Ventura grapples with Legislature

Minnesota governor near budget showdown with 2 major parties

May 02, 1999|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The black T-shirt in vogue here bears the now familiar face of a bald giant of a man with this proclamation beneath: "Our Governor Can Beat Up Your Governor."

That would be Gov. Jesse Ventura, the 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound professional wrestler turned Reform Party candidate who jolted the political world in November by upsetting Republican Mayor Norm Coleman of St. Paul and the Democratic state attorney general, Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III, in a three-way race for Minnesota's top job.

Now, four months into that office, Ventura finds himself in a numerical mismatch as he circles the ring of state politics trying to get a firm grip on the Minnesota Legislature.

It is difficult enough being a minority of one as the only Reform Party elected official in the state government, and a political neophyte at that. Making his task even harder is the fact that the Democratic Party, called the Democratic-Farmer Labor Party here, controls the state Senate, while the Republican Party controls the House.

Since his inauguration in January, Ventura has been working overtime to try to gain the upper hand in this three-sided power struggle. In a clash of personalities, operating styles and ideologies, the split-party Legislature has been poking holes in his first budget. He is fighting an uphill battle, meanwhile, to be taken seriously as the gags about him, and his sometimes erratic behavior, continue.

While he is still given to flamboyant Western garb and rough talk in public, a visitor to his staid State Capitol office finds him conservatively attired in a dark suit and congenial and straightforward in manner as he talks about what he intends to do as the choice, and voice, of the people of Minnesota.

For all his courtesy and good temper, the new big man in state politics makes clear that in his mind, the voters are his only bosses, and he will call on them in any showdown with the Legislature.

Such a showdown could come in less than three weeks, with the scheduled May 17 adjournment of the Legislature. If it hasn't produced a balanced budget that meets with his approval by then, Ventura says, "I'm not going to call a special session. You never say never, but it's highly unlikely I would."

The new governor goes on: "I was under a time limit to get my budget to them. I could have waited until the last day [for submission]. I didn't do that. I gave it to them 2 1/2 weeks ahead of time. So for them to even insinuate that we should have some kind of special session is ludicrous."

Political consequences

In measured tones, he suggests the consequences if he doesn't get what he wants. "If they don't have the bills done," he says, "well, all I can say is, remember what happened to Newt when they shut the government down."

The governor is referring to the political damage suffered by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his Republican Party when his budget battle with President Clinton in the winter of 1995-1996 twice closed down key parts of the federal government.

Gingrich, Ventura says, "didn't come out on the good end. I think that the president came out on the high side on that one, and I think the same thing will happen here -- that I, the governor, will come out on the high side, and the legislators will be the losers."

In this struggle, Ventura must cope principally with the House Republicans, who want a permanent tax cut, paid out of the $1.3 billion won from the tobacco industry in last year's lawsuit, to be rebated to taxpayers.

At the same time, the Republicans want more money in the budget for education, targeted in ways with which Ventura disagrees.

But the governor is not without his Republican friends. House Speaker Pro Tem Ron Abrams credits Ventura with changing "the culture around him" by reversing the trend toward more and more state government spending, and by making high-quality Cabinet appointments.

The Democrats also differ with Ventura on the basic role of government, with the governor by and large taking more centrist positions than the traditionally liberal DFL.

Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe says that "so far we've gotten along. I've tried to give him as much slack as possible. I have to believe in his heart he didn't expect to be governor. So he deserves a little more time."

Ventura, for his part, says that both major parties have learned from his surprise election. On education, for example, he says, the Republicans have dropped their fight for vouchers for private schools.

"Two years ago, it was `vouchers' out of the same group of people," he says. "I said in my campaign I wanted to outlaw the word `voucher.' Apparently, I've done so. I guess [it's] my leadership. They saw the light."

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