ventura steps to the podium and slips on a pair of silver-rimmed bifocals

"Morning," he tells his audience of school superintendents. His voice sounds like rocks tumbling in a polisher

"You got me out of bed early today. And it's Friday."

Laughter rolls through the ballroom.

Ventura names the south Minneapolis elementary, junior and high schools he attended, and jokes about his run-ins with assistant principals. Then he shifts into high gear.

"My job as governor, I believe, is to erase the word "vouchers' from the vocabulary. I want parents to choose public education."

Thunderous applause.

He tells the educators that he will honor his campaign promise to reduce class sizes, that he'll make sure older schools in rural farming communities get the money they need for new buildings.

Then he's outta there, wading through another standing ovation, pumping hands as he works his way to the door.

Next stop is a meeting with some of Ventura's Cabinet members at the Department of Revenue. Ventura sits at the head of a long conference table, his knee jiggling with excess energy.

The dozen or so faces around the table are white. When Ventura made his Cabinet picks, he was criticized because none were minorities.

Several weeks later, when he appointed members of the Metropolitan Council, a group that manages the Twin Cities metro area, Ventura chose two African-Americans, an Asian and one woman of Latin descent.

Just before 11 a.m., Ventura arrives at the Capitol. He and his guards enter through the basement and take a private elevator one floor up to his office.

Although the public reception area is ornate -- 20-foot-high gilt ceilings, antique furniture, crystal chandeliers -- Ventura's corner office is modestly decorated.

His desk is carved mahogany, and mostly bare. Maroon velvet curtains embroidered with "M" hang at the windows. There is only one painting on the wall, of American Indian maiden Minnehaha, from the Longfellow poem Song of Hiawatha.

The highlight of this morning's schedule is a visit from entertainer Eartha Kitt. She's in town performing at a supper club and wanted to drop by.

The governor and the singer have never met but they have something in common: Years ago, Kitt played Catwoman on the Batman television series; Ventura had a small role in the 1997 movie Batman & Robin.

News cameras trailing behind her, Kitt glides into Ventura's office. She is 72 but looks decades younger. They chat awhile, then she stands up and takes off her orange down jacket.

"Mind if I use your desk?" she asks.

Placing her hands on the polished edge of the governor's desk, Kitt suddenly flips her legs overhead.

Ventura grins with delight, as if people do handstands on his desk every day. His thumb jabs into the air.

"Catwoman!" he roars.

The governor lunches alone, from a brown paper bag. Rocking in his high-back leather chair and munching on a ham sandwich, he reminisces about his job as color commentator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the 1989 and 1990 seasons.

"I enjoyed those two years with the Bucs," he says. "I'd fly in on Saturday, do the game on Sunday and get a 5 o'clock flight back home."

He worked alongside veteran Bucs announcer Gene Deckerhoff.

"He's the best play-by-play football announcer I've heard," Ventura says. "But he's a wimp if the temperature gets below 50. He'd be in a down parka, while I'm wearing a golf shirt."

Ventura missed a lot of Bucs games while pursuing his acting career. After two years, his contract was canceled. He spent the next season announcing for the Minnesota Vikings.

"Then they banned me from the NFL," he says, his dimpled chin jutting forward. "I get banned from everything 'cause I tell it like it is. I'm uncontrollable."

He softens when talking about his family. Terry Ventura, an accomplished horse breeder and trainer, is recovering from mononucleosis, which was diagnosed just after her husband's inauguration.

Tyrel, 19, works for film director Quentin Tarantino, who has a production office in Minneapolis. Jade, 15, is in ninth grade, plays basketball and has her first boyfriend. She has a rare form of epilepsy that is controlled by medication.

An aide comes in to discuss plans for the fishing opener, a Minnesota rite of spring during which the governor officially opens the walleye season at an upstate fishing lodge.

"What kind of wine do you want?" the aide asks, balancing a note pad on her knee.

"Wiiiiine?" Ventura casts her a quizzical look.

"I don't usually drink wine. Why don't you call the first lady? If I tell you Mad Dog 20-20, she won't be overly pleased."

"How about hors d'oeuvres?" the aide asks.

"Well, I love chicken wings," Ventura says with conviction. "And them little barbecued hot dogs. Those are good."

Steve Bosacker, Ventura's chief of staff, pops his head in the door.

"Governor, you have a speech in 20 minutes."

"I have no talking points," Ventura says, draining a carton of Tropicana orange juice.

Bosacker says he'll whip up some talking points.

"Good, give 'em to me," says the governor. "I don't wanna think."

During the ride across town, Ventura exults over Kitt's visit. She told him there was nothing wrong with his Cabinet picks, that he chose the most qualified people, regardless of race, and that was the right thing to do.

"Her and I, politically, are side by side on a lot of things," Ventura says.

Five hundred people are waiting for the governor at a district Rotary luncheon in St. Paul. So are TV crews. Ventura greets reporters by name as they trail him onto an escalator.

