Ventura wrestles with 'tripartisanship'

Up here in Minnesota, people take pride in their innovations. Everything from Scotch Tape to Betty Crocker's cake-mix-in-a-box to the first Internet search engine has emerged from this tundra in America's heartland.

Now comes an unusual political innovation: three-party rule. Four weeks into Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura's term, some people write off this tripartisan setup - Republicans control the House, Democrats have the Senate, and Mr. Ventura sits in the governor's chair - as some kind of frost-induced fluke.

But others think it's perhaps an antidote to the partisanship in Washington - or at least a warning to Democrats and Republicans about what can happen if rancor outpaces productivity.

The new game in Minnesota is that "no one wants to be the odd duck out," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. With three parties dancing around each other, there's less chance of one-on-one confrontation.

So far.

"No one wants to be the skunk at the garden party," Dr. Schier adds. Indeed, tripartisan government brings a kind of wary balance. There's a lot of talk in this snow-covered capital about working together. But behind it is a harsh reality.

The thing the other parties "need to watch out for," says Governor Ventura, leaning forward at his desk with a hint of a scowl, "is that I will take my case to the people." And, he adds in his deep, rumbling-engine voice, "my popularity is very high right now."

Steve Sviggum, a part-time farmer and the new Speaker of the House, also talks about working closely with Ventura and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (or DFLers as they're known here). But he too understands the three-sided dynamic.

Ventura's "biggest problem would be if [Senate majority leader] Roger Moe and I come together and shake hands," Speaker Sviggum says. "He would be out of it completely."

Ventura's report card

So what are the results of this unique arrangement so far? Well, a $1 billion tax cut, for starters.

Just days after his inauguration, Ventura and legislative leaders agreed to turn the state's big surplus into a big tax cut. Ventura wants to give the average middle-income family a check for $779 by August - a plan that would amount to the biggest sales-tax cut by a state in United States history.

DFLers like the idea. But Republicans prefer an income-tax rebate that would give bigger cuts to wealthier residents. In an example of playing both sides - yet still appealing to the middle-income voters who elected him - Ventura says he wants to pass the sales-tax cut first. Then he promises to propose an income-tax cut.

Of course it's relatively easy to find consensus on tax cuts. Issues such as education and health-care spending may prove tougher. (Ventura's early policy choices do, however, hint at a more liberal stance than many expected.)

But either way, Ventura says, with a hint of bravado, "I'm the middle man with lots of power. It's on my shoulders to bring these two parties together - to wake them up to the fact that the people weren't happy with the way they were doing things."

Furthermore, he thinks he's tapped into something that could be a model for other states - and even the nation.

"I'll tell you something right now," he says, his voice rising. "I know everyone will laugh, but everyone laughed when I said I'd win this. If I wanted to, I could become president. It's not out of arrogance. It's because [the parties] are opening the door - the same way the door was open here."

Third-party crashers

Whether or not Ventura runs for president, when parties are polarized - either ideologically or just out of animosity - the door is in fact open for third-party candidates.

There are two types of these candidates: "the healer types and the Ross Perot types - the guys who are more partisan than anyone else and operate from an airtight worldview," says Richard Maiman, professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. His state is home to the nation's only other independent governor, Angus King.

This home of independent-minded Yankees was also the last state to try three-party rule, back in 1978.

Today, with all the partisanship in Washington, there's an opening for a conciliator candidate in 2000 - "a George W. Bush or Bill Bradley or Al Gore," says Dr. Maiman. As for a full-fledged national third-party candidate, Ross Perot's runs this decade seem to have dampened the likelihood for now.

Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, it remains to be seen which kind of third-party governor Ventura will be - healer or Ross Perot type - and whether he can one-up another of the state's innovative and revered icons, the Jolly Green Giant.

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