In his own words: The night 'The Body' became the governor

Governor-elect Jesse Ventura in 1998
Gov. Arne Carlson applauds Governor-elect Jesse Ventura after a meeting at the state Capitol in St. Paul on Nov. 4, 1998, a day after the Reform Party candidate won the governorship of Minnesota.
Jim Mone | AP 1998

Throughout 2017, Minnesota Public Radio will celebrate 50 years on the air by sharing highlights from our archives, connecting Minnesota's past to its present. | This conversation originally aired Nov. 6, 1998.

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On the morning of Nov. 4, 1998, Jesse Ventura was tired. He had just upset two political heavyweights to win the race for Minnesota governor.

It wasn't just a lack of rest that left the former pro wrestler groggy, though. It also had something to do with the fine bottle of Champagne that had been waiting at his hotel room the night before.

"I've always been one, when you open a good bottle of Dom, you ain't pouring it down the sink. You finish that baby," Ventura said. "I figured I didn't have to face the press 'til 5, and what the heck — I can always blame it on being tired."

Three days after the election, Ventura sat down with then-MPR News host Gary Eichten to tell his story of the Election Day when "The Body" became the governor.

Driving to his election night party at the Canterbury Park racetrack in Shakopee, Minn. — "the place where long shots occasionally are going to win," he said — Ventura looked up to see a full moon.

"My family even said to me, 'Some strange things are going to happen tonight,'" he said.

The night started like a horse race, Ventura said. Democrat Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, a former Minnesota attorney general, jumped to an early lead in the race for governor. Next was Republican and former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman. Ventura, running with the Reform Party, was last.

Once 3 or 4 percent of precincts had reported, Ventura had passed Coleman.

By 5 percent, Ventura had a lead of 140 or so votes.

Minnesota governor-elect Jesse Ventura in '98
Ventura at his election night party.
Jim Mone | AP 1998

"At that point I said, 'Well, now no matter what, I at least led. No one can take that from me,'" Ventura told Eichten. "Lo and behold the lead kept expanding and expanding and getting bigger, bigger and bigger."

Still, the race was tight throughout the night. Coleman passed Humphrey in the vote tally and was catching up to Ventura for a while.

Just before midnight, Ventura was preparing to address the crowd at his election party in Shakopee when he heard the cheers: TV stations were projecting he'd won.

Ventura wasn't so sure. So many of the state's votes weren't yet in, so it was just speculation, as far as he was concerned.

"These experts have been wrong all along. The polls have been wrong all along," Ventura told his inner circle. "I can't go out there and declare myself the winner. I said my goodness, there's 40 percent of the electorate that hasn't voted! ... I'll look like a fool — what if at 80 percent I lose the lead?"

Of course, the TV stations were right, and it sent a shock through the nation's politics. Some have since compared Ventura's rise to that of President-elect Donald Trump: A celebrity and political outsider decides to run for a high office, and stirs a massive voting bloc to upset the election.

Three days after his shocking win, Eichten asked Ventura, "Was there ever any point when you said to yourself, what in the world have I done here?'"

Not in public, Ventura said.

But his new reality settled in on election night when he and his wife, Terry Masters, went off to their hotel room, surrounded by the security entourage reserved for the new governor-elect.

"I come and go as I please. I'm 6'4", 250 [pounds], and nobody usually messes with somebody like me too often," Ventura said. "They know even if they beat me they're gonna take a couple lumps in the process."

Finally, Ventura and Masters popped the Champagne and poured glasses for themselves, processing what had just happened.

"My wife, Terry, looked at me and said, 'My god, you're the governor,'" Ventura said, "and I looked at her and said, 'You're the first lady.'"

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