At the podium, Ventura is introduced as "a man for all seasons."

He says he's proud of what his administration has accomplished in its first 100 days -- a balanced budget of $23-billion, submitted ahead of deadline. He promises every Minnesotan a check in the mail in June, as their share of the state's budget surplus.

The Minnesota Legislature, according to Ventura, is "a big poker game." He vows he won't back down from his push to make it unicameral, or one chamber.

He also takes good-natured jabs at the local press corps, naming several TV and newspaper reporters and pointing to where they stand against the back wall.

"Look how boring their lives are, that they have to film me speaking to the Rotary," he says. "I thought they'd get over me in two weeks. That's about their attention span. They're not always the brightest people, you know."

Ventura asks for questions.

"And they don't have to be hard-core political," he says. "If you want to ask me about the movies, wrestling, whatever ..."

The Rotarians aren't interested in wrestling. They grill him about airport construction, housing, and his controversial proposal to withdraw state funding for Minnesota Public Radio. ("My view is, simply, I'm weaning them off," Ventura says.)

Another questioner wants the scoop on Ventura's proposed $60-million mass transit system for Minneapolis.

He launches into a story about the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles, where it once took him 11/2 hours to drive 11 miles.

"It's experience like that that I bring to the table when I think about transportation," he says.

Back in the Navigator, he is gleeful.

"Did I rip the press enough? That was fun. "At least until they crucify me in their next stories."

Ventura is well aware that a lot of people think he's not up to the job of governor. Mostly they're the same ones who scoffed at his wild-card candidacy. Now that he's in office, he knows they'd love to see him fail.

But he has the tenacity of a pit bull. The important thing, he says, is to do what he has always done: Work hard. Give 100 percent. "When I coach my high school football team, I always tell them: "I won't punish you for losing, ever. But if you quit, that's a big difference.' "

Back at the Capitol, a crop of bills, all minor ones, waits to be signed. Ventura takes his seat and four aides, each bearing a file folder, gather around the desk.

The first bill toughens an existing Minnesota law against "adulteration of a substance." Previously, it was a crime only if someone died after ingesting a tainted substance. Now it also will be a crime if the victim falls ill but doesn't die.

Ventura glances at the bill. "How did it vote out?" he asks.

"Unanimous in both houses."

Ventura picks up a pen and signs.

(Jesse Ventura, by the way, is not his legal name. He was born James George Janos and never changed it, even when he adopted his wrestling stage name in the 1970s. Minnesota law says he can sign bills using the name under which he was elected.)

Another bill has to do with pharmacists' scope of practice. A staffer says the pharmacists association would like a photo of Ventura signing the bill.

"I haven't got time for pictures," he barks. "Tell 'em they got their bill and be happy. I'm gonna go home and have a beer."

It's Friday, after all, and Ventura started early this morning. He wouldn't mind finishing early.

The last appointment is an interview with a small weekly newspaper. The reporter perches nervously on the edge of his chair, hardly daring to look at the governor. Ventura gives him his undivided attention.

Throughout the interview, the photographer's 5-year-old daughter roams the governor's office. Finally she stands on tiptoes to peer at Ventura over the top of his desk.

"I wanna ask you something," she says.

"Okay," answers Ventura.

"Why is your head bald?"

The governor gazes at the child. A smile flickers across his face.

"Why is my head bald? Because you can't grow grass on a busy street."

By 3:30 p.m. Ventura is out the door and on his way home. Normally on a Friday afternoon, he would head for the family farm in Maple Grove, just north of Minneapolis.

Tonight, however, there's a Timberwolves home game. Season ticket holder Ventura wouldn't think of being anywhere else.

Two minutes before tip-off, the governor strolls into the Target Center with two bodyguards.

"Yo, Guv!" a teenage boy shouts as Ventura walks by.

The governor's two seats are behind the backboard, eight rows up, on the aisle. Occasionally Terry Ventura accompanies her husband, or he'll invite a staffer to go with him. Tonight the governor is alone.

He's wearing Tommy Hilfiger jeans, a black sweat shirt and black baseball cap. As soon as he sits down, a knot of children cluster around him for autographs. One wants him to sign his football jersey. A father poses his three tiny daughters with the governor for pictures. Ventura obliges them all.

As soon as the game starts, Ventura's gaze locks on the court. Garnett is still out sick. Almost immediately a personal foul is called against a Minnesota player.

"Oh, God," Ventura moans, ripping off his cap and rubbing his head in despair. "Lousy call!"

At halftime, in a hallway near the locker room, he sips Dr Pepper and chats with friends.

Minnesota wins the game, 89-75. Ventura moves down the line of players at the Timberwolves bench, high-fiving each one.

Then it's time to climb into the Navigator once more.

It has been a long day, and tomorrow he's due back at the helm of Minnesota.

Information from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Times staff writer Pamela Davis, Times photographer Bill Serne and Times researchers Cathy Wos and Caryn Baird was used in this report.

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