Listen MPR News host Tom Crann speaks with former Governor Jesse Ventura
Nov 2, 2018
Listen MPR News host Tom Crann speaks with Ventura's former chief of staff, Steven Bosacker
It's been 20 years since Minnesotans elected the flamboyant pro-wrestler turned politician Jesse Ventura, who clashed with the media and called them jackals.
But any comparison to him and the also combative President Donald Trump is nonsense, Ventura said during a wide-ranging and reflective interview this week with MPR News host Tom Crann.
"It's hogwash," said Ventura, now 67.
His former chief of staff, Steven Bosacker, was more pointed.
"Jesse Ventura is colorful. He's not corrupt," said Bosacker, now the Principal of Public Sector and Partnerships at Living Cities in Washington, D.C.
Ventura may have forgotten he welcomed Trump to Minnesota as a friend in January 2000 during a fundraising event.
It would be only a month later that Ventura announced he was leaving Ross Perot's Reform Party. And "in making his decision he conferred with New York developer Donald Trump, who has been considering a presidential run as a Reform or independent candidate," according to a New York Times article.
Ventura then led the Minnesota Reform party to rename itself the Independence Party.
But today, Ventura, who also has a home in Mexico, differs with Trump on the president's immigration policies and his push for a border wall with Mexico.
"I'm offended worse than the Mexicans are, I think, over what he says, calling them all criminals, calling them this, calling them that," he said. "These are refugees as a result of the blowback of United States policies in Central America. Yet mainstream media won't go that deep, will they?"
Bosacker said a key difference with the president was Ventura's embrace of the state's increasing diversity. He said the governor worked with new immigrant populations and believed marginalized groups should be included in policy making.
Another difference with President Trump?
Ventura said he's never owned a smartphone.
And, he doesn't tweet.
'My god, you're governor'
Ventura, who was seen as both a breath of fresh air and a boisterous showman, still takes great pride that Minnesotans elected him to the state's top government role two decades before Americans would put Trump in the White House.
The third-party candidate, former pro wrestler and talk radio host beat political heavyweights Republican Norm Coleman and DFLer Skip Humphrey to become Minnesota's 38th governor.
His election night party at the Canterbury Park racetrack in Shakopee turned into a jubilant celebration with body surfing supporters and Ventura's famous declaration, "We shocked the world!"
The victory apparently shocked his wife too, as Ventura told MPR's Gary Eichten three days after the 1998 election.
"My wife, Terry, looked at me and said, 'My god, you're the governor,'" said Ventura, recounting her reaction when they were back in their hotel room, protected by the security entourage reserved for the new governor-elect. "I looked at her and said, 'And you're the first lady.'"
Never doubted winning
During this week's interview at his Dellwood home, Ventura said he went into Election Day thinking he could win.
"I don't do things to lose," Ventura said. "And I knew that if the chips fell right, and we did things a certain way, that opportunity always existed out there. Plus, Minnesota is very progressive, which is good. We have same-day registration. I couldn't have pulled this off in another state probably that didn't have same-day registration."
Ventura's election garnered national attention, which continued through his term from 1999 to 2003, much of it focused on his activities outside of government.
During those four years, Ventura refereed a World Wrestling Federation match, was a TV analyst for the now-defunct XFL. He also had a cameo appearance on the soap opera "The Young and The Restless" and appeared on the "Late Show with David Letterman," "The Jay Leno Show" and other shows during which he promoted several books he wrote as governor, including "I Ain't Got Time to Bleed."
On the governing front, he picked a bipartisan Cabinet, pushed the Legislature to enact property tax reform and to fund the state's first light rail line. He also led trade missions to China and Cuba and sent some of the state's budget surplus back to taxpayers in what were called "Jesse checks."
Still critical of media
Ventura said the media scrutiny never focused on those policies, only his outside activities.
"Because my policies were so sound, they needed to find the Achilles heel," said Ventura. "You notice they never wrote anything when I spent the weekend baling hay for $3 a bale helping my wife with the ranch. There was no publicity on that all weekend when I'd work baling hay, was there? But if I took a high-profile job, then they were all aghast. 'How could he do this?' And it never cost Minnesota a penny."
Ventura did need extra security, resulting in unexpected overtime costs.
Coverage of that and his outside activities led to Ventura's combative relationship with the media. The governor gave political reporters a special nickname.
"Like a sports team name," he said during one of his weekly radio shows. "Go, jackals go! Write some bs, jackals! Write some bs!"
Ventura's office issued "Official Jackal" press badges with Ventura's photo on them to the Capitol press corps, which included KSTP political reporter Tom Hauser.
"The people in the press corps who got along the best with him were the ones who could tell when he was joking and when he was not. And most of the time, he was joking," Hauser said this week. "But people would take it very literally &mdash some members of the press corps — and he had no time for people like that."
Regrets, only a few
Ventura said he regrets that he didn't seek a second term.
He said he wanted to continue his push for a unicameral one-house Legislature like Nebraska's. But he said the one term he did serve was an honor.
"I'm the 38th governor of the state of Minnesota. Nobody can take that from me, I can put it on my gravestone," Ventura said.
"And I just say to the people of Minnesota: 'Thank you, it was my pleasure.'"