Curtain falls on Ventura's reign
Most agree his attitude squandered opportunities
By Ashley H. Grant
ST. PAUL -- For Jesse Ventura, public service was never enough. He craved the spotlight.
In four stormy years as Minnesota's governor, the flamboyant former pro wrestler mixed serious-minded attempts at reform with often outrageous star turns as author, sports analyst, cameo actor and talk show guest.
Ventura gave himself the hook in June, announcing he wouldn't seek a second term the day after news reports said his 22-year-old son had used the governor's mansion for parties. The Body said his heart wasn't in the job anymore, but his approval ratings were also sinking and political opponents were looking to prove his first term was a fluke.
As the 51-year-old Ventura ponders the next phase of his life, possibly as a cable talk show host, a consensus is emerging that Ventura mostly squandered opportunities because of his combative attitude and unwillingness to negotiate.
"The best governors out there are snake charmers," said David Strom, legislative director for the conservative Minnesota Taxpayers League. "Ventura was quite the opposite. He was the bull in the china shop."
Ventura can claim credit for property tax reform, the state's first light rail line and lower license-plate renewal fees.
But he raised dozens of other ideas -- for example, putting about $3 billion into transportation projects, extending the sales tax to services, and bringing Internet access to rural areas -- and let them drop when lawmakers did not immediately embrace them.
An independent, Ventura was alone politically for most of his term and dealt with a Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-led House.
"It was his-way-or-the-highway kind of attitude," said House Speaker Steve Sviggum.
Ventura makes no apologies for his style.
"This is business," he said near the end of his term. "They say I failed because I didn't go out and create personal relationships. This has nothing to do with personal relationships. This is the business of running government."
Ventura complained loudly about public scrutiny over the years, but he also courted it as part of several money-making ventures.
Just months after taking office, Ventura released an autobiography in which he bragged about losing his virginity as part of a teenage bet and admitted using marijuana and steroids.
He gave a Playboy interview in which he called organized religion a "sham and a crutch for weak-minded people." In the same interview, he suggested that lives could have been saved in the Columbine massacre if someone at the school had had a concealed gun, joked that he would like to be reincarnated as a size-38DD bra, and said some drugs should be decriminalized.
Then there was Ventura's short-lived career as a color commentator for the XFL, the now-defunct football league that hyped its scantily clad cheerleaders as much as the game.
The XFL paid Ventura an undisclosed salary plus $320,000 in what it said were expenses during his 13 weeks as a commentator. State law does not require the governor to report outside income and he didn't. Experts say he probably earned millions in addition to his $120,000-a-year salary as governor.
His approval ratings remained high until late in his term, ranging from 73 percent in 1999 to 43 percent in August, when state surpluses were turning to deficits. In June, almost two-thirds of Minnesotans said his decision not to run again was a good thing.