In Minnesota, all eyes on The Body Constituents wondering how Ventura will handle his duties as governor

December 26, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

MINNEAPOLIS -- People still stop in at the small storefront in a working-class neighborhood north of downtown to pick up T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Jesse -- The Governing Body -- Ventura."

"All kinds of people missed the Jesse phenomenon," said Nancy Zingale, a political scientist and executive assistant to the president of St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn. "They didn't believe that the enthusiasm for him was political. They thought it was celebrity and nothing else, and they were wrong."

Now, as Minnesotans await the second act in this drama, they are trying to figure out how Ventura -- a Reform Party candidate who, most observers think, never believed he would win the governorship -- will lead a state of 4.6 million people with a history of solid, progressive government.

In the weeks since his election, the former professional wrestler, action-flick bit player and talk-show host has charmed the professional pols at a National Governors' Association school for rookies in Wilmington, Del., drawn a good bit of warm national publicity and, at least locally, assuaged many fears.

While he has signed a six-figure contract to write a book and this week set up a nonprofit corporation to license Jesse Ventura action figures and other official merchandise, he says no one should worry about his priorities.

"This is my main job, rest assured of that," Ventura said recently. "Governor comes first. Anything else will come second."

And he recently promised to appoint "a common-sense Cabinet that champions new ideas, models a strong work ethic and makes government work better."

Zingale, for one, thinks he may fulfill that promise. "The transition team has good people, solid good-government types from both parties," she said.

Ventura will take office Jan. 4; until then, he is spending his days consulting with departing Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, considering appointments and being briefed on policy minutiae. Last week, he toured the state, his increasingly familiar wrestler's physique and clean-shaven pate showing up in schools, taverns and community meetings.

In Duluth, where he did not run well, Ventura charmed the locals by proclaiming all was forgiven.

"Remember, I came from professional wrestling," he said. "I pulled hair, I pulled tights and I even carried a foreign object at times. I've been booed many times, and it doesn't change my outlook. I hold no grudges."

Said Moonyeen Bongaards, deputy chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party: "I think people in both parties will help him. Particularly if he works for some of the anti-big government things he has talked about."

But some of Ventura's most ardent supporters, unhappy with both parties, are already leery of the aura of consensus government that has sprung up around him.

In Ventura's shabby campaign office, still staffed with volunteers, his dependence on known political personalities to help get his hands around the idea of governance is off-putting to some. His transition team is light on doctrinaire Reform Party members and relies instead on such known commodities as a former administrator for the state board of regents and a prominent public-policy lobbyist.

Ventura won 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race, stunning the state. But within two weeks, an interesting thing had happened: The governor-elect, whose political experience was one four-year term as mayor of the Twin Cities suburb of Brooklyn Park, began winning over Minnesotans who had not voted for him.

"The first reaction by a lot of people was one of shock and some dismay," said Wyman Spano, a Minnesota lobbyist and editor of a political newsletter. "Then so many people got calls from friends all over the world saying, 'What's going on?' that there was kind of a coming together, kind of circling the wagons a little bit. Now I think he's got tremendous support, larger than you might expect."

A recent poll by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune showed that if the election were held today, Ventura would increase his share of the vote from 37 percent to 44 percent.

To Democrat Roger Moe, Minnesota Senate majority leader, the lesson is simple.

"In this last election, the Republicans took a hit nationally, and they did it because of the way Washington is acting," he said. "Just when you think there couldn't be any less civility in Washington, they up the ante."

Spano agrees. "Ventura's election was not a Reform Party triumph as much as it was an anti-partisan message. People in Minnesota are not happy with the impeachment debate. More strongly, I think, than other people, we feel the partisanship of the time is not a good thing. That is what Ventura appealed to more than anything."

Whatever the electoral dynamic, the result for Minnesota was unprecedented: The state's legislative branch will be split, with the Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans the House, while the governor is of neither party.

Some fear gridlock. But members of both parties say they got the voters' message, at least for now.

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