A year after landing, Ventura leaves big political imprint

From personality politics to a solid legislative record, Minnesota'sgovernor builds a third way to govern.

OK, so you probably already know that Minnesota's governor used to wear pink boas in public. You're perhaps aware he used to strut around a wrestling ring and throw atomic elbows for a living. And maybe you've heard about the now-famous Playboy magazine interview.

But did you know that Jesse Ventura, who won election one year ago this week, also brokered the biggest tax-cut package in his state's history? Or that he single-handedly revived a wonky national debate over which legislative system - one house or two - makes government more efficient?

It can be hard to see past Governor Ventura's oversize personality, but it may be even harder to dispute the notion that his dbut has already left an imprint on America's political landscape.

Some analysts say Ventura's impression is neither deep nor lasting. But others - especially those who see in Americans a thirst for something other than the staid, two-party status quo - put him on the edge of a grand experiment in three-party politics.

"There's a whole block of citizens who are really hungry for something else," says Denise Bostdorff, a communications professor at The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. They want "someone who's going to be candid - a candidate of candor" who isn't beholden to special-interest groups and doesn't say what pollsters tell him to.

In many ways, the brash, unencumbered Ventura fits that bill.

Already, his tell-it-like-it-is bluntness is being emulated by politicians nationwide, including presidential contenders. And here in Minnesota, the Reform Party governor even managed to pull off a fairly successful, if not terribly ambitious, legislative session.

When Ventura stuck his proverbial thumb in the eye of the political establishment last November and won the governorship, a few people looked at him as the savior of politics, although most didn't get past the pink boa.

Four months later, after some of the buzz died down, he was getting credit for orchestrating a compromise between Minnesota's Democrats and Republicans over a tax-relief package worth $2.9 billion.

It meant every state resident got a check for an average of $630. And Ventura designed the plan so the federal government probably won't be able to tax some of those rebated dollars. That won him kudos.

Ventura supporters also tout that education is a big priority - and is the only budget area to get a real increase. Everything from child care to higher ed got new money.

"Boosting education spending - oh, that's certainly a profile in courage," says a sarcastic Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Indeed, the consensus is that Ventura's agenda has been, at best, cautious. His "Big Plan" for the state relies on gubernatorial clichs such as boosting trade and tourism. (He's now on a 10-day visit to Japan to do just that.)

But Ventura's cautionary approach is in sharp contrast to his personal style. Indeed, it's in style that he's probably had the most impact. This is a guy who is famously forthright on everything from his support of keeping homosexuals in the military to legalizing prostitution.

"People want someone who'll give them candor and not pander," says former US Rep. Tim Penny, a close Ventura adviser.

At a time when no national issue dominates, the public is focusing more than ever on personality. And after President Clinton's ducking and dodging in the Monica Lewinsky affair, people want someone who appears honest, says Ms. Bostdorff. "If someone says, 'I feel your pain,' people think it's fake."

Witness the rising poll numbers of Republican Sen. John McCain and former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley. They're each challenging their party's front-runners in part by coming across as straight shooters.

Meanwhile Vice President Al Gore moved his headquarters to Tennessee to try to get beyond the Beltway and "get real." And the first troubles for Republican George W. Bush came over what some saw as his not-so-forthright handling of cocaine questions.

In short, authenticity - or the ability to speak from the heart - is hot. And Ventura is perhaps the ultimate authentic politician.

"They're all trying to effect Jesse's style, without being Jesse," says Professor Schier.

Indeed, the impulsive honesty that helps him connect with voters also gets him in trouble. The Playboy interview, in which he called religious people "weak-minded," is the latest example. His approval ratings - which had been high - sank after it.

The politics of his quest are simple: He aims to gather voters who'll follow his "fiscally conservative instincts" that are "tempered by a social sensitivity," says Mr. Penny.

To be sure, a giant personality has boosted Ventura's efforts to bushwhack a wider path for third parties. While it's no doubt rallied people to his cause, Ventura may also be pushing the nation toward a new era in which the cult of personality dominates.

Some analysts argue that he - along with the Reform Party's Ross Perot, Donald Trump, and Pat Buchanan - risks alienating mainstream voters with personality-based antics. They've already alienated the political establishment.

As Reform Party figure and former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm puts it: "When you start to generate the snicker factor in politics, it's pretty hard to regain your credibility."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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